The Campaign To Rein In Madrid Continues

LA MESA -- La Mesa's long-serving mayor, Art Madrid, was in Sacramento Tuesday evening when his City Council was meeting, but despite the 500 miles it was almost as if Madrid was in the chambers on Allison Avenue.
On a night when there was almost no substantive resolutions on a thin agenda, virtually every item that came up for consideration had a Madrid subtext to it. Early on, Council member Kristine Alessio read, with a bit of attitude, a written request from the mayor that the council refrain from certain "council initiated" items in his absence, but as has become increasingly clear of his four council mates, they were in no mood to accommodate the request.

One by one, the items Madrid requested be tabled were brought up and acted on, except for those that were directed specially at Madrid and would be more confrontational with him in the room. Even without formal action, the discussion made it clear where these items were directed.

For anyone who couldn't connect the dots, members of the La Mesa Government Oversight Group, including bookstore owner Craig Maxwell, a past Madrid election opponent, rose repeatedly to thank the council for its actions and to explain how, in their view, this challenged what they see as Madrid's autocratic rule.

When Councilman Mark Arapostathis successfully moved to permanently relocate "public comment" to an earlier point in each council meeting, Maxwell rose to thank them and accused Madrid of having made opponents, including himself, wait hours into some meetings to address the council.

Madrid wasn't present to defend himself and none of his fellow council members were moved to do so.

By the end of a three-hour meeting, it was clear that Madrid -- who was making a council-approved trip to represent the city in Sacramento at the Safe Routes To School Conference -- is facing an increasingly unified coalition, one that seems to be defined most clearly by one thing: Madrid fatigue of varying degrees.

While no one has yet announced that they intend to oppose a Madrid re-election next year, it is clear this coalescing band of brothers and sisters is happy to make the mayor uncomfortable at every turn. Accusing the mayor of working quietly and behind the scenes to control City Hall, run roughshod over the other council members and bully the populace, they have most recently cut his travel budget, forced Madrid to file more detailed reports of his activities and tried to restrict the manner in which he represents the city with outside organizations.

Madrid, who after more than 30 years in local government has a thick hide and a sharp tongue, has lashed back at these efforts with the sort of abandon an almost octogenarian with little to lose can. At the last meeting, he openly questioned Alessio's grasp of the issues and has described Ewin and Councilwoman Ruth Sterling as routinely kowtowing to political interests.

Madrid's main detractors of late -- Ewin and Alessio -- defend their efforts with Madrid as an attempt to "open" local government and regularize a governing process that has become too insular and informal under the long-serving mayor.

"We're just doing it the way it should have been done all along,'' Alessio said Tuesday evening after chairing her first meeting as vice mayor, a rotating post. (She is in photo above reading a proclamation in Madrid's absence.)

Still, opposing Madrid may be politically expedient for this disparate group of strange bedfellows, but coalescing around a candidate who could take him on in next year's election is another thing.

After launching a series of Madrid attacks Tuesday, for example, Maxwell added that his Oversight Group is very interested in term limits and asked the council to put the issue on a future agenda for consideration.

That he was making that pitch to a council, three of whom would most likely have been term-limited out themselves by most term-limit plans, was not brought up. This was, after all, a night of glastnost, a celebration of actions without Madrid in the room. Perestroika would have to come later.

Long serving politicians like Madrid live in a double-edged world. They have had decades to build up friends and allies, to do favors and give service to voters who remember the good. It is not uncommon to hear a young voter say how honored they were to see the mayor at their parent's funeral or at a family wedding.  But the long-serving also build up battle scars and enemies from tough zoning decisions, union battles and accumulated neighborhood disputes.

When Madrid last ran for election, he faced a newcomer in Laura Lothian who attracted the support of Sterling and, in the end, came within a few thousand votes of Madrid's eventual winning total. When Lothian lost badly in a bid for city council two years later, her better showing as a mayoral opponent two years before could suggest Madrid's negatives have been adding up, making him vulnerable to a good opponent if one could be found.

But Madrid's detractors are most defined at this point by their opposition to, or criticism of, Madrid. Voters usually like to know what a candidate stands for, not just what they stand against. An opponent with an articulated, creative vision of how to balance the financial strains of a small city with the development pressures that are building in this metropolitan area would stand out in this low-key political field.

So for all his detractors, Madrid -- who has been voted into office term after term -- can continue to take credit for the lovely city that La Mesa is. He'll be able to point to a rebuilt La Mesa Boulevard, a still-independent and respected police force and city books that are more or less balanced for decades now. He has managed to hire extremely professional civil servants (who, in this political environment, are poster-children for  the City Manager form of government. But I digress.)

Beating Madrid will take more than sniping about process. Whether there is any more there there among the coalition of detractors will be interesting to watch.


Chris Lavin is Editor of La Mesa Today. The On La Mesa column appears regularly. Submissions for On La Mesa columns can be sent to













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Tags: Art Madrid, Ernie Ewin, Government, Kristine Alession, La Mesa Today, La Mesa newspaper, Mark Arapostathis, Ruth Sterling


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Comment by David Smyle on August 14, 2013 at 12:06pm

So much for being called the"angry White Man's Club".  I guess the LMCOG can now be called the Angry White "person's" club (nice piece Chandra, you go girl).  However we welcome angry people of all color to join the merry band of malcontents.  We do not discriminate.  The LMCOG has already been very influential in bringing forward many ideas to better La Mesa and it's government. Thankfully, we have a City Council (minus Madrid) who will listen to us but not always agree with us.  We don't ask for credit when a councilperson brings forward a proposed change or makes a move for better transparency when the idea originates from our group.  We get our credit when things change and things like unnecessary travel get voted down (or even better not voted on at all)  There are no sweeter words than "fails for lack of a second"!  When that happens, we know our voice has been heard and our efforts are being put to good use.

