Monday, April 28, 2008

Earth Day Hosts Local Candidates for Mayor, Third Council District, City Attorney


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

PHOTOS: Top: Mayoral candidate Eric Bidwell and Earth Day director Carolyn Chase confront each other at the candidates' forum April 20.

Bottom: City workers are picketing every event at which San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders appears, targeting him for supporting privatization and outsourcing of city jobs — but by targeting Sanders they're helping to elect his principal opponent, Steve Francis, who's criticized Sanders for not privatizing fast enough.

One of the least attended attractions at San Diego’s Earth Day festival in Balboa Park April 20 was the series of political candidates’ debates at the Organ Pavilion. The best attended event, between mayor Jerry Sanders and four of the candidates seeking to replace him — Steve Francis, Floyd Morrow, Eric Bidwell and James Hart — only drew about 150 people. The other two events, between 3rd District City Council candidates Stephen Whitburn, Todd Gloria and Paul Broadway; and city attorney candidates Mike Aguirre, Jan Goldsmith, Brian Maienschein and Amy Lepine, drew less than 75 people each, fewer than came to the regular Sunday afternoon organ concert.

But all three events offered interesting and sometimes controversial insights and interactions from the candidates. The forums for mayor and city attorney were moderated personally by Carolyn Chase, head of the San Diego EarthWorks organization that puts on the annual Earth Day fair. She made audience members submit questions in writing and frequently ignored audience input to ask questions of her own. The city council debate, which led off the day at 11 a.m., was moderated by local realtor and community activist Bill Stanhope, who allowed attendees to come to the stage and use the microphone to query the candidates directly.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Though the e-mails announcing the 3rd District City Council event had promised that John Hartley and Stephen Whitburn would appear, only Whitburn showed up. Hartley, who served on the City Council from 1989 to 1993, gave up his seat and has run in every election since 2000 to try to win it back, got virtually the only mainstream media publicity in the race when he was arrested for lewd conduct in Kensington while urinating into a cup inside his truck. Local TV stations sent camera crews to the Earth Day debate in hopes that Hartley, who has continued his campaign but kept a low public profile since his arrest, would be there — then left when he didn’t appear.

Instead the debate was between the two acknowledged front-runners, openly Gay candidates Whitburn and Gloria; and Broadway, a libertarian running as an independent who showed up with his wife and campaign manager. The manager said before the forum that Broadway had asked a Channel 10 news editor if they intended to do any coverage of the race, and that the editor had told him, “No, not unless another one of you gets arrested.” Before the event, incumbent Councilmember Donna Frye from District 6 came out to push her campaign against Proposition “C,” a measure on the June 3 ballot which would allow the mayor to appoint the city auditor. Frye pointed out that nobody knows how much the city is spending on environmental protection, and “if Proposition ‘C’ passes, you won’t ever know.”

Broadway, the first candidate to speak, recalled the first Earth Day he attended in 1978 and said that many renewable energy technologies that were “pipe dreams” then are “proven advances” now. “San Diego has 300 days of sunshine each year; why doesn’t every building have solar panels?” he said. “New developments aren’t being required to have solar or greywater recycling. Our leadership needs to find alternative solutions to standard ways of providing water and power.” He said one such way had been blocked by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), whose rate-setting policies allow private utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to gouge customers who try to produce their own energy. “The San Diego Unified School District put in a $2 million solar electric system on some of their schools, and their rates actually went up.” Broadway also criticized San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) for raising bus fares and eliminating transfers, thereby discouraging people from using public transit at a a time where “we should be encouraging people to use more mass transit and get more cars off the road.”

Whitburn, up next, boasted that the local chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed him. “San Diego is a special place,” he said. “We have endangered species and abundant sunshine. Our environment has a profound influence on our quality of life. Our city government has a profound obligation not only to protect but enhance our natural environment, our urban environment and quality of life. But for too long in San Diego, our city government has failed to make our environment the priority it ought to be. We have seen decades of irresponsible development. We have seen our water fouled by water spills, sewage spills and urban runoff. We have seen our air dirtied by too much congestion. It is time for planning in this city that makes our environment the priority it ought to be.” Whitburn also mentioned his endorsements by the San Diego County Democratic Party and Councilmember Frye.

