Civility Reigns In Council Debate

Story by Scott La Fee

Photos by Gary Junker. See slideshow below.

LA MESA – The second candidates’ forum last night for the two open City Council seats began with a drawing of numbers to assign seating for the four challengers – lawyer Kristine Alessio, realtor Laura Lothian, former catering manager Patrick Dean, geologist-turned-art dealer Shannon O’Dunn – and longtime council incumbent, Ruth Sterling.

It was a quiet, orderly affair that kicked off a forum that was, well, quiet and orderly. If anyone in the City Council Chambers audience of 30 or so came expecting rhetorical fireworks, they were likely disappointed. There were no harsh words or loud voices, except perhaps to occasionally overcome the lack of a functioning public address system. The candidates were congenial and generally voiced similar positions on the state of the city (terrific), the need to improve downtown (terrific too, though it could use a power-wash and a few more businesses) and a universal conviction that each of them was the right woman or man for the jobs.

Sponsored by the the League of Women Voters of San Diego, the two-hour “conversation” – saying debate might suggest overt disagreement – was reflective of the city all of the candidates declared they loved. It was low-key, friendly and surprisingly comforting.

After brief introductions, the candidates were asked a series of questions collected earlier on cards from the audience. A sampling:

What do you think about La Mesa becoming a charter city (a city governed by its own “charter” document rather than organized according to state laws)?

The candidates largely conceded they didn’t really know enough about the issue to comment intelligently. “As a general law city,” said Sterling, who’s been on the La Mesa City Council for 20 years, “I think we’ve done fine.”

What ideas do you have for improving downtown La Mesa, “the Village?”

All of the candidates expressed support for still-evolving and unfunded plans to improve the “streetscape.” Additional details, though, were scarce. They also agreed that a suggested ban on smoking in outdoor eating areas downtown was a good, healthy idea. “Smokers will understand, even if they don’t like it,” opined Dean.

Where do you stand on PBID (or Property-Based Improvement District, an on-going, controversial proposal to spruce up downtown with funding from a new charge on local property owners)?

Dean said he thought the 5-year-old effort by advocates in city government and elsewhere had been “unnecessarily opaque” and ought to be reworked. Sterling, Alessio and Lothian said the current PBID was too big, too expensive or both. O’Dunn, a staunch PBID supporter, conceded it might be necessary to go back to the drawing board.

How would you address the city’s unfunded pension liability, currently at $31 million?

Lothian suggested city leaders make reducing it a top priority, even if it meant budget cuts elsewhere. O’Dunn, Sterling and Dean lauded current efforts to slowly pay down the liability over the next decade or so. Alessio observed there were “no easy answers.”

Easier answers came when the candidates were asked what they thought of long-time city manager Dave Witt. They all love him. “He’s the blueprint for city manager,” gushed Sterling. What should the city council do regarding climate change? The candidates concluded it was an issue better handled by states and the federal government, though they all believe the city’s efforts to make the city more “walkable” are helpful.

Finally, they were asked: “What would you correct first if elected to city council?"

O’Dunn and Alessio said there were no immediate, glaring problems to be resolved, though they expressed particular interest in redevelopment issues (O’Dunn) and making La Mesa “more business-friendly” (Alessio). Sterling said she wanted to reduce unspecified government regulations. Lothian wanted to eliminate “blight,” such as unkempt lots, abandoned shopping carts and unsightly dumpsters. Dean mentioned the issues of local homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.

The forum ended with brief summations by the candidates. The 79-year-old Sterling cited her reliability, trustworthiness and vitality, claiming to have missed only two council sessions in two decades. O’Dunn noted her “deep experience” managing public employees and funds as a former community college administrator. Alessio said her 10 years on the city’s Planning Commission gave her “experience in making hard decisions.” Lothian said she was hard-working, a realtor who wanted to see all of La Mesa rise in value. And Dean, quite modestly, claimed simply to be a “family man interested in preserving La Mesa for his daughters and the common good.”

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Tags: Government, Kristine Alessio, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, La Mesa newspaper, Laura Lothian, Patrick Dean, Ruth Sterling, Shannon O'Dunn


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Comment by Russell Buckley on September 28, 2012 at 12:34pm

The candidates all seem civic minded and well intentioned, and those are nice qualities to bring to the Council. But I'm disappointed at their lack of plans to deal with the pension problem. If the pension liability stays at its current level it will take over 60 years, at the current rate of payback ($500,000 per year) to eliminate it. Over that time taxpayers will pay many millions of dollars to fund the "carrying costs".  That money is not available for other uses such as hiring more police officers. Too, the additional $7 million in annual tax revenues mandated by Proposition L will cease well before the payback is complete. Maybe worst of all, little has been done to "stop the bleeding". Pensions remain too generous, especially when compared with those common in the private sector. Taxpayers remain on the hook to repay 100% of any additional pension shortfalls, and the more generous the pensions, the more likely additional shortfalls will be experienced. It seems to me that pension costs are the city's number one problem and should receive more attention from both candidates and the current council. 

Comment by Lisa Hamann on September 28, 2012 at 10:21am

Thank you League of Women Voters for hosting the debate.

Comment by Mark Robak on September 28, 2012 at 8:34am

Great job candidates for making yourself available and giving people a chance to learn more about you. 

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