By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
L to R: Kevin Faulconer, David Alvarez, Mike Aguirre
Three of the four so-called “major” candidates for mayor of San Diego in the November 19 special election — Republican Kevin Faulconer and Democrats David Alvarez and Mike Aguirre — debated November 11 at California Western School of Law in an event co-sponsored by the school and KNSJ 89.1 FM Descanso, San Diego County’s new community radio station. The fourth “major” candidate, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher, did not appear. Surprisingly, given how most of the local media have scripted their coverage of the race — Faulconer the center-Right Republican, Alvarez the progressive Democrat and Fletcher the man in the middle — Faulconer and Alvarez, colleagues on the current San Diego City Council, agreed on as many issues as they disagreed. It was Aguirre, running a distant fourth in most polls, who challenged the other two candidates and confronted many issues both Faulconer and Alvarez did their best to duck.
When one of the four reporters on hand to question the candidates, Andrew Koutts of Voice of San Diego, asked Alvarez which neighborhoods of San Diego he felt had been neglected by previous mayors and city councils — a centerpiece argument of his campaign — he said, “Last week, we just approved a policy on construction investment and where the infrastructure is missing. I walked through communities in southeast San Diego, in the Fourth Council District, helping Myrtle Cole get elected. There are a lot of parts of the Fourth Council District that don’t even have sidewalks. At the Council the talk was all about how to improve existing sidewalks, and for the years I’ve been there I’ve said, ‘Let’s not just talk about the infrastructure that needs to be improved. Let’s talk about the infrastructure that’s missing.’”
“We have more agreement than disagreement on this question,” said Faulconer. “We did move forward on our capital improvement projects and how we score that so we are looking at neighborhoods that have traditionally been neglected and see that change move forward. The City Council approved that unanimously. And how do we get there? By doing an assessment to find which [areas] need it the most, and then going out and tackling that. It’s critically important that as we put forward our budget, we make sure that new revenues get directed to the neighborhoods. My plan calls for 50 percent of new city revenues to be put back into our infrastructure.”
“We needed $160 million a year just to keep the roads the way they were,” said Aguirre. “We spent, on average, less than $40 million. We underfund the police, we underfund the fire department. The fire department budget is $236 million. The city workers’ pension budget is $275 million. We have pensions that exceed what the federal Internal Revenue Service permits. We don’t even maintain [our infrastructure at] bare minimum. The whole city of San Diego has been neglected because resources have been drained away by city employees, the pension system, unions and officialdom.”
Indeed, Aguirre’s solution to just about every city budget problem is to break what he sees as the stranglehold retired city workers have over the budget through their pensions. Most other city politicians have stopped talking about pensions as an issue ever since the voters of San Diego passed former City Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s initiative in June 2012. This eliminated pensions altogether for new city workers and forced them onto a 401(k)-style system instead. But, as Aguirre pointed out then and did again at the November 11 debate, that doesn’t address the amount of city tax money going to pensions for workers who’ve already retired or who are going to retire with pensions because their benefits were grandfathered in by DeMaio’s initiative.
Alvarez responded to a question about what the candidates would do to improve San Diego’s public transit system by blaming its problems on the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which actually administers it. “We sent a message to SANDAG a year ago saying we have to put transit first,” he said. “Unfortunately, the old boys who run this city are controlling SANDAG, and their mentality is not public transit but building more roads. We need more active transportation like biking walking, and that is not where SANDAG’s priorities are. San Diego is not getting its fair share of the SANDAG grants.” Alvarez also said San Diego needs to pursue more “infill development” and make sure people have transit available where they live.
Faulconer identified two personal priorities for transit: getting federal funding to complete the mid-coast trolley line extension and creating a bike-sharing program. “Also, we need to make sure we have choice riders,” he said.
Like Alvarez, Aguirre said that one way to improve public transit in San Diego is to make future developments transit-oriented. “Instead of bringing people to jobs, we need to work at bringing jobs to people,” he said. “With so many high-tech jobs, we can use downtown as an employment center.”
“It’s going to take a mayor who believes in transit and uses it,” Alvarez responded. I bike to work, and if I’m elected I’ll be the first mayor of San Diego who bikes to work.” He also pointed out that San Diego has no more room for urban sprawl; instead of what he called “green-field development,” he said the city will have to accommodate future growth by “in-fill” — putting more people into existing neighborhoods and improving transit and infrastructure to accommodate them.
