Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Zenger’s Choice for City Council, District 3
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It’s been nearly 20 years — since 1989, when community activist John Hartley, a Democrat, beat establishment Republican Gloria McColl — since a true insurgent candidate won the District 3 seat on the San Diego City Council. When Hartley unexpectedly chose not to run for re-election in 1993 he cleared the way for his former staff person, Christine Kehoe — the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego County — to succeed him. Kehoe in turn anointed her staff person, Toni Atkins, to succeed her when she was termed out in 2000. Atkins didn’t similarly pick her own successor, but the city’s straight and Queer establishments coalesced around a choice they considered safe: Todd Gloria, who went straight out of college to a position on the staff of Congressmember Susan Davis and stayed there for eight years until he took a leave of absence to run his Council campaign.
But Gloria’s coronation ran into an unexpected roadblock: Stephen Whitburn, a scrappy fighter whose button-down appearance conceals a rebellion against the corrupt old-boys’ (and old-girls’) network he sees as dominating San Diego politics. Some writers have suggested that because they’re both openly Gay liberal Democrats with similar positions on a lot of issues, Whitburn and Gloria aren’t really that different. Don’t you believe it. While Gloria repeats again and again in all his campaign appearances that he’s a third-generation San Diegan — ironic, since he’s running to represent a district full of people who not only weren’t born in this city but many of whom weren’t even born in this country — Whitburn points to his career as a journalist, in which he’s covered city government in diverse communities and got valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t.
The differences also turn up in their lists of endorsers. Most of Gloria’s are businesspeople, corporate media outlets and public employee unions. Whitburn’s endorsement list includes the San Diego County Democratic Party, the San Diego Democratic Club (of which he was president for two years), the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, and insurgent politicians like Congressmember Bob Filner, City Councilmember Donna Frye, former State Senator Lucy Killea and the other two candidates from last June’s primary, John Hartley and Paul Broadway. Whitburn has lost so much weight going door-to-door talking to voters he’s joked about marketing it as a diet plan. Zenger’s, which was proud to endorse Stephen Whitburn in the primary, sat down with him on the afternoon of September 17 in the San Diego Democratic Club’s campaign headquarters on University and Oregon in North Park and discussed many of the issues that will face the next City Council.
Zenger’s: Stephen, could you just start with a little of your background, and why you’re running?
Stephen Whitburn: I was a journalist for 18 years, covering city government in Albany, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; and here in San Diego. I saw machine politics in Albany, and saw what I perceived to be very good government in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s an unpaid, part-time City Council. People are in it for the right reasons. It’s a larger City Council, so the districts are smaller and neighborhoods get better representation. And there’s a tremendous amount of public participation.
Then I covered government in San Diego, and really saw the contrast. Government in San Diego seems to be dominated — still, in many respects — by a good-old-boys’ network. I think that the city government should pay more attention to the neighborhoods, and that people should have more of a say in the decisions that are made. Knowing that we can have good government here, and knowing how important that is, I decided to see if I couldn’t contribute to that.
Zenger’s: I know it’s been said that you and your opponent are quite similar. You’re both Gay, you’re both Democrats, you’re both fairly liberal, and you’ve come out with the same positions on a lot of the issues. What do you think is the difference, and why should voters prefer you?
Whitburn: As you can probably tell from the gray coming in on my temples, I certainly have more life experience. I have more professional experience. I have worked in the private sector. I have worked in the non-profit sector. I have been a union member. I’ve been a manager. I think all of those experiences give me a range of perspectives with which to approach this positions. My opponent has been a political aide since he graduated from college eight years ago. I also speak Spanish, which I think will be very useful to me in representing the people of this very diverse district.
Another difference is where the support is coming from in this race. The contributors to my campaign are progressives, and my opponent has taken a significant amount of money from developers and lobbyists and defense contractors. I’m proud of the fact that, on the City Council, I will be free to work entirely for the things that I honestly believe.
