LA MESA – The City of La Mesa is beginning to plan for its Centennial Celebration in 2012 and so far it appears that Art Madrid, a civic leader for nearly 40 percent of the city’s history, has weathered his political storm and will remain at the helm of local government through the year-long celebration.
With just weeks until residents can file papers to run, a couple of La Mesans are preparing challenges against incumbent council members. Patrick Dean, a former New York City chef and a new La Mesa resident and local realtor Laura Lothian, are preparing for runs, though Lothian says she won’t make a final decision until August.
But to date, despite Madrid’s very public embarrassment during this past term, there have been no rumors or overt planning by anyone to take on Madrid, who has led the city for 20 years and served on council and in commission roles for more than a decade before that. Craig Maxwell, a bookstore owner and vitriolic critic of Madrid and the city administration, says he won’t run again and has heard of no one planning to do so.
To Madrid, this is as it should be. In a recent interview, he outlined what he said is decades of work and accomplishments in service to the people of La Mesa that should not be tarnished by one incident – embarrassing as he acknowledges it was.
“One incident in my private life doesn’t define who I am,’’ Madrid said, “and I think the people understood that. I’ve had a lot of support from the community who know what I stand for.’’
That one incident occurred in February, 2008. Madrid said he was on his way to a neighborhood meeting when he ran into three young men who had been close friends of Madrid’s son David, who died of cancer in 1988. Madrid acknowledged drinking to excess with the young men as they reminisced about his son.
As the exhaustive news coverage later chronicled, Madrid was later being driven home by a city employee when Madrid asked them to stop because he was getting sick. When found by police, Madrid was lying curbside, clearly intoxicated, though the car was, by that time parked. La Mesa Police later drove Madrid the last few blocks home and defended the action as clearly within an officer’s discretion at any scene.
A subsequent investigation by the district attorney’s office found no wrong-doing by Madrid or the La Mesa police, but the incident dragged Madrid and La Mesa through weeks of embarrassment.
Madrid said in the wake of the incident he met numerous times with local constituents, admitted his error and he believes those who know him and are familiar with his years of stewardship of the city, saw that incident as an anomaly.
“I acknowledged my mistake and it is over,’’ Madrid says, though he also believes that if an opponent surfaces, he expects any opposition campaign will be based on exploiting the incident.
Clearly, Madrid has been buoyed by the way locals have, for the most part, rallied to his side.
Madrid describes his years in La Mesa as a sort of text-book example of moving from commission service, to the city council and then on to the mayor’s role. Throughout, he says, he’s pursued long-term plans that managed the inevitable growth while always keeping in mind what he sees as La Mesa’s conservative approach to anything that would challenge the small-town character of the city.
Madrid said the city has been realistic about its finances, managing to balance its budget, even in a difficult economy, by looking to combine services with nearby communities.
Madrid acknowledges that the city would be in much tougher shape without the increased sales tax earned by the passage of Proposition L, but he said it was the community’s trust in his administration’s use of public funds that won approval of that increase.
Madrid would not comment specifically on the much-debated Park Station project because that development plan has yet to make its way to the City Council, however in discussing his views on development it is clear he will have difficulty seeing an 18-story project of any kind fitting with his vision of La Mesa.
“I believe in transit projects,’’ Madrid said. “We have 1,500 dwelling units within 500 feet of the trolley lines. But scale is critical for a city like La Mesa.’’
For now, Madrid is preparing for a race as if an opponent was declared. He’s meeting with his kitchen cabinet and has been handing out re-election cards, often to residents whose personal connection with Madrid clearly pre-dates the recent embarrassment.
Madrid is counting on those long ties.
COUNCIL RACES LOOM
Madrid may be facing minimal opposition this fall, but it is clear two of his closest allies on the council will not have a clear run. The terms of council members Ernest Ewin and Dr. Mark Arastopathis are both ending and both are planning to run for re-election.
So far, at least two possible opponents to the incumbents have surfaced.
Both Dean and Lothian are relative newcomers to La Mesa, Dean having arrived here from New York City last year and Lothian, a realtor working in La Mesa since 2002 and a resident for the past 2 ½ years.
Dean is a regular at City Council meetings and has shown interest in environmental issues and sustainable food supply efforts. He joined his girlfriend, food supply expert Jill Richardson, in proposing a change that would allow more city residents to raise their own poultry within city limits.
Lothian, a member of the city’s Parking Commission, has also been a frequent voice on city issues in recent years, focusing heavily on what she sees as a need for sprucing up La Mesa and its image.
Lothian often has complained of unaddressed graffiti and inattention to garbage removal, elements she believes hurt the city’s image and depresses real estate values.
“I believe we have a good city, a good administration,’’ she said, “but everything is too much status quo.”
North Park, South Park, Kensington, Lothian said, mentioning well-known San Diego neighborhoods west of La Mesa. “We’re the next village out,’’ she said, “and we should be seen as happening, improving.’’
But Lothian said between her work and her family duties, she’s still weighing whether she can make the time it will take to do the council job. “I don’t do anything half-way,’’ she said.
She said she would decide before the August filing deadline whether or not to make a run.
Without the anti-incumbent sentiment injecting an unknown element into virtually all political races this year, few would be giving Dean or Lothian much of a chance against the incumbents.
Both Ewin and Arastopathis are popular local residents with long roots in a number of large constituencies in the city. Both have spent years in various kinds of public service.
Still, with the economic pressures causing for difficult decisions at all levels of government, there are growing tensions between the City Council and its public service unions.
Council members Dave Allan and Ruth Sterling, neither up for re-election this year, are seen by most as allied with the local unions. Anyone challenging La Mesa incumbents this year might find aggressive support from the unions.
More to come as the political season ripens.