Love where you live!
Candidates Forum A Polite Affair
LA MESA -- As he began the Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum Thursday night, La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid endeavored to draw a clear distinction between he and his opponent, saying "Elections are about choices and here you have two candidates who couldn't be more different.''
Madrid dramatically challenged his opponent, City Councilman Mark Arapostathis, to a two-hour debate, but as this two-hour forum unfolded it wasn't so easy for the 100 in attendance to draw substantive differences between Madrid and Arapostathis, nor among the five other candidates vying for the other two open council seats.
Everyone on the panel had long resumes of public service. All the candidates expressed love for La Mesa and stood, with only slight differences, for protecting and defending police and fire services and the small town feel of the Jewel of the Hills.
It was a sort of low-key, get-to-know-you candidates night in which each candidate, presented below in alphabetical order, sought to establish their own theme:
Two For Mayor
Enjoying the endorsement of the other three current council members, "Dr. A," as he is often called, listed the new police, fire and library facilities as well as the Allison Avenue renovation and the downtown streetscape project currently underway as examples of a council working together. "We have accomplished this together as a council -- and with the help of the public.'' Arapostathis emphasized throughout the evening his collaborative approach to government and continually referred to the collective actions of a "council of five'' in listing the accomplishments of his eight years in office.
Arapostathis' focus on the collective is clearly his way of pointing out Madrid's increasing isolation, the current mayor having tussled with his fellow council members as well as the local merchant community in recent years.
Arapostathis said he believes better, more modern approaches to communication can bring city services more efficiently to the people and said he would work to increase volunteerism in support of community projects. He also made it clear that he would weigh development projects against a standard in which they would need to fit with this community's desire for the "small town'' look and feel.
He did not immediately take up Madrid's debate challenge, pointing out that there were more political forums to come and that the mayor may need to explain some of his recent campaign activities before Arapostathis would agree to share a stage with him. Arapostathis said he has been receiving reports of misrepresentations of his record in the mayor's interactions with voters.
"I'd like to hear his answers to some of that before we agree to debate,'' Arapostathis said. "But I have no problem taking on any issues at length when the time is right.''
If voters were giving style points, Arapostathis, as a candidate, does well. He is amiable as a speaker and articulate, mixing humor and a continual emphasis on the "average voter" view of the world in his answer to many questions. "It's all about the quality of life,'' he said several times. And, at his closing, he acknowledged the challenge some voters have with pronouncing his last name. "I'm Mark Arapostathis. Five syllables, 12 letters, number one on the ballot and, hopefully, number one in your heart.''
He left 'em smiling.
After more than 30 years in elected office -- nearly a third of the city's history -- Madrid can listen to candidate after candidate say they love this city and argue that that is an endorsement of his stewardship. He has had a hand in so much of the evolution and development of the Jewel of the Hills, it is hard to separate him from the good city that all the candidates profess to love. Still, there is a season for all things and, perhaps as never before, it was clear this warhorse was facing a new kind of foe.
Madrid, once closely allied with Arapostathis, was repeatedly taking credit for having the "leadership" on accomplishments that Arapostathis was crediting the collective efforts of the council, city staff and the people of La Mesa. The implication is that Madrid led and others followed. His longevity and his deep and wide engagements in local, state and national government organizations -- his working virtually full-time for years at what is paid as a part-time post -- certainly lend some weight to this view.
Yet, for all his years in public life, Madrid struggles as a public speaker and making these points -- particularly when his popular opponent has a theatrical background and a gift of the quip -- can make short, candidate forums like this a challenge. It is no wonder Madrid would like a longer one-on-one, though it is not clear that debating is the best tactic here.
Madrid's long service to the community -- the many one-on-one interactions with grieving families, needy constituents, angry voters -- does give him the kind of roots that make it hard to beat an incumbent. And even as an octogenarian, he remains feisty and focused in pursuit of his goals. He repeated last night that he wants to finish the civic center, giving city workers a better work environment of a new City Hall, a project several other candidates dismissed as unneeded.
Five For Two Council Seats
Of the five council candidates, Baber clearly displayed the years of experience he's already had in public office. And he leaned heavily on his service with the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board as evidence of his commitment to the community. Like Arapostathis, Baber also stressed his history of building consensus among the differing views on an elected board and said constant in-fighting doesn't lead to good government.
As he has since he began his campaign a few months back, Baber, an attorney who is familiar with the campaign world, offers a succinct and focused list of priorities: Supporting public safety through the training and retention of police and firefighters, improved and expanded park spaces and traffic management for safe streets.
In his third run for City Council, Dean has clearly evolved as a candidate. He has attended virtually every City Council meeting over the last six years and, now serving on a city commission, displays a solid knowledge of both the workings of a city and the politics of its leadership. He has fully staked out the position of the "green'' candidate and was the only candidate to throw out a provocation of sorts. Dean said the city seemed inordinately attentive to the downtown merchants, saying "I want to be the representative for the other 57,000 people who don't have businesses on the boulevard.''
When asked what he would first do if elected, Dean was alone in having specifics at the tip of his tongue, including expanding free wi-fi in the city and partnering with MTS to improve internal transportation for seniors in La Mesa. He also speaks articulately about "smart growth'' and the fact that population growth will require the city wrestle thoughtfully with development.
As CEO of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, England was both host and main event on this evening. A former City Council member in Lemon Grove, she is clearly no stranger to campaigns. And, given her job with the Chamber, it was no surprise that she displayed familiarity with economic development and small business needs in the city. A community event organizer and a peripatetic cheerleader in her work with the Chamber, she made it clear she hoped to transfer that energy to council work here in La Mesa.
"I have had the passion for promoting La Mesa through the Chamber,'' she said. "I would love to apply that passion even more for the city.''
An attorney who has lived in La Mesa for 30 years, Gregorovic acknowledged this night was a sort of coming out event for him. He has a long history of working with youth sports and claims a wide network of friends and associates, but he said this was a new audience for him. He said he has been studying the city's budget closely and, perhaps because of his attorney roots, spoke well and made a case for his priorities. He listed sensible development and fiscal responsibility as key issues and added that it was important the city consider both "north of Interstate 8'' as well as "south of 8'' when looking at city services. He noted that he had attended a recent Planning Commission hearing on the Park Station project and came away better informed and expressed to the landowner his hope that they scale the project back to something La Mesa might support, while still appreciating the need to better use that land.
Like Gregorovic, McWhirter boasts a long personal history with La Mesa and a rich resume of public service in his church and with youth groups, though this is his first run for council. He clearly learned a lot walking every precinct of the city, even counting the steps to some of the steep hillside homes up above the Village. He said he found the city's merchants generally alienated from the city government and he wants to work on that. He was among the candidates who flatly reject a need for Madrid's new City Hall and was direct in assessing the city's limited authority and resources for addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Now retired from his insurance business, McWhirter says he has the time to dedicate to council work and would like to encourage increased volunteerism in the city.