Zenger’s: Of course, the counter-argument your opponent made when you debated at the Hillcrest Town Council September 9 was, “I’m only getting 19 percent of my campaign contributions from developers, and that’s not enough to influence me any more than the 81 percent that I’m getting from non-developers.”
Whitburn: I think that if you look at the financial records and totaled up all the total developers, lobbyists and defense contractors and similar contributors, you might find a higher percentage of my opponent’s support is coming from folks you might not consider to be progressive. We would all like to believe that our elected representatives can operate independently of those who contributed to their campaigns. But history shows us that campaign contributors oftentimes give for a reason, and that those reasons are frequently well founded.
Zenger’s: What would you say would be your top priorities on the Council?
Whitburn: I would put them into two categories: good government in general, and the specific needs of the district. We have a lot of work to do at City Hall to improve the quality of our government. We’ve all seen the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, the lack of oversight, and the undue influence of developers and lobbyists. Those things need to change. We need a city government whose top priority is the quality of life of the citizens.
That brings me to the second category, which includes specific things we need to do. We need to increase funding for public safety. We’ve had an increase in crime, and that stems at least in part from a reduction in the number of officers on patrol; the removal of neighborhood police officers; and other funding problems. We need to make a top priority of restoring that funding.
Zenger’s: Isn’t part of the problem with regard to the crime issue that San Diego police officers are leaving to take jobs on the police forces of other, more financially secure cities?
Whitburn: Yes, due to the city’s financial struggles, hundreds of San Diego’s police officers left San Diego because other jurisdictions had higher salaries and better benefits. The city of San Diego did find the money to increase salaries and benefits for police officers in San Diego, and that has largely solved that problem. But it takes a year to train a police officer and get them onto the street. We need to increase funding to restore our community police officers; to beef up our gang unit, our Homeless Outreach Teams and other specialized units that tackle specific quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods.
We also have to increase funding for the infrastructure — streets and sidewalks, the sewer system and so forth — much of which has been crumbling in District 3. The condition of our sidewalks is a real quality-of-life issue for many people. If you use a wheelchair, and you can’t get to where you’re going because the sidewalk is in such rough shape, that has a huge impact on your quality of life. If you are a senior citizen, and have a tendency to fall periodically, you’re not going to want to walk down a sidewalk that has huge cracks and upheavals. There are older residents in this district who won’t walk around the block anymore because they’re afraid of falling.
Zenger’s: So where does an historically financially strapped city, that’s currently even more financially strapped than it’s been historically, find the money to do this?
Whitburn: Several different ways. Number one, San Diegans pay a lot of money in taxes. The city takes in a lot of revenue. But it has mismanaged that money. We’ve seen government agencies handing out inflated salaries, improper bonuses. We’ve seen subsidies for large developers and sports teams. We need to stop the financial mismanagement and use our tax dollars for the real needs we have in this city.
Secondly, we need to simply prioritize quality-of-life issues over the interests of the good-old-boys’ network. Sweetheart deals for developers result in fewer tax dollars available for the major needs we have in this city.
Thirdly, we do need to look at additional sources of revenue. An infrastructure bond, done right, could go a long way to addressing many of the shortcomings we have in our neighborhoods. Bringing our developer impact fees up to date would help us to pay for the infrastructure needs that new developments create. Our hotel tax in San Diego lags behind those of comparable cities along the California coast.
Zenger’s: As I recall, the voters have already voted twice against raising it.
Whitburn: The voters have voted twice against raising the hotel tax, but that is essentially leaving money on the table. We need to do more to let the public know how important those revenues are, and how they can be collected from visitors to our city without impacting tourism.
Zenger’s: The argument we’ve heard in those campaigns is, “We don’t trust the city government to spend the money it already has. Why should we give them any more?”