One sharp point of disagreement between Faulconer and Alvarez came over the so-called “linkage fees,” charged to developers in order to create a fund for affordable housing projects. The linkage fees were first put into effect by the city in 1990 and at the time were called “in-lieu fees.” Under California’s redevelopment law, since repealed by the state legislature at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown, a certain percentage of units in each new project funded by redevelopment money had to be affordable. Rather than force developers to build affordable units into their high-end projects, the city in 1990 set up a housing trust fund and allowed developers to contribute “in-lieu fees” to create a pot of money that would be used to build affordable housing or remodel existing buildings.
But the City Council cut these fees in half in 1996 and didn’t bother to raise them again until recently, when an increase in the linkage fee back to its 1990 level passed the Council on a strict party-line vote: all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. “I think raising the linkage fees was wrong,” Faulconer said. “If we want to encourage manufacturers and innovative companies offering good jobs to locate here, we shouldn’t drive them away to other cities with fees like this.”
Alvarez, who like the other four Democrats on the current Council voted to increase the linkage fees, said, “We’ve got some great centers of employment, but there are other areas of the city where there is high unemployment. Our current policies aren’t aligned with small businesses, but with large corporations.”
Asked by KNSJ program director Kali Katt about San Diego’s homeless population and what the city should do about it — including whether the city should fund a year-round shelter — Aguirre once again raised the pension issue. “We have 10,000 homeless people and city workers making $300,000 per year pensions,” he said. “As Mayor, I will ask the City Council to take on the moral obligation to take care of homeless people.”
Faulconer, the candidate at whom Katt directed her question, said, “I’ve spent more time on homeless issues than I ever thought I would.” He made it clear that he thought the solution to homelessness is “not about providing beds; it’s about providing services to help people.” Faulconer said he’d got “a lot of push-back from residents” when he helped set up the Connections Housing Services just two blocks away from the site of the debate. “But at Connections, we have counseling and other services under one roof,” he said. “Once we’ve shown it does work, it can spread to other City Council districts.”
Alvarez said a large part of the city’s homeless problem is due to the County of San Diego’s government failing to do its part to offer people services to help them get off the street. “The city is spending more money on homeless services, but the County has to come along,” he said.
The homeless issue came up again in an audience question from John Kitchin of the San Diego Homeless Coalition asking, “How do we make San Diego less of a police state?” Aguirre recalled that during his tenure as city attorney, “I wrote a legal opinion that required the police department not to arrest homeless people just for being homeless. Police are under a lot of pressure from businesses, but as Mayor I will make sure my original recommendation becomes public policy.” He cited the government-run camp in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath as the model for the kinds of programs he’d like to set up for San Diego’s homeless people.
“The police should not be arresting or ticketing homeless people,” said Alvarez. “The police can be the connection between homeless people and social services. There are a lot of services homeless people cannot access because they lack an address. There are resources available, and I’d like to see the city share them with people who need them.”
“Our police officers do a remarkable job every day,” said Faulconer. “I’ve gone out with our homeless outreach teams (HOT’s). It’s a very difficult task, especially with people who are dually diagnosed” — social-service argot for people who have both mental illnesses and alcohol or drug issues. “I think the police use compassion and care [in dealing with homeless people]. We need more money to hire more police officers to provide a better level of services.”
The debate was divided into four segments. First was the one in which the candidates fielded questions from reporters, including Koutts, Katt, Andrew Cohen of the San Diego Free Press Web site and Daniel Muñoz of La Prensa. (It’s a sign of the times that of the four reporters, only Muñoz represents a print publication.) Then Katt, on behalf of debate co-organizer KNSJ, asked the question that was number one on the station’s Facebook poll — which turned out to be so interminable the debate moderator, Douglas Holbrook, president of KNSJ’s parent organization Activist San Diego, cut her off. The question was basically what the candidates intended to do to hold the police accountable, especially when they kill civilians like Victor Ortega.
“I believe crime in the suites is a bigger problem than crime in the streets,” said Aguirre, reflecting his background as a federal prosecutor specializing in white-collar crimes. “We have a problem with bad enforcement of the law. I disagree with the question. I believe in the police, but I don’t want to pay them any more money. We have police retiring with $100,000 per year pensions, and we’re shutting down libraries to pay for it.”