Gloria countered with another major environmental organization, the San Diego League of Conservation Voters, that has endorsed him. He called himself “a third-generation San Diegan” and said that in his eight years on the staff of Congressmember Susan Davis,, “One of the proudest moments … was working with her on legislation to stop the toll road through San Onofre State Beach.” Gloria said that as a resident of City Heights he’d realized that “we need to speak to needy communities about environmental protection” and pledged that as a Councilmember he would work to promote the “Healthy Homes” project — which sends teams into people’s houses to help the homeowners identify mold and other homegrown environmental hazards — and the “Centerlink” proposal to set aside the median on I-15 as a mass transit lane.

Questions for the candidates ranged from the domestic — Stanhope asked if they supported mandatory waste recycling and Broadway’s campaign manager asked if they recycled and composted food scraps — to broader questions like how to encourage “green” industries to locate in San Diego and how the financially strapped city can pay for all the environmental advances the candidates were pledging. Gloria joked that he didn’t know what happened to the food scraps in his home since, in his household, “I clean, he cooks.” Whitburn said that San Diego was “really behind” his former home town, Madison, Wisconsin, when it came to domestic recycling. Broadway said the issue “is not a city thing, it’s a neighborhood thing” and it should be encouraged as part of a program to set up community gardens throughout San Diego.

Asked whether the San Diego City Council should pass a resolution declaring marijuana law enforcement the absolute lowest priority for the police department — the way the Berkeley City Council did decades ago — Whitburn and Gloria both stressed their support of medical uses of marijuana but shied away from the proposal. Broadway went farther and said he’d support the legalization of marijuana for all uses. “It should be taxed and licensed like alcohol,” he said.

A director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) asked about the Mills Act, a state law named after former State Senator James Mills that allows owners of historically significant properties to save as much as 70 percent off their property tax bills if they use the money to help keep the property in shape and maintain its historic features. SOHO has opposed changes in the Mills Act program in San Diego being pushed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, especially eligibility requirements that SOHO’s Web site says “would exclude virtually all historic buildings from the program” and a cap on the total number of buildings allowed to receive the tax break.

“The greenest building is the one already built,” said Gloria. “I’m the only candidate who’s spoken out in support of the Mills Act and not adding additional barriers to people who want to preserve their homes.”

This drew a sharp response from Whitburn in what was otherwise a good-feelings debate in which virtually all the candidates agreed on everything. “The Mills Act has come up at previous forums and multiple candidates have expressed support for it, including me,” he said. “Gloria talks about his commitment to historic preservation, but he’s the one candidate who has supported the Kensington Terrace project” — which would tear down two historic bungalows in the Kensington area to make room for a multi-story condo development.

LEEDing the Mayor’s Race

By contrast with the largely noncontroversial Earth Day forum for the 3rd District City Council candidates, the mayoral forum, which took place right after the Council debate ended at noon, began with fireworks and continued with sporadic eruptions until the end. A cheering section of Sanders supporters, led by his wife Rana, occupied the front row (and asked this reporter to move over so they could all sit together), while backers of his principal opponent, businessman Steve Francis, sat elsewhere and loudly complained at the end of the forum when Francis offered to shake Sanders’ hand and Sanders refused.

The controversy began at the get-go when Eric Bidwell, 25-year-old “revolutionary” candidate, complained that he hadn’t received an official invitation to the event. Moderator Chase indignantly said she had invited him, and after they argued briefly Chase declared Bidwell’s opening statement over and tried to call the next candidate. After audience members protested and demanded that Bidwell be allowed to speak, Chase relented and let him. Bidwell said he’d been “raised in San Diego and had a lot of problems with police and schools,” and said he decided to run for mayor to “put in a few more issues instead of it just being politics as usual.”

