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LA MESA -- This city is in its Centennial year and, well, its politics is showing its age.
Some may interpret that judgment as respect for the complexity of its issues and the measured ways it resolves its differences.
Others who sat through Tuesday night's council meeting might see a touch of dementia in this aging.
For nearly two hours, the council listened as various factions of the community adamantly expressed their views of plans to establish a professional management for the city's historic Village downtown. This was not the confusing part of the meeting. The lines in these speaker sands were as clear as lines on a map.
There were small business merchants and some service professionals who opposed the Property Based Improvement District because they fear it will mean more costs and little benefit. There were other merchants who believed the plan would increase business and drive up revenues to more than cover the assessments the PBID would bring. And Brian Marshall, superintendent of the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District, who offered an alternative plan that would focus on retail business and exempt churches, schools and residential property, argued only business would really benefit from much of the PBID services.
What proved difficult for the public to parse was how the five council members figured their way to the ultimate conclusion of this chapter of the seemingly endless PBID drama. Each of the council members had their head scratching moments.
Mayor Art Madrid, whose position in favor of the PBID has been clear and consistent "for 30 years,'' he pointed out, tried to put forward a persuasive argument to persuade two others to join him in supporting the PBID firmly now, but he was continually drawn into distracting asides. Madrid and frequent critic Craig Maxwell exchanged artful exchanges that were more about their frequent battles than the matter at hand. And Madrid and Marshall got into an elongated discussion of the many ways his district and the city work well together, though clearly this was not one of those nights.
Vice Mayor Ernie Ewin was drawn into jousts with the pro-PBID forces who wanted to hold him to some promises he made in a May meeting with the group, but was having trouble remembering this night.
Council member Dave Allan, who has just a few meetings left before he leaves office, was angered by suggestions from speakers that the council was failing to show leadership.
Council member Mark Arapostathis, new to this debate, remained largely quiet but clearly wanted to vote on a motion that would end this discussion once and for all.
And then there was the highlight of the evening, a not-so-spontaneous soliloquy offered by Council Member Ruth Sterling that raised a variety of concerns about the PBID and foreshadowed her eventual question "When can we dissolve this?" Her speech had to be confusing to those who had watched Sterling vote the opposite way in April when this issue last came up.
Sterling's detractors were telling anyone who would listen after the meeting that she had caved to threats against her re-election bid by PBID opponents.
Eventually, Ewin prevailed with an argument that began with "Why don't we just follow the law?"
The council then voted 4-1 to say it would not vote its own weighted petition in support of the PBID until more than 50 percent of Village property owners had signaled their willingness to sign on to the plan themselves. Ewin's argument that the city should not be seen to be forcing the PBID on the community had prevailed.
After the meeting, Jim Weiboldt, the merchant who was representing the PBID proponents at this meeting, said Team PBID seemed to have three choices:
It is the last of these options that reminded people of how this latest PBID proposal originally began. Frustrations over the La Mesa Village Merchants Association inability to consistently raise money for cleaning and beautifying the Village -- even to maintain planters at one point -- led a group of merchants to ask the city to help pursue a professional management plan that would require contributions from all Village property owners. Similar plans have driven improvements in the Gaslamp, Little Italy and El Cajon.
The city funded the two-year PBID study and Madrid and Allan were appointed to represent the city on the effort's Steering Committee. But as the issues have returned to council, it has become increasingly clear that Madrid's ardor for the plan is not shared as ardently by the other four council members, some of whom have demonstrated confusion over some of the basic elements of the plan they had funded.
It is an election year and, with a large and well-educated field starting to take shape to compete for the two seats, the testing of political winds could be particularly sensitive right now. The PBID opponents have been vociferous and it turns out many downtown property owners are, in fact, from outside La Mesa. A calculation of the election votes at stake in this issue could favor the opponents; Sterling will hope so.
Still, the PBID supporters may have time on their side. There is no deadline in state law for beating that 50 percent mark and they report much progress in getting approvals.
"But a lot of our efforts involve corporate owners and we have to wait for the out-of-state boards and their committees to review these issues,'' Wieboldt said. "It takes time."
The PBID supporters irritated several of the council members Tuesday because they refused to give specific information on how many property owners had already signed the petition. To do so, they said, would give the PBID opponents targets to spread "misinformation" and erode support among those who have already signed the petitions.
In some ways, Tuesday's meeting didn't really move the ball that far in any direction, but it did clarify for the PBID proponents that if they are going to pass the PBID petition hurdle, they'll need to do it without the substantial weight of the city's Village properties on their tally sheet.