Whitburn: Unfortunately, that’s a pretty compelling argument in our city these days. I think that highlights the need to not only manage our money more effectively, but to do so in a very transparent and public way. We absolutely need to restore the confidence of the residents of San Diego that city government is managed well and managed in the best interests of the people. Until we do that, it may be difficult to convince people that raising the hotel tax is a good idea, even if it is ultimately in the citizens’ best interests.
Zenger’s: One thing you’ve come out for is abolishing the Centre City Development Corporation [CCDC] and Southeast Economic Development Corporation [SEDC], and folding them into the Redevelopment Agency. For the non-policy wonks who will be reading this, why is that a good idea?
Whitburn: San Diego has a number of blighted areas, two of which — downtown and southeast San Diego — deserved particular attention. To grease the wheels of development in those two areas, the city set up public-private nonprofits that could operate outside of the city’s normal process for review and oversight. Clearly, at least in the case of downtown San Diego, that has resulted in a great deal of development.
However, when you blur the lines of accountability by setting up agencies outside of the city’s oversight, you invite corruption. And it’s no surprise that we got it. The price to be paid for greasing those wheels of development has been conflicts of interest, and in the case of the Southeast Economic Development Corporation, improper bonuses and illegal secrecy.
I think we do need to continue to redevelop southeast San Diego, and there still is work to be done downtown area, but that ought to be done under the city’s auspices, with full accountability and oversight. It is the public’s money, after all, and it should be used appropriately, even if it takes a little longer to ensure that kind of proper oversight.
Zenger’s: I was at your press conference on September 7, when you came out in opposition to the proposed development in Hillcrest on University between Third and Fourth. Since then I’ve had a very interesting conversation with the developer, Bruce Lightenberger, who said that since his project is within the current zoning for the area, and since he got in his application eight days before the Hillcrest Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) officially took effect, therefore the city has to let him build it and neither the government nor the community can do anything to stop it. Would you care to comment?
Whitburn: The community and the government can do plenty to stop it. Most importantly, the community and the government have every right to weigh in on this proposal. The developer said that the community didn’t have a right to participate in the original proposal at that location, and a judge ruled otherwise and halted the project. I think that if the current developer continues this tack, you will see similar community outrage, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll see a very similar outcome.
People have a right to participate on major development proposals in their neighborhoods that could quite obviously change those neighborhoods and impact their quality of life. It’s something the judge agreed with in the original proposal, and I would imagine that a judge would find that to be the case in this second proposal.
Zenger’s: Beyond that one project, you’ve made several proposals for increasing the transparency of the development process. Would you like to talk about those?
Whitburn: Sure. I’ve put forward a Neighborhood Right to Know Plan. Right now, when a major development is proposed for a neighborhood, residents within 300 feet are required to be notified. That’s too small of a radius. Major development impact residents far beyond 300 feet, so that radius needs to be expanded.
I also think that we need to have more hearings in the neighborhoods, and in the evenings, so that more people can participate and share their views. It is very difficult for many people, particularly those who work during the day, to get to a City Council meeting downtown on a Monday or Tuesday in the middle of the day.
Third, there should be a 90-day review period after a major development is proposed, to give people an opportunity to hear about the proposal, consider its impacts, and offer their views on it.
Zenger’s: When I heard you say you wanted to have more City Council meetings in the evenings, my immediate thought was, “Gee, John Hartley made that same promise 20 years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet.” Why do you think you can get the City Council out of City Hall and meeting in the neighborhoods at night, when a lot of progressive City Council candidates have talked about that for 20 years and it still hasn’t happened?
Whitburn: Whether we can get the entire City Council to have a regularly scheduled City Council meeting in the neighborhoods remains to be seen. But there are clearly some things that we can do. There is no reason we can’t have committee hearings in a neighborhood settings. At the very least, as a Councilmember, I can and will have meetings in a neighborhood that is affected by a development proposal to gather input from the people who live there myself. I will work to get other Councilmembers to have hearings in neighborhoods around the city as well.
