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An Election In Times Of Change
LA MESA -- Not long ago, La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid sat in his small office at City Hall. Sitting by his side so they could talk privately, City Councilman Dave Allan and Madrid chatted about current events and issues and, when prompted, the future.
Allan and Madrid, like much of this city's leadership, have been together a long time. Shifting between the roles of allies and occasionally rivals, for the most part a relatively small number of La Mesans -- Allan and Madrid two prime ones -- have been the political ballast for this small city operating nicely in the shadow of its larger neighbors.
Attending a City Council meeting in La Mesa can feel to an outsider like you've walked into a slightly dysfunctional family reunion. Cranky Parent tussles at times with the Upstart Uncle and the Crazy Aunt. To those familiar with the undercurrents, there is often more meaning in the subtext than in the public pronouncements made to the watching TV cameras.
Still, La Mesa on its centennial can claim to be a city that has largely worked. With giant San Diego to its west and larger, rougher El Cajon to its east, La Mesa has avoided most of the excesses and troubles of those cities, maintaining an image of Small Town America, nestled in California's rolling hills. Its downtown Village is both literally and figuratively a paean to '50s America.
But as the November City Council election looms, it is also becoming clearer that this election could signal a change in a city that doesn't warm easily to change. Not only is there an open seat, but there is also an increasing awareness that change looms regardless of the full outcome of November's vote.
-- This city's mayor has been in office for more than two decades and is fast approaching his eighth decade of life.
-- City Councilwoman Ruth Sterling, facing a re-election challenge this year, has been around almost as long as Madrid and, as her 80th birthday approaches, certainly will face questions about whether she can still fully fill this role.
-- City Manager Dave Witt, who plays a central role in keeping a small city government professional and efficient, is approaching retirement at the same time the makeup of the City Council that will replace him may be undergoing a facelift. Witt said this week he isn't announcing a specific retirement date, but, with more than 30 years of service, he is in his final years.
There are five candidates declared for the two City Council seats in November and each in their own way can make that facelift quite different when the election bandages come off.
Local Realtor Laura Lothian represents, to the degree that one exists, the loyal opposition to old guard. She ran against Madrid as an outsider two years ago and lost, but despite her novice background, came closer than anyone expected to knocking Madrid from his role. Lothian can often be seen rubbing shoulders with local bookstore owner Craig Maxwell, Madrid's previous challenger, and has curried favor from the Village Merchants who have frequently tussled with city officials and staff over local issues.
Relative newcomer Patrick Dean moved to town a few years ago and quickly ran for council. He lost but has gained some respect for spending many hours since attending council meetings and learning more about the city. He has endeavored to represent a willingness to change and innovate and has largely remained independent of both the old guard and the Maxwellian critics.
Other candidates -- Shannon O'Dunn and Kristine Alessio -- are seeking office in a more traditional political way, boasting long service including important volunteer roles in the city and with strong ties to La Mesa leadership.
As Labor Day, the traditional start of the race to election day approaches, it is clear that La Mesa will be offering its citizens an interesting race and there is much at stake.
THE DELICATE BALANCE
There is, in general, only small differences between good small cities like La Mesa and dysfunctional little cities like, say, Bell, Ca., where greed and corruption ran rampant. Small cities often have, like La Mesa, a "weak mayor" form of government in which a part-time council hires a professional city manager to handle day to day operations executed by professional civil servants. Lose a cohesive council that knows its proper role and it is likely you will lose the higher quality management that runs the city day to day.
"It's a pretty fragile thing,'' one city official said. "If you lose faith in the council to keep a professional environment, people start looking around for other jobs pretty quickly.''
In many ways, La Mesa has had the best of professional management while its council members, led by Madrid, have stayed in office so long many people are unaware of the limited role the elected officials play in the day to day city operations.
Madrid carried the title of "mayor,'' but his leadership is largely symbolic. He is one of five council votes and has to get two other council members to support anything he'd like to do.
But Madrid's longevity and his gift for connecting with voters over time has given him a strong mayor appearance and the relatively long-serving council members -- Ernie Ewin, Allan and Sterling -- have kept the city stable despite the occasional fights and conflicts on council and among a small coterie of its detractors.
Asked recently, Madrid said he is not ready to leave office yet. He would like to have one more term and find a way to finish the city's civic center facelift with a new City Hall before he retires. But during a "next term" Madrid would turn 80 and as he has gotten closer to the end of his political career, his ability to produce a majority for his efforts has been rebuffed by his fellow council members.
Madrid says he knows that, in part, his legacy will depend on having a stable, professional government operation follow on after him and, lately, he mentioned Allan as a possible successor as mayor.
Allan, who chose not to seek re-election this year, is, like Madrid, retired and would have the time to handle a job that Madrid made more full-time than part-time in his tenure.
Allan said he hasn't thought about a mayoral run in the future, but he wouldn't rule it out. However, the voters, eventually, will decide that issue and other council members with ambition, including Arapostathis and Ewin, may stand in the way of Madrid determining his eventual successor. And they may not wait for Madrid to call it quits on his own.
FAULT LINES ON A MAP
As the political campaigns begin, watch for some key issues and alliances to begin playing out.
Madrid has endorsed Alessio, who has served on the city's Planning Commission, and O'Dunn, who has publicly supported Madrid's desire for revamping management of the downtown Village.
Also, expect incumbent Sterling to get a fair amount of scrutiny from the challengers. La Mesa has a history of re-electing its incumbents so the four, non-incumbents may feel they need to focus on Sterling to have a better chance at winning a seat.
On her campaign website, Lothian mentions only Sterling by name, noting Sterling's age (79) and the fact that she has been on the council for 20 years. Lothian, a supporter of term limits, then promises only to serve two terms if she is elected.
Two years ago Sterling publicly campaigned for Lothian in her quest to unseat Madrid. She probably wouldn't mind limiting Lothian to no terms at this point.
November will tell all.
Photo at top (left to right): Kristine Alessio, Patrick Dean, Laura Lothian, Shannon O'Dunn and Ruth Sterling.