Approximately 400 people took seats in the Mission Bay High School auditorium Sept. 18 to hear the three declared Democratic Party candidates for Mayor of San Diego appeal for their support in a two-hour debate hosted by the Pacific Beach Town Council (PBTC).
City Council member and La Jollan Barbara Bry (District 1), State Assembly member Todd Gloria (District 78) and community activist Tasha Williamson took pains to differentiate themselves from each other, despite finding much common ground in answering the 17 questions of particular concern to coastal communities put to them by moderators Sherri Lightner, former District 1 City Council member, and Brian White, PBTC president.
Like job candidates in any field, the mayoral hopefuls highlighted notable achievements from their resume, pinned failures and continuing struggles on other people or circumstances, explained why their work habits and priorities were best suited for the position, and promised their future employers (the voters) that they’d be most satisfied if they hired him or her.
Starting alphabetically, Bry is already working in City government, so she was the only candidate bucking for a promotion rather than a new start with a new company. Throughout the debate, she touted her successes on the City Council and often pointed an accusing finger at Mayor Kevin Faulconer, contending that what the City needed was better management, not necessarily more resources or a new direction.
“What I see is we could run the City more efficiently and more effectively,” she said in addressing pay parity for lifeguards. “We could use your taxpayer money much, much more wisely. We can afford to pay City employees, particularly public safety employees, more.”
Bry employed classic syllogism in her arguments. Because if all the City requires is a superior CEO, would voters likelier find one in a career public servant, a community activist or in her case, an experienced businesswoman from the private sector? “When you run a business — and I’ve run many businesses — you can’t do everything,” she said. “You have to choose. You have to set priorities.”
Gloria isn’t applying for a new job, but rather seeking to get an old job back. He served as interim mayor from August 2013 to March 2014, as well as two terms on the City Council prior to that. His theme was work-related experience, and he often mentioned his current tenure in the State Assembly in terms of relationships that could be tapped, insight into government that could be mined and reachable goals for which he had maps, all to the benefit of City residents and businesses.
“That’s what my career spent in Sacramento on behalf of my hometown can do for San Diego,” Gloria concluded after listing a series of his accomplishments for a question about storm water and subsequent ocean water quality. “It’s that kind of attention to detail, hard work and relationships that will improve the quality of life in San Diego.
“We are a big city that too often acts like a small town,” Gloria said. “And it is this problem that exacerbates so many of the issues that increase the misery and lower the quality of life in our neighborhoods. I want to break this cycle of small-town thinking that has obstructed the big world-class city I believe we can be.”
Lacking the credentials of her two opponents, Williamson capitalized on her status as an outsider and newcomer. Like most first-time job applicants, she provided long-term vision beyond what was being discussed, with one hand presenting dire consequences if impending problems are ignored, and with the other, offering deliverance because she was the only one talking about it.
Environmental issues and global climate change were touchstones. Whether discussing infrastructure or water quality, she constantly pounded on the premise that temporary fixes being offered would be overwhelmed by an imminent future that is scientifically being forecast.
“We must take care of the Earth; the land we have,” she said. “We must make sure we can heal what we’ve damaged and that people will have places to go in an emergency. We need to hurry in our process. We don’t have 10 years to wait. We waited 20 years to start taking care of our land and we need to start rushing.”
Yet to avoid sounding alarmist, Williamson leaned on her street sense to establish her credibility. She repeatedly sprinkled catchphrases such as “We need to get real” and “One job should be enough” throughout the debate to demonstrate empathy for the true problems people are confronting. In doing so, she expressed hope that voters would meet her halfway and initiate the kind of joint action needed to resolve pressing issues.
“I’m running because I don’t think anyone has the courage to do what needs to be done,” she said. “These are the things that they don’t talk about. And I want to be real with you. We are going to have to really talk about what is going on in this City. Because it is corrupt, it is racist and we have got to stop it. We are not going to stop it with the same shenanigans we’ve had. The politics has got to stop. If people are really about the business of this City, it’ll change.”