Francis, up next, said that if he were mayor “Earth Day wouldn’t be just a day for fancy speeches but an ongoing principle for my administration. I’m financing my own campaign and I will only accept $1 per year [as salary for being mayor if elected]. I’m not running as a Republican or a Democrat [though he, like Sanders, is a Republican] and I won’t approach the environment as a partisan issue.” Francis claimed to have a “10-point plan” for environmental policy on his Web site,, The document on his site is actually called “Protecting San Diego’s Standard of Living Through Environmental Stewardship” and contains headings for climate change, green building and design, community beautification, energy use and production, green transportation, “green government” (which mainly means energy conservation at City Hall and in other city buildings), water quality and conservation, environmental incentives and rebates, environmental education and awareness, and composting and waste.

“We’ve done enough to put San Diego on the map as an environmental city,” said Sanders, up next. “I signed the city’s recycling ordinance and the construction and demolition debris ordinance. I instituted the environmental preference ordinance called EP-3 and established Cleantech to attract and develop environmentally friendly ‘green technology’ businesses in San Diego. I’m also proud of the recognition we received for the green renovation of the new police headquarters. I’ve also taken leadership in water conservation. I’ve been turning my water bills over to the public for two years and our water consumption has fallen by 50 percent. I’m very proud of what San Diego has done to become a showplace for the environment and ‘cleantech’ industries.”

Floyd Morrow, who served three terms on the San Diego City Council from 1965 to 1977 until he was successfully defeated by a religious-Right campaign targeting his pioneering support of Queer issues (the campaign, led by a coalition of local Fundamentalist churches that came together to publish a newsletter called The Church News, was a trial run for the later Moral Majority and Christian Coalition), said that “many things we’ve done today are byproducts of what we did when I was on the City Council.” He acknowledged two people as having shaped his environmental consciousness: his wife Marlene and “my environmental consultant, Jim Bell.” Bell, who for over a decade has been advancing a plan to make San Diego self-sufficient in energy and water, abandoned his own campaign for mayor and endorsed Morrow after Morrow agreed to adopt his plan.

Morrow, who retired from his law practice in 2000 and went in business with a partner to build inexpensive, environmentally benign homes in Mexico, urged the city to adopt the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) for all new construction. “There’s enough water in San Diego that we could be self-sufficient,” he said. “I’m independent of special interests and developers. I’m a Democrat, the only one on the ticket, and I want to make Green San Diego a reality and not a slogan.” Morrow also said that, in contrast to San Diego’s current financial woes, when he was on the Council “we paid our bills, we treated our employees with respect and we had a clean city.”

James Hart, the last candidate to speak, spun an environmental dream that briefly had some audience members wondering what planet he was on: “The last gas-powered car is in a museum. Solar power runs everything. Global warming is a thing of the past. Some of these statements are forward-thinking, as am I. We can’t control San Diego’s problems with water unless we work with Mexico and get immigration under control. If we stop illegal immigration, it will lower housing costs for U.S. citizens.” Hart also said several times during the debate that “I’d like to go to a four-day work week to save 20 percent on fuel costs and global warming.”

The first question moderator Chase asked was which other cities the candidates would cite as models for San Diego’s environmental policies. “I’m not sure holding a specific city as a bar for San Diego is a good thing,” said Bidwell. “We should do it as fully as we can.” Sanders said he liked Portland, Oregon and said they were doing urban redevelopment in a manner similar to the so-called “city of villages” concept he’s pushed in San Deigo. Francis and Morrow both mentioned San Francisco as a model, and Morrow added that Salt Lake City, under recently elected Democratic Mayor Rudy Anderson, was already making major environmental advances.

The candidates clashed on the same issue that had produced fireworks at the earlier forum for the 3rd District City Council race: historic preservation and the Mills Act. Referring to the proposal Sanders has made for increasing the application fees for the Mills Act subsidy, Morrow said, “We can’t charge them $30,000 to put the house in order after we’ve already charged them $30,000 to buy it. We don’t even utilize the thousands of acres of land the city owns to build affordable housing.”

