Saturday, September 13, 2008

Whitburn, Gloria Debate at Hillcrest Town Council


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Stephen Whitburn, Todd Gloria

San Diego District 3 City Council candidates Stephen Whitburn and Todd Gloria held a debate September 9 at the Hillcrest Town Council meeting in the Joyce Beers Community Center. Moderated by Town Council co-organizer John Taylor, the debate was mostly low-keyed and civil. Gloria stressed his history of public service — he’s never held a job other than in government service — and his status as a third-generation San Diegan, while Whitburn pointed to his experience as a journalist and his knowledge of local politics in other cities where he’s lived as his main qualifications for the job.

Not surprisingly, given both the responsibilities of the City Council and the purpose of a neighborhood organization like the Hillcrest Town Council (whose membership is restricted to people who actually live in Hillcrest), the main issues were land use, public safety and the city’s infrastructure. Whitburn pointed out that he had just taken a leadership role against the latest incarnation of the 301 University development, which was approved by the current City Council but blocked by a federal judge in a case filed by neighborhood activists, many of them Town Council members.

“We had a news conference at 4th and University [one block away from the site of the proposed development] on Sunday [September 7] to protest this project and the fact that they’re doing this without community input and without abiding by the 65’ height limit.” The City Council passed an Interim Height Ordinance [IHO] temporarily restricting the height of new buildings in Hillcrest to 65’ pending adoption of a new master plan for the area. The ordinance passed on July 29 and the application to build the latest version of 301 University was filed on August 21 — but the developer, Bruce Lightenberger of La Jolla Pacific Development and Urban Properties (UP), Inc., claims his project is “grandfathered in” because the IHO didn’t legally take effect until 30 days after it was enacted.

Whitburn noted that the original 301 University project called for a single 150’ tower on the site — and the new project is for “two towers, one at 193’ and one at 170’.” Claiming that this project, if built, will add to the “wall-to-wall” traffic already plaguing the heart of Hillcrest, Whitburn promised, “I will be the City Councilmember who will stand up and take leadership for the neighborhoods. I have a broad range of experience in different cities. I’ve been a journalist for years and I think we need outside experience. I’ve seen how government can work for the cities and the neighborhoods.”

Gloria, who got to make his opening speech before Whitburn, said he was running for the City Council because “everything is upside down” — crime in San Diego is up while the size of the police force is down; gas prices are up and public transit is being cut back. He claimed that his long history of working for local politicians — he’s been on the staff of U.S. Congressmember Susan Davis for eight years and for three of those years has served on the San Diego Housing Commission — and his family ties to San Diego (“I live on Wilson Avenue in City Heights, where my mom grew up,” he said) — gave him “the knowledge for solutions” to the city’s problems.

Moderator Taylor decided to let the audience drive the debate with its questions, and the first one he got was from a member who asked the candidates to endorse an elaborate proposal to prevent San Diego City Councilmembers from receiving raises larger than those for rank-and-file city workers, and to require any raises larger than that to be approved by public vote. Whitburn said he didn’t think the Councilmembers deserved a raise at all, and Gloria said Council pay should be “linked to other measures of performance: do we complete a budget on time, and is it balanced? The performance standards should be different from those for rank-and-file city workers.”

Gloria got hit with several questions from Whitburn supporters regarding the contributions he’s received from developers, including Kerri Downing and Casey Tanaka of Coronado, who are fighting a development-control ordinance in their home city. Gloria said he thought they gave to his campaign because as a Congressional staff member he’d worked with them on federal issues affecting Coronado, and said that people who attack him for taking money from developers aren’t considering “the context of those contributions.”

According to Gloria, only 19 percent of his total campaign contributions have come from developers, and nobody is giving him enough money to affect his decision-making anyway. “I have 1,200 individual donors and I’m not going to check with all 1,200 of them every time I do something,” he said. “My answers don’t change depending on what group I’m speaking to. Those folks support me, but so do a lot of teachers, biotech executives and others. I’ll take any legal contributions. My fourth-grade teacher and the secretary of my high school gave to me. I am not hiding my contributions.”

Following that question, affordable housing advocate Ann Wilson asked both candidates, but especially Whitburn, how they would seek to build more affordable housing in District 3 — where, Wilson pointed out, no new rental apartment building has been built in the last 10 years. “My opponent has said that our district has taken its fair share, and new affordable housing should be built in other parts of the city,” Whitburn charged. He said that as a member of the North Park Planning Commission he’d supported an affordable development on the 3500 block of Florida Street which is now under construction, but he’d voted against a second building for the same area “because of neighborhood concerns about too much density, and whether we want an entire corridor of affordable housing in one area.”