Increasing police resources
Moderator White read crime stats from last year that ranked PB second in the City overall in violent crime, first in rape and burglaries, third in aggravated assault and fourth in armed robberies before asking the candidates how they would promote police recruitment and retention.
• Acknowledging both the importance of salaries in that regard and recent moves by the City Council to increase police pay, Gloria asserted that addressing related issues such as housing affordability and child care are equally significant for police personnel. “Increasingly, it’s often easier to choose to stay and live in south Riverside County and police there, than commute to San Diego,” he said.
• Taking her partial credit for the police pay raises, Bry agreed with Gloria’s assessment and listed other achievements in that regard, such as the launch of a housing fund at the Police Foundation to help with down payments and closing costs, and a program that pays bonuses to current police officers for qualified referrals.
However, instead of pinning the lack of adequate police forces just on funding, Bry also argued that better management of existing resources might solve some problems. “We are using police officers to guard a storage center in Barrio Logan, in our Clean & Safe program and in homeless outreach,” she said. “There are other professionals who do this kind of work more inexpensively, which would allow our police officers to spend more time doing neighborhood policing.”
• While Williamson agreed salaries of all public safety officers, including police, have not been competitive for more than two decades, her perspective on neighborhood crime diverged from the other candidates. Based on her experience combating police brutality in her southeast community, she pointed to programs that used community members to identify and work with youth considered higher risks for engaging in criminal activity, as an alternative to merely increasing the amount of police.
“We would be more than happy to take police from criminalizing the poor and putting them into your neighborhoods,” she said, which drew laughter. “You guys laugh, but for us, it has been extremely traumatizing and horrifying at times. We would have four or five officers jump out on one person.”
• Williamson argued some of the blame for the lack of affordable housing lies with a City that has been lax in enforcing regulations on developers and management companies who have dodged buyers and tenants who qualify for low-income housing. As part of the solution, she would seek to develop City-owned lots, as well as convert a number of the City’s large inventory of publicly owned buildings for residential use.
“We have a bunch of vacant properties; a bunch of buildings that we won that have nothing in them,” she said. “We definitely need to make sure we’re looking at how to build affordable housing and that we, as a City, become landlords.”
• Tying the housing affordability issue to the homelessness problem, Gloria offered a list of components to a solution, such as increasing linkage fees to developers, adopting an inclusionary rule that forces developers to dedicate a proportion of their properties for affordable housing, updating community plans so residents could locate potential sites for housing development within communities, and using publicly-owned buildings for housing.
He cited a recent City report that 27,000 homes for above-average income earners were given permits in the last 10 years compared to 4,400 low-income houses and only 33 for middle-class wage earners. “We have to use more strategies like we used to build the 4,400 homes, but concentrate also on the working and middle class,” he said. “What I want to do is make sure we’re concentrating housing near jobs, near existing infrastructure, near transit, at prices that people can afford.”
• Bry touted steps taken by the City Council to alleviate the housing crisis, such as lifting restrictions on granny flats and updated community plans completed during her current term that identified sites for up to 45,000 new housing units in the next 10-30 years.
Confident that the housing market could meet the demand for middle-class homes through the resale of existing homes, Bry proposed that speeding up permits for new homes would allow that market to contribute to the solution. “We need to make it easier (to build new homes),” she said. “We have a Development Services Department that can streamline permits for new units faster.”
Short-term vacation rentals
The City Auditor estimates 16,000 single-family homes in the City are being operated as short-term vacation rentals (STVRs).
• Williamson warned that broad prohibitions against existing enterprises — whether STVRs or e-scooters — harm innocent people making livings in or from the respective industry. Distinguishing between homeowners who make their mortgages by renting rooms and those making huge profits, she clearly explained that limits were required on the latter.
“The City has been very big about randomly and selectively allowing people to just open up stuff and not have clear regulations and oversight,” she said. “As your first black woman mayor, I will make sure that this does not happen again.”
• Also supportive of home-sharing, Gloria was more nuanced by suggesting the STVRs serve different purposes in different communities in a City as large as San Diego: “I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution.”