“The police do a good job protecting us, especially with the limited resources we give them, but I do believe in holding them accountable,” said Alvarez.
“I believe in hiring more police,” said Faulconer. “We’re 135 officers short of what we should have. I understand it will be my obligtion to provide proper oversight and accountability.”
“When those 135 officers left they weren’t replaced because of the pensions,” Aguirre snapped back.
After the police question, moderator Holbrook asked two questions of his own and then threw it open to the audience, both live and electronic via Facebook and the KNSJ U-Stream. One live questioner, attorney Marianne Brown, asked what the candidates planned to do to stop human trafficking. Brown said that San Diego was the number two city in the U.S. for human trafficking — to which Holbrook fired back, “You mean you want to make us number one?” “Not funny,” said a man in the audience, and Holbrook later apologized for joking inappropriately about a serious subject.
Alvarez began his answer to the trafficking question by lamenting that he’s no longer on the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, which oversees the police. “Human trafficking really doesn’t get a lot of attention because it goes unreported a lot,” Alvarez said. “We have to support a policy on it that works well and has community support. We’ve cut back on everything, and we need to allocate more resources to specialty crimes like human trafficking and hate crimes.”
“It’s a combination of working with our department and our community,” said Faulconer. “We have to implement community-oriented policing as we reinvest these dollars. We have to have the political will to bring those [police] positions back.”
“Let’s think about whether hiring more police solves that problem,” Aguirre said. “We have a $1.1 billion city budget, we spend $401 million on police and they’ll have to work within their resources. This is not just a local problem. I would meet with the U.S. attorney for San Diego. I was an organized crime expert and this is an intelligence problem of identifying international traffickers through wiretapping and other advanced technologies.”
The last two questions dealt with the sources of each candidate’s campaign contributions and whether they would continue former Mayor Bob Filner’s interest in pursuing a so-called “community-choice aggregation” to challenge San Diego Gas & Electric’s monopoly and offer power at lower rates. “I was the attorney that fought SDG&E when they wanted $1 billion after the fires,” Aguirre said. “I support community choice and also efforts to get the city direct access to power generators instead of having to go through SDG&E.”
Alvarez said he’s currently chair of the City Council’s Natural Resources Committee, and the Council just moved this proposal forward two months ago. “I’m a strong supporter,” he said.
Faulconer evaded the question and used his time to talk about San Diego’s water rates instead. “I’ve spent my time making sure the rates charged are accurate, especially the water rates,” he said. “The Metropolitan Water District wanted to raise water rates, and at the same time they were giving out pension increases.”
Asked to discuss their financial contributors, Alvarez said, “We had over 700 individuals who are contributing to the campaign, and I assume that number is now closer to 1,000. It’s people I’ve worked with for a lot of years, a lot of individuals from San Diego and Sacramento. I have a very family. Although my family doesn’t have much money, a lot of them have given. I have supporters among leaders of chambers of commerce, leaders in the union community, leaders in the environmental community.”
“One of the things I thought was important, especially when we’re talking about openness and transparency, is the decision I made early in the campaign that I’m willing to disclose all donors, regardless of amount,” said Faulconer. “I think that was the right thing to do. I hoped everybody would do the same, but not everybody decided to do that. I’m proud of the very broad base of support that I have built up. People are supporting me because of the financial reforms I’m talking about.”
Aguirre brought up a reality of modern electioneering the other two candidates ignored: that in addition to the money raised and spent by their own campaigns, they also benefit from so-called “independent” campaigns that can easily evade both contribution limits and disclosure requirements as long as they’re at least technically separate from the candidate.
“David has a very close family member called AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees],” Aguirre said. “They’ve given more than $1 million to elect him. I wish I could get them in my family. The fact is that $4 million is being raised so the same people can stay in control of San Diego. We want to have new people in control. The unions and managers of pensions are in control. The businesses and developers are in control. The people are not in control. When I talk about pensions and I say, ‘Pensions, pensions, pensions,’ I wanted us to save the pension plan. I wanted us to build a workforce of people who would devote their lives to the city so people would have good pensions and they wouldn’t lose them. Now they’ve been lost forever. Future generations will be paying Cadillac pensions for us, and we’re going to be giving you 401(k)’s.”