And then there was one. Out of nine city council districts—five of which were up for grabs in the June 5th primary—only one remains without a definitive answer as to who will be its representative to the city government. District 3’s Todd Gloria ran uncontested, as did District 5’s Mark Kersey; Marti Emerald cruised in the newly created District 9 taking 72% of the vote in the primary and winning it outright; and in District 7, Scott Sherman earned just barely enough of the vote with 50.09% to lock up his own election (in city council races, any candidate who earns 50% plus 1 of the overall vote is declared the winner outright, eliminating the need to carry on through the November general election).
The lone remaining undecided city council race is in District 1, where incumbent Democrat Sherri Lightner finished a close second to Republican challenger Ray Ellis. Which is surprising, and then again not surprising, since of the four contestants in the race, two of them were Democrats.
Sherri Lightner earned 41.5% of the vote in District 1, where fellow Democrat Bryan Pease garnered 7.1% and Republican Dennis Ridz 5.7%, with Pease far more liberal than Lightner. The metrics would seem to favor Lightner, albeit ever so slightly.
A little about District 1: The new boundaries extend from La Jolla and University City up through Del Mar Mesa and Carmel Valley. It is one of the wealthier locales of San Diego, and yet Democrats hold a slight voter registration advantage of nearly three thousand registered voters according to the Registrar of Voters. And like much of the rest of San Diego, it also claims a “Decline to State” electorate of nearly 1/3. District 1 is also the epicenter of the biotechnology industry in San Diego centered around UCSD.
It’s an important race, however, one that could very well determine the future direction of the City of San Diego. It will determine the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans on the City Council, which is currently split evenly between the two parties, giving one party a distinct edge in which policies get adopted. And although the city council and mayoral race is officially non-partisan, in this election year they have been anything but. It’s a distinction that takes on even more significance should Carl DeMaio defeat Bob Filner in the mayor’s race.
For her part, Lightner doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “It really is not right now,” she said about the race as it’s related to party affiliation. “It’s about the special interests that are trying to gain control of the city council rather than the community actually controlling it,” Lightner said. “We know who is behind my opponent, and who view this as a power grab to take the council from the people.”
She pointed out that with the “balance of power” comes the council presidency, the committee appointments and policy directions of the city. “That speaks to our entire future,” she said.
“Are we going to be in lock step with the special interests, or are we going to do what the community wants?”
Asked to define the term “special interests,” Lightner defined it in terms of her opponent, Ray Ellis: “We know he’s met with Mr. Manchester along with Carl DeMaio. We also know that at every debate he shows up to he says he’s been endorsed by every business group that’s done endorsements in this race, which I know is the Building Industry Association and the general contractors.”
Ellis, she says, has tried to characterize himself as an independent not aligned with any special interests, but “he has yet to answer any questions related to social issues. He does a circuitous response.” She says Ellis has not answered any questions related to San Diego’s living wage ordinance, gay marriage, or his position on Planned Parenthood. “He was asked the living wage question and he didn’t answer it,” she said.
“You want people to be able to live here,” Lightner said of the living wage ordinance. “If you don’t pay people enough, you wind up paying on the other end for them for the services they need from society. I think it’s far better to give people the pride of being able to take care of themselves” she said in regard to the living wage ordinance and its effect on the city.
“I worked in the UCSD dish room and I was glad to do it because the university had a standard that was above minimum wage. With that I earned $2.12 an hour instead of $1.65 which is what I would have earned off site, and it’s the difference between working 24 hours and 18 hours while you’re going to school, and that was huge.”
The living wage ordinance is important, she said, because “this is one of the ways in the past where government contractors were more or less forced to do certain things that then set the standard for the private sector. It’s treating women equally, treating minorities equally, equal pay for equal work. It’s the same with the living wage.”
“It’s important for the city to set the standard for the rest of the employers here in town.”
Asked specifically about her performance and accomplishments while a member of the City Council, Lightner said that she had “achieved what I set out to achieve which was to bring the neighborhoods to City Hall, restore fiscal stability and get to work on an economic plan for the City of San Diego. With respect to bringing the neighborhoods to City Hall, I have represented my communities very, very well. Our constituent services are second to none.”
“When I started (San Diego) had a $200 million deficit. The employees made a lot of sacrifices, and so did the taxpayers with reduced services. We’re now back to the level of services we were when I started. We have a dinky, tiny little surplus and we’re hoping that stays around. We’ve seen a lot of changes, but now we can actually secure bonds and go after our deferred maintenance and infrastructure requirements.”
As a part of the infrastructure improvement process, Lightner said that they discovered that some of the procedures the city followed were “perhaps not the best,” which led to an overhaul of the capital improvement program which will make it easier to get infrastructure projects done now and in the future.