“The administration wants to destroy the Mills Act, which preserves historic homes,” Francis charged. “Developers want to scrape our historic neighborhoods. They want to build a 12-story high-rise in the heart of Hillcrest” — a reference to the 301 University project at Third and University, which was approved by the City Council 7-1 (Donna Frye’s was the lone vote against it) but later blocked by a court as contrary to the city’s commitment in its general plan to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods.

“I’m not familiar with the Mills Act,” Bidwell acknowledged, “but taking a unilateral stance on this would not be good. This is a tough issue between weighing the desires of a neighborhood and the interests of the city at large.”

“San Diego has used the Mills Act more than any other city in California,” said Sanders in a rather testy response. “The money you save on property taxes, you’re supposed to use to preserve your house. Communities need to make those decisions for themselves, as the Kensington Planning Group did when they unanimously voted for the Kensington Terrace” — the project Whitburn had mentioned in the City Council debate to build a multi-story condo development on the site of two historic bungalows.

The candidates also sparred on the Sunrise Powerlink, a proposed 150-mile power line SDG&E wants to build between the Imperial Valley and San Diego. SDG&E is promoting this as a way to bring alternative energy into San Diego — indeed, if you go to their Web site it’s easier to find out how they claim it will help renewable energy than the basics of how long it is and where it will be built — but critics, including most San Diego environmentalists, say it’s really a way for SDG&E to ship in power from Mexico produces in plants that don’t meet U.S. environmental standards.

“I don’t believe making SDG&E richer by importing power and exporting jobs is the answer,” Morrow said. “We can produce power that’s environmentally safe and self-sufficient. Let’s use a little judgment and common sense.”

“It’s important not to get in front about Sunrise,” said Francis. “It’s not about producing green power. A lot of people believe Sunrise is about hooking up to polluting plants in Mexico and making shareholders richer.” He also said he thought power lines were especially dangerous and claimed the most recent wildfires in San Diego were caused by one. “Anza-Borrego is one of the most beautiful areas of our community, and you can’t put a power line through it without looking at alternatives.”

“I’d like to see as much of the resources used in San Diego produced here,” said Bidwell. “We could lower our electricity use overnight.”

“The polls said don’t take a position on Sunrise,” said Sanders, who throughout the debate accused Francis of relying on out-of-town opinion pollsters to formulate his platform. “We came within kilowatts of losing all electricity in San Diego during the fire. We need a reliable source of power in San Diego, and Sunrise is it.”

“Having power generated some place else where environmental laws are weak and shipped here kind of defeats our purpose,” said Hart. “We need to start doing business with the businesses of the future and move forwards, not backwards, to solar, wind, hydro and lots of clean sources.”

One of Chase’s questions to the candidates asked them which books they had read which had most shaped their understanding of environmental issues and which environmental groups to which they belonged. Most of the book choices were predictable — the late Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance — but Sanders picked “the poetry of Robert Frost” and Bidwell said he didn’t read entire books at all. “I spend a lot of time online; maybe it’s a generational thing,” he said. Chase, unfazed, asked him to name a favorite environmentalist Web site, and Bidwell mentioned, which isn’t specifically an environmental site but allows users to enter the name of a company and find out its record on social justice overall. Knowmore’s home page describes its purpose as “to raise awareness of corporate abuse, and to serve as a catalyst for direct action against corporate power.”

Aguirre vs. Everybody Else

The forum for city attorney candidates took place well after the others, starting at 3:30 p.m., a half-hour after the weekly organ concert. Though it was only scheduled for an hour, Chase let it run more than 20 minutes overtime even though the city attorney has little power on environmental issues. City Council President Scott Peters, one of the leading contenders in the race, didn’t show for the debate — he sent a campaign volunteer to explain that he’d been at Earth Day earlier but had had to leave to attend a school dance with his daughter — but incumbent Mike Aguirre’s other leading opponents, judge and former Assemblymember Jan Goldsmith, City Councilmember Brian Maienschein and attorney and former city attorney staff member Amy Lepine, all were present.

