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LA MESA -- There is a reason they call election time "the silly season.''
It is only through that prism that what occurred during a three-hour City Council meeting Tuesday evening can make sense to close observers of what is usually a pretty sober elected panel.
By night's end one could argue that the council majority had voted against the American Lung Association, in opposition to local church groups and against the advice of local educators concerned for local youth. And one council member, in a long, almost apoplectic and rambling speech interrupted her own tirade against smoking cessation failures to confess she, herself, is an owner of Phillip Morris tobacco stocks.
It quickly became clear that the driving factor on this night was less about the issues and more about the combatants.
Throughout the night, La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid, who is up for re-election and has been increasingly at odds with his fellow council members, found his proposals and initiatives thwarted -- regardless of how All American and Apple Pie they might have appeared.
Consider nominating our beloved La Mesa for an All-American City Award, Madrid asked his fellow council members.
The proposal died without a second. Potential cost was the stated concern.
Then Madrid proposed treating e-cigarettes like tobacco products, restricting where and when they could be used in an effort to protect the public and to discourage use by the young. The proposal had the support of local church groups, speakers from the American Lung Association, local educators and other health professionals. The e-cigarettes, they argued, emit a fog that contains carcinogens and are flavored and marketed to seduce the young into nicotine use and addiction.
But after a series of smokers and e-cigarette merchants rose to defend the product, Madrid's opponents on council joined these "vapers'' and decided to delay any action in favor of more study. At one point, Councilmember Ruth Sterling found herself rambling through a deeply sympathetic soliloquy about how moved she was by the testimony of life-long smokers who have been able to kick tobacco in favor of this new nicotine delivery system when she suddenly remembered her holdings of Phillip Morris tobacco stocks.
"Do I have to recuse myself from voting,'' she asked a startled City Attorney Glenn Sabine.
"No,'' he explained.
The vote again went against Madrid. So did the vote when Madrid asked for funding to attend the annual Local Government Commission's conference that would be dealing with, among other things, key water issues in a drought year. Madrid is on that body's board of directors. Ewin, Sterling and Councilwoman Kristine Alessio voted to clip the mayor's wings again. Councilman Mark Arapostathis voted with the mayor in defeat.
As the meeting ended, the e-cigarette supporters and vendors gathered outside City Hall, clouds of scented vapors gliding on the breeze, and celebrated what had started as a proposed ban of their implements, then morphed into discussion of tobacco-like regulations before turning into no action at all.
But these vapists were largely unaware of the political plate tectonics that were working in their favor on this night. Madrid is the only publicly declared candidate for mayor this year, yet forces of opposition are coalescing in a sort of perfect storm against this long-time incumbent.
Outside local supermarkets these days, paid solicitors are asking local residents to sign a petition to set term limits for the mayor and City Council seats. Earlier this week, Madrid himself stopped by to ask why we need term limits and the petitioner's answer readily "We have to get rid of Art Madrid. He's been in office like 34 years!''
"I'm Art Madrid,'' Madrid explained.
"Nothing personal,'' the petitioner responded.
During the public comment portion of council meetings, members of the Term Limits group -- usually Craig Maxwell, a book store owner who lost to Madrid a few elections back -- report on the petition progress and predict eventual success in getting the proposal on the November ballot.
A term limit referendum would not impact Madrid directly, however, because he could still have 12 more years in office before he would be termed out. He would be well into his '90s by then. Madrid was denying Tuesday's kerfuffle gave him even a minute's pause.
"It just gets my competitive juices flowing,'' he said.
Still, it is clear that on virtually every front and almost every issue, the mayor is facing opposition from within the council and from a phalanx of outside critics as well. It is unlikely he will go unopposed in this atmosphere.
Tuesday night's meeting, in fact, started with all four of the other council members making their response to the mayor's State-of-the-City Audit report from last meeting. This was a first and another sign that this council did not want the mayor to be seen as having any more authority than the other council members have.
The speeches were sort of revealing. Ewin gave a long, anecdotal speech in which he appeared to want to make it clear the mayor was only one of five votes on a council that simply directs the City Manager and relies on a talented city staff. Ruth Sterling meandered again through a long list of 2013 accomplishments and complimented Ewin, Alessio and Arapostathis for various contributions to city life (Madrid was not mentioned.) Alessio and Arapostathis gave short polite encomiums on the efforts of city staff.
But at night's end, it was clear this meeting was more form than substance, leaving the increasingly contentious council melting into the night's vapors with November feeling long and prickly months away.
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