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LA MESA -- A subtle, simmering feud between La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid and City Councilman Ernie Ewin became very public -- and a little bit ugly -- Tuesday.
In a prepared presentation at the start of a regular council meeting, Ewin revealed that Madrid had been filing Freedom of Information requests, collecting information about payments Ewin receives for attending meetings of intergovernmental groups for which Ewin is La Mesa's representative.
Ewin released the documents Madrid had sought in official requests to the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Joint Powers Authority, which operates regional sewer treatment operations. The documents chronicle more than $40,000 in per diem payments Ewin received over the last decade, usually about $150 per meeting.
Ewin has represented La Mesa on the MTS board and with the JPA, including a number of subcommittees which also make per diem payments for each meeting attended. Ewin described Madrid's FOI requests as "veiled threats and bullying'' by the mayor.
The per diem payments are legal and routinely made to public officials serving on these intergovernmental boards and committees. Madrid also receives such payments for his work with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and now the JPA.
But Madrid said he was gathering the information to make a point about Ewin, who he accused of leading a cabal of local residents and council members who were trying to stymie the mayor's initiatives for personal political reasons. He pointed to what he said were recent collaborations between Ewin, City Councilwoman Kristine Alessio and members of the La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group, a self-appointed watchdog group, to criticize the mayor's travels and participation in intergovernmental groups.
Madrid said Ewin has been religiously taking per diem payments but, in his view, has not been representing the city well, particularly on the Joint Powers Authority, which operates the sewage treatment facilities that handle La Mesa's effluent at the Point Loma treatment center.
Madrid said he took Ewin's place on the JPA board in January and quickly found out that major problems had been brewing for some time. In his view, Ewin should have been reporting back to the council that residents should be preparing for potentially enormous sewer bill increases in the coming years as the JPA is forced to spend millions to meet federal water treatment requirements.
"This council never heard word one about the problems,'' Madrid said. "He criticizes me for working with national groups that reimburse the city for my efforts while he takes the per diem and doesn't deliver.''
Ewin said his work with MTS, where he helped found an audit committee as the MTS grew, and the JPA has been routinely lauded by those organizations. He said he didn't raise alarms about the JPA challenges because neither the timing nor the scope of any increases that will come La Mesa's way could be determined.
Ewin said he chalks up Madrid's records requests to political and style differences. "I'm not someone who will back down and get in line with the mayor,'' Ewin said. Ewin said Madrid has previously attempted to have him removed from the MTS assignment in retaliation for other political differences.
This public fight is the latest in what has been a series of contretemps between Madrid and Ewin, with other council members playing occasional cameo roles in the drama. Ewin recently engineered tighter adherence to city travel procedures which resulted in the council denying Madrid's request for attending a national organization meeting in La Vegas, saying the benefit to the city was not clear enough.
Ewin has also been critical of the mayor's efforts on behalf of the Property Based Improvement District steering committee and has joined together with varying other council members to shoot down other recent Madrid initiatives.
At the heart of the matter, Ewin says, is a different approach to government. Ewin pointed out that Madrid hasn't attended a La Mesa Chamber of Commerce event in years because he is feuding with the chamber's executive director. Madrid, he said, has also been feuding with the Village Merchant's Association for years now.
"He believes he has to shake things up to get things done,'' Ewin said of Madrid. "I take a different approach. I talk to everyone.''
To underscore that point, during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, local book seller Craig Maxwell, a legendary Madrid opponent, quickly stood to defend Ewin, though Maxwell and Ewin had been close to blows themselves not long ago over Village issues.
Madrid sees Maxwell's support of Ewin as evidence of their shared goal of discrediting the mayor. Maxwell failed in an earlier race against the mayor and used Tuesday night's Madrid/Ewin jousting to revive his campaign call for term limits. "Politicians dig in -- like tics,'' Maxwell said.
"They're using each other,'' Madrid said. "Craig is using Ernie to needle me.''
Is this all a prologue to a Ewin-Madrid mayoral contest in 2014?
"He won't run,'' Madrid says of Ewin. "He doesn't have the (nerve). He would lose.''
When asked if he is contemplating a more formal contest with Madrid, Ewin smiles.
"We'll see,'' he said.