Love where you live!
By Chris Lavin
La Mesa Today Editor
LA MESA -- It has been almost a quarter century since they had to change the name of the mayor on the forms at City Hall.
Check signing procedures and contract processing requirements are being adjusted in anticipation of a new regime as well.
Around City Hall, the impact of the recent election is sinking in as long-time relationships begin to change like the names on the city stationery.
There have been three popes since La Mesa last had a new mayor. Virtually everyone working in City Hall today was hired during Mayor Art Madrid's tenure. It is never easy when there's change at the top.
Government, however, is a process, not a sports car. It moves more like an aircraft carrier and, as the new members of the City Council and its new mayor, will learn, it tends to resist the winds of change.
The new mayor, Mark Arapostathis, has not had a formal meeting with the new council-to-be, but has congratulated the newly elected. He has stopped in with City Manager Dave Witt and sketched out plans for the transition.
The Dec. 9th council meeting will feature a certification of the election results, the swearing-in of the new members and mayor and then a recess to the Police Department meeting room to mark the moment with cake and coffee before returning for what is traditionally a brief agenda for the new council to execute.
It is in January, after the holidays, that the new council will start its real work. In many ways, the routine of government will give it early focus.
Arapostathis said the council will need to watch the downtown Village streetscape project closely and plan for a very public celebration of that key work when it is finished. "You only get one chance to do that right,'' he said. Arapostathis also notes that hiring a replacement for retiring Police Chief Ed Aceves will also be prominently on people's minds.
But these are the expected elements of government and are not the greatest challenges facing this new panel.
In many ways, this year's election -- like politics in general over the last four years -- was dominated by the gravitational pull of the long-serving mayor. Local politics did not revolve around great issues, but great personalities.
Throughout the recent campaign, in fact, there were virtually no great issues enumerated by any candidates. Public safety, good streets and clean parks were nearly universal concerns for all involved, but the long-simmering animosities between Madrid and the rest of the council remained the focus.
Most analyses of the election results simply credited Arapostathis' strong contingent of school and theater-based families far more motivated than Madrid's aging supporters in a low-turnout race. No issues enter the discussion.
With the distracting issues of personality vanquished from the scene by voters, however, this new council will undoubtedly find itself confronting long-standing, and in some ways, daunting issues.
The city's finances have been precarious since the Great Recession. Sales taxes, one of the city's financial pillars, remain soft and there are more than a few strategic thinkers who believe paradigm shifts underway in the retail world may render this revenue source increasingly unreliable. Drew Ford was recently sold and suddenly its long-time La Mesa roots are threatened. The loss of a car dealer could be a body blow to local coffers.
For a city that wants to keep its own police force and maintain local control of its own zoning and development issues, funding local services over the long term may require more creativity, leadership and long-term planning than La Mesa's council has exhibited in recent years.
Still, there are strengths in the Jewel of the Hills. Grossmont Center, clearly the economic engine of local government, returns to family ownership soon and many redevelopment scenarios for those acres would have that engine running on higher octane, producing more real estate and sales taxes in the future.
There are also nearly eight open acres of land along Spring Street in the city's center, some of it privately owned, much of it already in public hands, beckoning for a vision of some sort to add lustre -- and perhaps some economic fire power -- to La Mesa's quaint but sleepy core.
The city's staff is also poised to seek final approval on a plan that would give developers more leeway in suggesting redevelopment projects for the downtown Village. Parking requirements that have previously limited creative project ideas would be set aside if developers contribute to a fund that would eventually construct a downtown parking garage. Such "in-lieu'' payments might lead to more effective use of some downtown parcels and, eventually, economic growth in a Village that is more of a symbolic heart of the city than an economic driver of any significance.
In many ways, the city's greatest challenges are long-term and macro in nature. Addressing them will take smart, persistent leadership that, at times, may need to at least tack against the small-town winds that can shape so many development discussions.
It may be a good thing that, at least at the start, the new council will be a pretty cohesive group. Kristine Alessio and Ruth Sterling, the returning council members, will be joined by Bill Baber and Guy McWhirter. All four of these council members supported Arapostathis in his effort to unseat Madrid.
Arapostathis is promising collaboration and collegiality in his leadership style. This team will need to work together if it hopes to find meaningful ways to address the city's long-term financial health -- and maintain its cherished small town feel and its independence.
On Tuesday, Madrid was, as he has been for 24 years, at his desk dealing with constituent complaints -- today's included concerns about prostitution along El Cajon Boulevard. When he walks out the door on December 9th, a vast amount of institutional knowledge and civic intelligence will leave with him. He will be leaving for his successors a city that stands out from its surrounding towns and is much loved by virtually all of its inhabitants.
Whether those successors are up to the challenge is the stuff of future elections.