Like the other debates on this race, this one pitted Aguirre on one side and all the other candidates against him, and centered largely around Aguirre’s expansive conception of his office. Aguirre regards the city attorney as a San Diego equivalent of the “tribune of the people” in the ancient Roman republic, not only entitled but morally required to intervene in all manner of controversies in which he believes the interests of ordinary people are being threatened by entrenched political or economic power. His rivals have a narrower concept of the office as essentially being the attorney for the city and its government, working for the interests of the people by representing the city in court and giving legal advice to facilitate what the mayor and city council want to do.

“The city attorney’s client is the city of San Diego,” Maienschein said. “There needs to be some discernible peace from filing lawsuits. The city attorney needs to represent the mayor, the city council and the citizens. You have to have a client that can vote on whether and how a lawsuit proceeds” — a reference to the complaint of Maienschein, Peters and other Councilmembers that Aguirre has frequently filed suits in the name of the city which the council hasn’t heard about until they’re announced in the media.

“The client is the city, under the city charter, and that’s how it has to be,” said Goldsmith. “Otherwise, you have a one-half billion dollar municipal corporation without a lawyer. But we are accountable to the people. As a judge, I am elected by the people and responsible to them, but I am accountable to the law. As city attorney, I would represent the mayor or city council collectively but not individually. If they commit crimes, my responsibility is to the city.”

“The only purpose of government is to serve the public interest, and that applies to the city attorney as well,” Aguirre said. “The role is to fearlessly protect the people of San Diego and not the mayor and city council. When Jan Goldsmith was mayor of Poway, as a general-law city his city attorney was a subordinate officer of the mayor and city council. But San Diego is a charter city, and our charter provides that the city attorney is in charge of the litigation of the city, to remove the politicians from those decisions.”

Lepine, trying to take a middle position, said, “Our charter is not clear on this. The city attorney has a fiduciary duty to the people and also a responsibility to protect the mayor’s and city council’s backs. In almost four years, we haven’t seen any effort to correct the inconsistencies of the city attorney’s role in the charter. I would bring that to you, the people, so we don’t continue to have this debate.”

But even Aguirre admitted there are limits on his power, disappointing the audience on a question of whether he could file a lawsuit to block the proposed high-rise development at the Navy Broadway Complex on the downtown waterfront. “The city attorney cannot file a lawsuit against a decision of the city council,” he explained. “We advised the city council that an environmental impact statement was necessary before they could approve that project. They elected not to follow that advice.”

Asked what steps they would take as city attorney to foster a green environment, Maienschein said, “The role of the city attorney is to work with the city council and mayor and city staff to make sure the city is proceeding in an environmentally friendly manner and work in a productive fashion.”

Goldsmith added, “And also enforce the law, wherever that takes you. The city attorney’s office needs to be nonpartisan.”

Aguirre named two members of his staff who “were put on with the specific goal of putting together an environmental enforcement unit. Regarding mini-dorms, I came out in favor of a Neighborhood Bill of Rights. Regarding recycling, I wrote an opinion that we were perilously close to the 51 percent state limit [a law that sets limits on what percentage of its trash a city can dump in landfills]. I though we should negotiate a settlement with the EPA [the federal Environmental Protection Agency] for voluntary recycling [of sewer water] so we don’t have to build a secondary treatment plant at Point Loma. The city attorney represents the city before the PUC and wants an EIR before Sempra [SDG&E’s parent company] puts in liquefied natural gas.”

Lepine said she would hope to lead by example, as she’s already done with her small law firm. “The city attorney is also a major employer,” she said. “I ride my bike to work, and as city attorney I could offer incentives to my deputies and employees. We can also allow telecommuting, since we do a lot of work at our desks. I also reimburse all my employees if they want to take mass transit.”