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Little Heat, Much Sweat In Debate
LA MESA -- The City Council candidates went to church Wednesday night and a Bikram Yoga event broke out.
It was so warm inside the La Mesa First United Methodist Church the five seeking two seats on the council might have felt they were in purgatory.
But, as has been the case throughout this very proper election, all the heat in this debate came from the weather.
The candidates were polite with only compliments being exchanged between the competitors while keeping the focus on their own strengths.
For the most part, the candidates played to type. Kristine Alessio, the Planning Commission member, emphasizing her lawyer training and extensive public service experience; Shannon O'Dunn discussing her varied experience in business and academia; Patrick Dean pursuing a caring and supportive government services approach to government while Laura Lothian continually pushed self-reliance and non-governmental answers to community problems.
Ruth Sterling, the only incumbent, once again struggled -- perhaps with the format. She had come with prepared statements on the topics the debate was to cover, but the topics were presented as specific questions. Sterling responded repeatedly with statistic-laden prepared statements that were non sequiturs to the question asked. In repeated cases her prepared responses were too long for the three-minute time limit which, when enforced, left Sterling's statements dangling in the hot evening air.
All five of the candidates, in slightly different ways, added wood to the funeral pyre under plans to establish a Property Based Improvement District in La Mesa's historic downtown Village. Alessio and Sterling described the plan as too big, too expensive and too unpopular. Dean and Lothian both were vehemently opposed to the plan with Lothian wanting parking meter money to take the PBID's place and Dean wanting the parking meter money reserved for capital uses only.
Shannon O'Dunn, who served on the PBID committee, acknowledged it seemed to be dying the death of a thousand cuts, but said there is still a need for some sort of public-private partnership if the Village is to achieve its potential.
(La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid, who sat silently in the audience throughout the debate, was asked if he agreed with his once and future council mates' analysis of the PBID future. His answer: "Not at all.'')
There were differences between some candidates on specific issues. When the church members raised the issue of the need for affordable housing, Dean instantly said he agreed for local government action to bring more density and lower cost housing to the transit lines. When asked about homelessness, Dean criticized the city for an approach which he described as "hoping to convince them all to go somewhere else'' rather than giving help to the homeless.
Lothian, however, equated affordable housing with neighborhood decline, crime and overcrowding.
"Affordable housing is one of those things that sound good on paper, but it leads to overcrowded homes, neglect and often brings crime to the neighborhood,'' Lothian said. Similarly, Lothian said good intentioned efforts to help the homeless can attract more homeless.
"I just sometimes think that government is not always the answer,'' she said.
Alessio and O'Dunn were supportive of efforts to help the homeless on humanitarian grounds, but both felt it required collaboration with other levels of government to fashion effective programs.
Alessio said the city should work with builders to encourage more, lower cost-higher density projects and not preclude the possibility that a well-designed and maintained mobile home park could bring tasteful, lower cost housing options to the city.
As has been true throughout the three City Council race debates, O'Dunn added color to the otherwise bloodless event when she said she has the sticktoitiveness to sit at her desk until she gets a job done, describing herself as having "an iron butt and a constant heart.''
Dean won points by using his closing comments to describe a heart-felt discussion he had with an elderly woman in a home on Lake Murray. Dean said he shared with the woman his belief that development pressures will bring changes, including higher-density housing to downtown La Mesa.
Dean said the woman clearly disagreed and it was evident he wouldn't win her vote.
"But I feel there are changes coming and I will look forward to the future representing all and having good discussions,'' Dean said.