Keep up the good work Ernie, Kristine, Mark and Ruth.  We don't always agree but you all have taken huge steps in the right direction of what used to be a City moving backwards.

Comment by Chandra George on August 14, 2013 at 11:22am

At its finest, we live in participatory democracy.  The everyday problems we see around us can be largely and directly attributable to the fact that many people don't, won't or can't participate.  One of the impediments to participation in our town may be that citizens are required to sit on their hands through any number of public commendations, staff-driven slide shows and mid-point discussions of some ongoing topic of limited interest; not to mention (but I will) the mayor's rambling musings, scoldings and patronizing lectures.  The reason they have had to sit through this is because the mayor doesn't want to hear from his detractors (if he ignores them long enough, they'll go away?); and because the mayor asserts that the "audience" (a repugnant term to describe an active citizenry) must act as though they're in the monastery library.  No clapping.  No voicing any sort of support or agreement for fellow citizens courageous enough to publicly address the Council.   

Now our other 4 equal representatives on the Council who respect the citizens who appear at the council meetings, and I read that poor Mr. Mayor wasn't there to defend himself?  Against whom?  Citizens who want to address their representative body, and move on to other business in their lives?  Ouch.  It's really too bad his trip to make finger-paintings of children on bicycles going to school or church...or to a graffiti party as part of the latest government ruse to separate us from our money.  (Yes.  Read the details of this meeting he attended.)   So the the Council ignored his request to cherry-pick items out of the agenda, and he was deprived of his self-asserted "right" to babble, "share his thoughts" and toss insults at non-compliant Council and "audience" members.  (Much better decorum than clapping.  Or so I've heard.)   What "dots" are there to connect?   Thank you, Council Members Arapastathis, Sterling, Ewin and Alessio!  (I'm clapping!)

What is happening in La Mesa politics and government lately is NOT about an election or enemies of the mayor no matter how many times it's characterized as such.  In fact, it's about making changing La Mesa from "mayor-centric" to "La Mesa-centric".  It's about regular La Mesa citizens (most multi-generational, by the way) who've watched a mayor become become increasingly imperialistic and bombastic with every re-election.  They decided to take some simple, legal and democratic steps by speaking up for transparent, open government, writing to their elected representatives and demanding accountability from City Hall.  They've rallied to bring La Mesa back from the mayor-led global meanderings- both literal & figurative - so La Mesa staff and elected officials can concentrate on real, local issues and problems within the boundaries of the City.  The four "non-mayoral" members of the City Council have correctly chosen to represent the citizens of La Mesa by addressing concerns germane to La Mesa.  In fact, all of them ran and were elected by the voters for their ideas and commitment relating to hometown issues.  That a commitment to La Mesa, its residents and its businesses is portrayed as an attack on the mayor speaks volumes.

Can the mayor take credit for "the lovely city La Mesa is"?  Recently, he called our beautiful, quaint village "rundown".  He's been kicking and screaming to have La Mesa Blvd. rebuilt his way.  He's been boasting that he hasn't done anything to improve downtown in his 20 year mayoral tenure.  The police force is much better now than it has been for most of his terms, but that's because of Police Chief Aceves.  Still, La Mesa has problems with vagrancy and crime that infest our streets, public transportation, parks and centers of commerce.  If you can call the city books balanced with a looming we-don't-know-where-we're-going-to-get-it $34 million pension liability, then it has been accomplished with an excessive sales tax not charged in adjacent cities.  Our downtown businesses are not only saddled with the anti-competitive extra sales tax, but collects parking meter money in front of these businesses that, so far, has been spent on funding the compensation for those hired to collect the parking meter money.  Oh, yes, some of the parking meter money has been spent to hire a guy to help extract even more money from our downtown business district (PBID).  Geez.  If that's worthy of "pointing and claiming credit", I'll take the four-person council and the empty chair.  

Comment by Chris Lavin on August 14, 2013 at 11:04am
Using the phrase "his council" was not intended to suggest the mayor sees it that way. I suspect he couldn't these days. I mean to leave that judgment to you and others. Thanks, as always, for your engagement.

Comment by Esteban Camisado on August 14, 2013 at 10:32am

"Madrid wasn't present to defend himself and none of his fellow council members were moved to do so."

This describes the entire meeting. I'm very thrilled to know that the council is moving forward independently, at least for now.

Comment by Kevin G George on August 14, 2013 at 8:47am

Chris, one more time.

It is the " La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group".

Please visit our website.

Comment by Scott H. Kidwell on August 14, 2013 at 8:16am

"La Mesa's long-serving mayor, Art Madrid, was in Sacramento Tuesday evening when his City Council was meeting..."  Really-"his City Council?" The city council does not belong to a mayor, any mayor! The council members are independently elected officials of equal voting power to a La Mesa mayor. They answer to the citizens. Sure, a La Mesa mayor has a few certain perfunctory duties, but is not the city monarch whose every degree and wish must be obeyed. City business does not need to come to a grinding halt because Sir Junket-a-lot is off gallivanting at yet another out-of-town convention. Kudos to the city council for doing the job they were elected to do!

Comment by David Stanley on August 14, 2013 at 7:56am

Chris, you continue to astound me with your great insight and keen reporting style. This piece lays it all out, history as well as present days, and presents the reader with a grasp of City Hall movements, actions and machinations. I look forward to each of your reports concerning City politics as well as your "everyday, all around town" views. Thanks a lot.  David

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