However, he was adamant that policing the late-night parties, noise and parking problems associated with STVRs should be paid by the industry itself. “I support regulations and very importantly, I support making sure that those who are engaged in this business pay their appropriate taxes and fees to support an enforcement mechanism,” Gloria said.
• Bry countered that STVRs were a housing, not an enforcement, issue. Relating how a compromise ordinance she helped pass last year that would have allowed whole-house rentals for up to 180 days had to be rescinded because of pressure from industry giants, she noted that new apartments are now being converted into STVRs.
“I will not sell out my community to Airbnb,” she said. “We must enforce the current law prohibiting STVRs or more and more investors are going to come into San Diego and snap up single-family homes and turn them into short-term rentals. We will never stop our housing shortage if we allow more and more units to become STVRs.”
• Williamson said she believes e-scooter companies could not have rapidly introduced thousands of devices in a short period of time without the connivance of someone within City government, and promised her administration would actively consult with the community before any products and services are introduced that impact people’s daily lives.
“So we need to consider how we do regulations because we don’t want to compound problems on top of problems,” she said. “But we definitely should have had people at the table before we started having companies just throw their scooters and bikes all over the City and neighborhoods and beaches and parks.”
• Gloria applauded the regulations that took effect on July 1, but noted hearing reports that some of the e-scooter companies were not abiding by the rules. He unequivocally said those companies should be denied permission to operate in the City and suggested a cap on the number of such companies. He also recommended that companies in any business should be taxed and assessed fees to the exact amount needed to enforce regulations on them.
“You know why we have no money to regulate scooters?” Gloria asked. “Maybe because for the last year and a half, they’ve been operating in the City free of charge. These scooter companies want to use the public access without paying (for it).”
• Bry recalled that she tried to persuade the Mayor to limit the number of e-scooters allowed to operate in the City as soon as they began appearing in numbers, to no avail. With regulations now in effect, she announced that the City Council would be voting next month on a ban on e-scooters on the Boardwalk, similar to the one rejected last year, but “the world has changed since then.”
“When we passed our ordinance, I turned to the police officer who was testifying,” Bry continued. “I said ‘How are we going to enforce this ordinance?’ And he turned back to me and said, ‘We’re going to use police overtime.’ That is not a good answer. He explained that only police can issue tickets. We can’t hire other type of people to issue tickets.
So my belief is we need a moratorium now on the scooters everywhere in the City until we figure this out.”
In discussing homelessness, White noted that local homeless outreach teams report that 90 percent of the homeless they encounter refuse the services offered. He then asked the candidates if they supported mandatory treatment for mental illness and/or drug and alcohol addiction.
• Bry agreed with the assessment and said that if people refuse services, then the City has a right to ticket them. She argued that the homeless issue is broader than just within the City and pledged to work closely with the county and the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
“One thing I don’t want to do is create a new bureaucracy at City Hall and waste your taxpayer money,” she said. “We have the San Diego Housing Commission, which has developed an expertise in this area. I will work with them to have a system where we can offer people the help that they need and if they don’t take it, then we can consider other measures.”
• Williamson also acquiesced to the goal of providing services to the homeless suffering from addiction and/or mental illness and championed wraparound services, but was leery of government mandating individual behavior.
“You cannot criminalize your way out of this situation,” she said. “When you talk about tickets, you can ticket homeless people, but they don’t pay the ticket. So what are you doing? We need to be real about the business of helping people.”
• Countering Bry’s jab at his proposal for a homeless advocate in the Mayor’s office, Gloria replied that the role would only provide accountability for services already in place, not add new bureaucracy.
He insisted that only a home will do for those home-less, and support services to keep them there, would require collaboration with the county.
“The City’s current approach to homelessness is basically doing a series of dumb things,” Gloria said, alluding to the City’s recent purchase of a bankrupt indoor skydiving facility to house the homeless that stands empty.
“For those of you who want to stick with the status quo, you don’t want to vote for me. We must stop doing dumb stuff.”
—PB Town Council next meets 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16 at Crown Point Jr. Music Academy, 4033 Ingraham St. pbtowncouncil.org