As a member of the Economic Development and Strategies Committee, Lightner says she has taken a lead role in pushing the Council to take a greater interest in economic development. “We’ve been trying to get a new economic development strategy from the mayor’s office since I came on the council. The last one that was done was in 2001.” The best they’ve gotten since, she says, was a preliminary report released in January that she says was a “characterization of the different clusters that are here and not a vision of what we want here in the city.
The city auditor, she said, told the economic development committee that “you really should have a goal; you should have objectives; you should have performance measures, and it’s not just a descriptor of what we have here.” There are a number of incentive programs on the books, she says, that have never been used or have been used only once, and it’s unclear if those incentives have worked or would work.
She specifically pointed to a program where the city could offer rebates to companies on a part of the sales taxes that they pay on investments on equipment that they buy, which she says would “defray the cost of the investment.” The City Attorney put forward an opinion that was not favorable to that particular program, but it’s done in Los Angeles, she says, and it has been done in the past here in San Diego, and she would like to see the City Council take another look at it.
On issues specifically pertinent to District 1: Unlike her opponent, Lightner is a staunch opponent to the proposed Regents Rd. Bridge that would span Rose Canyon, connecting the northern and southern portions of the road and potentially destroy a significant portion of the open space park. It’s an issue that has been bitterly divisive in the district for years.
Proponents say it would relieve the traffic congestion on Genessee Ave. Opponents, including Lightner, say that the bridge is not necessary. “It’s not needed for traffic congestion reasons or measurement reasons whatsoever. We know that the trolley’s coming to the Golden Triangle. That should be in 2017. We’re also going to get more support to get traffic in and out of UCSD directly, and also the northern part of University City.”
“South University City does not need to be the freeway onramp for University City,” she said.
Lightner said she supports the city’s shared use policy at the Children’s Pool that has been in place since 2004. The issue, she said, was a “people on people” issue with regards to people getting injured, and had nothing to do with the seals. She said she has “worked very hard” to find outside funding for a ranger to monitor the site and prevent problems. To her knowledge, she said, the seals have never been hurt.
The La Jolla Post Office is an issue of particular significance for Lightner. “The Post Office is the lifeblood of the Village of La Jolla. It’s really an economic hub and it’s a cultural hub. We don’t want to see it go away.” She noted that Congresswoman Susan Davis is bringing legislation to the floor of Congress that would allow for a non-profit to get the right of first refusal to take over the site if they can raise fair market value for it.
The building is significant because it contains a mural painted as a part of the Depression era Works Progress Administration during the Roosevelt Administration. It was announced that the USPS was considering placing the site on a list for potential sale to private interests as a part of its budget cuts.
When asked about her support of Prop B, the pension reform initiative, the sure demeanor she displayed throughout the rest of the interview changed markedly. Much like her City Council colleague Lorie Zapf, Lightner seemed desperately unaware of what the new San Diego ordinance would actually do. When confronted with the results of a report released just prior to the October 1st City Council meeting that found that Prop B’s switch to a 401k program for all new city employees would cost the city $30 million over and above the current pension plan, Lightner was completely flummoxed. “It could be,” she replied when confronted with the updated estimates of the additional costs.
She said she still supports the idea of switching employees to a 401k system. “Either one should work if financed correctly,” she said. But the 401k plan, she said, limits the city’s liability over the long term. When asked in what way it does so, she struggled to answer.
“The reason we got in trouble with the defined benefit was by underfunding it,” she finally replied. “This would definitely put it in the control of the employees. They would have control of their pensions.” When confronted with the fact that putting them in the stock market puts them at risk for losing everything, as would have happened when the markets crashed in 2008, she said “well that would have happened anyway.”
“When we talked about how to set up the 401k’s, there’s already talk about how that will be in very secure funds as opposed to….you know people will have the option of doing what they want with it.” It was an answer that seemed to contradict the entire argument; either the employees will be left on their own, or their retirement funds will be placed in “very secure funds.” When challenged on this, she again struggled to answer and provide a distinction.
“The 401k options will be discussed in the near term,” she finally offered. “The have to have the actuarial evaluations performed on them.” She noted that she has both a 401k and a defined benefit package of her own, and that with the 401k you “can change it ‘round.” “I don’t know if that option will be available to city employees, or if it will be all managed accounts. I don’t know how this will be set up,” she said.
Seems like an awful lot of uncertainty surrounding a proposition that was presented to the voting public by its proponents with nothing but certainty and absolutes.
Correction: This version corrects an earlier version identifying Dennis Ridz as a Democrat.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyCohenSD
This post originally appeared at San Diego Free Press.