Zenger’s: City Councilmember-elect Carl DeMaio has said that he doesn’t intend to have an office in City Hall at all. He says he intends to work out of an office in his district. Would you consider doing that as well?
Whitburn: I think it would be useful to have an office both downtown and in the district. I think it’s important to have a district office because it makes it much easier for constituents to drop in and share their thoughts and ideas with the Councilmember. It is also true that the center of city government is downtown, and I think it’s important for me to meet with other Councilmembers and the Mayor, and people conducting city business, so that I can be most effective in advocating for the needs of this district. I want to have a very visible presence on behalf of District 3 residents, both within the district and downtown.
Zenger’s: One question regarding the development issue that I thought of when the original 301 University was proposed is that San Diego is growing, and basically our choices are either grow out or grow up. Either build out in the less developed areas and risk sprawl, or build up in the already developed areas — of which the Third District consists almost exclusively — and risk the kinds of impacts the opponents of 301 University in both its incarnations have raised. So, as a general rule — not with regard to any specific project — where do you think the city should be growing? Out or up?
Whitburn: I think that, given the choice between the two, the city should be growing up. There are opportunities in appropriate places of the city to add density. El Cajon Boulevard is a thoroughfare that has three lanes of traffic in each direction. It’s rarely congested. The infrastructure is there. It’s multi-family housing in that area already, and it’s a perfect place to add density. What we should not do is build huge towers along already congested streets without fully considering the public’s views and its impacts on the neighborhoods.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is that your opponent is making preserving and expanding public transit a major focus of his campaign. What is your opinion on public transit, and why haven’t you gone as far on that issue publicly as he has?
Whitburn: Public transportation is a major issue in the district. I strongly believe that we need to do more to encourage the use of public transportation by providing better access to it. It competes for attention, in my campaign, with the fundamental problems that we have in our city government. My opponent has been less inclined to discuss those good-government issues because his campaign is supported by much of the downtown establishment. So he speaks more about public transportation.
But I share his view on that. We need to stop the fare increases. We need to restore transfers. We need to make bus service more convenient and efficient. We need to make it easier for people in District 3 to access the trolley system. There’s also the Center Line project to provide high-speed bus service along Route 15 through City Heights so that people can conveniently access the job centers downtown and to the north. It is a top priority.
Zenger’s: Two major projects that always seem to get talked about in San Diego and never seem to happen: a new airport and a new library.
Whitburn: I like Lindbergh Field. It is convenient. It seems to have a pretty good variety of flights. I have flown in and out of Lindbergh Field many times, and find little to complain about. I’d much rather use an airport that’s close and convenient and efficient, than have to get to an airport that’s many miles away.
Zenger’s: And the library? Do you think we need a new one; and if so, where, and how do we pay for it?
Whitburn: San Diego needs to improve its overall library system. That includes building new neighborhood libraries and increasing staff levels so that they can be open for more hours. We do need to improve our main library downtown. I think we need to continue to explore the best way of accomplishing that. It might be the proposal that is currently on the table that involves a combination of private funding, state funding and millions of dollars in San Diego taxpayer funding. But I’d like to see if we can find a less expensive building that would essentially provide the same services, or see if we can get most of what we need less expensively through a major overhaul of the existing facility.
There’s also talk of building a new city hall and civic center. I want to see an independent analysis of whether that makes financial sense. But if it is true — and that’s a big if — that an independent analysis shows that the numbers would save the city money, then I think that it would be appropriate to explore how a new main library would fit into that civic center proposal.
Zenger’s: I just want to ask if there’s anything we haven’t talked about that you think is important to voters trying to decide in this race.
Whitburn: I’m very easy to reach. If readers have questions that we haven’t talked about, I’m in the phone book. They can pick up the phone and give me a call, and I’ll be very glad to discuss the issue that’s of interest to them. [Stephen Whitburn’s phone number is (619) 543-0333.]