“It’s easy to talk about supporting affordable housing and hard to get it done,” said Gloria. “As a member of the San Diego Housing Commission, I’ve helped build or rehabilitate 2,000 units. I’m the guy who knows how to build it.” Gloria charged that in opposing that second development on Florida Street, Whitburn had yielded to “some community people [who] said we had ‘too much’ affordable housing. The reality is you either have a market-rate project or an affordable-housing project. Anyone can build a building. The question is the subsidies.” Gloria said he wanted “to play the role” incumbent Councilmember Toni Atkins has played on the affordable-housing issue.

Asked by veteran political activist John Lockhart about the differences between them, Gloria said, “The Voice of San Diego said we’d vote the same 100 out of 100 times. The question is who’s going to lead? I was born and raised in this community, and know it like the back of my hand. … I’ve been really clear on my priorities: public safety, infrastructure and transit. District 3 has 100-year-old neighborhoods. Transit works in District 3, but we’re fighting to maintain the transit we have.”

“I don’t think we would vote the same 100 percent of the time,” Whitburn replied. “I would have stood with the neighborhood against the Kensington Terrace development, and he would have voted with the developer. I voted against the second Florida Street project and he’s indicated tonight he’d vote for it. I’ve worked as a journalist and in the non-profit sector, and been a union member. My opponent has worked in government all eight years since he’s been out of college. I’ve covered government in different cities and seen how other cities allow people to control development. The developers and lobbyists obviously see a difference, because most of their contributions have gone to my opponent.”

Asked about crime in general, and specifically about how they would control so-called “quality of life” offenses like prostitution and graffiti, Whitburn said, “We pay a lot of taxes that go downtown and pay for sports teams and developers. If we took all the money we mismanage and used it for core services, you’d be surprised at how much we’d have to assign to gang task forces and graffiti removal.”

Gloria cited his wide range of endorsements from individuals and agencies involved in law enforcement and said, “This is a personal issue for me. We have to make recruitment and retention of police officers a major priority, and get back to the community policing efforts that used to be a priority in the 1990’s.” According to Gloria, when the city began its financial meltdown earlier this decade, police resources were shifted from crime prevention efforts to get more officers out on patrol, and many of the police storefronts in Hillcrest and City Heights were closed to save money — and that’s a decision he’d like to reverse.

Asked about the city’s financial mismanagement, Gloria cited the Southeast Development Corporation (SEDC) scandal — the agency’s chair, he explained, received “millions of dollars in pay beyond what she was supposed to get” — and said the problem was that no one read the agency’s audits that could have alerted them to the problem. He claimed that his experience at the Housing Commission studying financial statements gave him a “value-add” — a term he used fairly often through the evening — “a skill set that will help. I know how to read audits and am more likely to catch them. Who is holding people accountable? Who is providing oversight?”

“It sounds great to say one is going to provide oversight, but the problem with SEDC and CCDC [the Centre City Development Corporation, the agency in charge of redeveloping downtown] is they were deliberately set up to avoid accountability and City Council oversight. We need to fold SEDC and CCDC into the main city redevelopment agency.” Whitburn also called on his audience to be wary of “City Councilmembers who have taken contributions from, and are influenced by, people who have business before the city,” and said the Council should be suspicious of deals involving the private sector that are billed as saving the city money but usually end up costing more instead.

A Gloria supporter in the audience — who’s a journalist herself — bluntly told Whitburn, “You’re a reporter. You don’t really have the experience.” Whitburn said that being a journalist meant covering a wide range of issues, and he’s had the experience of writing about city government in two very different cities: Albany, New York, which he said is largely controlled by an old-line political machine; and Madison, Wisconsin, which he described as a city whose collegial, consensus-building style of decision-making is one he’d like to see San Diego emulate.

“My job [as a reporter] was to take a very complex set of discussions and boil them down to community information relevant to the public,” Whitburn said. “I think I’ve gained insight into a wide variety of issues. I’ve worked as an apartment manager and as a news director, managing people and budgets. My current job is with the American Red Cross, working to persuade people to donate blood. My expertise is not all in government.” [Ironically, under Red Cross guidelines neither Whitburn nor Gloria are eligible to donate blood themselves because they’re both Gay men.]

Gloria joked that he wanted the City Council to get its journalist representation from District 7 — where former Channel 10 newscaster Marti Emerald is running against April Boling, whose history of government staff experience is ironically far closer to Gloria’s own than is her opponent’s. “I’ve worked in government, but not all in one form,” he said. “I’ve worked with all different people, including 675,000 constituents with Congressmember Davis. I’ve worked with all these communities. I know your issues better than anyone else. I haven’t managed an apartment complex, but I have served on the audit committee of a $275 million agency. I think public service is a noble calling and I’m proud of the time I’ve spent there.”