Love where you live!
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 Ourtown@LaMesaToday.com.