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Lightner, Ellis In Quiet Tussle For City Council Control

October 24, 2012 1:03 p.m.


Sherri Lightner, Councilmember and candidate, District One

Ray Ellis, Businessman and candidate, District One

Related Story: Lightner, Ellis Tussle For City Council Control During KPBS Debate


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The San Diego City Council is in theory nonpartisan, but in every article about the race for council district 1, you will learn that the outcome may change the political balance on the council. The new council is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Whoever wins will tip the balance to one side or the other. That aspect has given the race citywide importance. But district 1 also has its own particular issues and topics. Today dollars Del Mar, tory pine, La Jolla, University City, and Carmel Valley. Democrat Sherri Lightner, welcome to the program.

LIGHTNER: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Republican challenger Ray Ellis.

ELLIS: Appreciate the time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you'll each have about a minute to answer each question, and a minute for closing statements at the end. Sherri, do you think the citywide political emphasis that's been put on this race, has it been beneficial to the campaign or a distraction?

LIGHTNER: I think in a way, it has been a distraction. I'm very interested in the neighborhoods in council district 1. To make this about where the council balances. I don't entirely agree with. I never had Democrat in front of my name until I ran for public office. I've been very civically engaged in the community and doing what's best for the community. And I will continue to serve in that way, to make the decisions based on a balanced approach.

CAVANAUGH: And ray, same question to you

ELLIS: Well, I would agree. I think the media has tried to promote the partisanship. I tried to stay out of that and will continue to do so. I thank you is about having fiscally responsible folks on City Council, a City Council that's interested in economic growth and reforms. I agree we've got to do those things to take care of our neighborhoods and communities. So I think it's more about that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me go on to a question that about district 1. One of the major concerns of district 1 residents is traffic congestion. Do you have a plan to ease traffic congestion or to introduce transportation alternatives to district 1 neighborhoods?

ELLIS: Well, I think we have to have a comprehensive approach to that. But first and foremost, we need to recognize that we have almost a billion dollars in street infrastructure backlog nearest city right now, a lot of that in district 1. And you can ask the residents about their streets, and they'll tell you that. So people like me are going to deal with some of the underlying issues, pension reform, and economic growth to raise the top line to address the infrastructure issues, the streets, and we can start looking at transit and things like that that are coming down the pike.

CAVANAUGH: What is your district congestion idea though?

ELLIS: Well, I think we have a number of projects that are in the works, and we need to facilitate getting those into the implementation stage versus just planning.

CAVANAUGH: For instance?

ELLIS: For instance, up at UCSD, we need to wrap up the final negotiations there about some issues so that we can get the trolley up to UCSD and a link over to UTC. We need to clean up the on and off-ramps at gen see, come is a big issue not only for UCSD, but also the surrounding businesses.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. And the same question to you, Sherri Lightner. Do you have a plan to ease traffic congestion in district 1 or introduce transportation alternatives?

LIGHTNER: We've already been working on that quite aggressively. We opened judicial drive, that was closed for a long time. We worked on the I805 La Jolla village drive on-ramps and off-ramps. The gen see closing is something I've been looking at since 2005. When I worked at general atomics, it hadn't changed much at all in how well the traffic was handled there. We've worked aggressively with the community on the mid-coast trolley project. That has been delayed slightly, but we fully expect that will be up to the UT center Westfield by 2017. It will require as Mr. Ellis some further negotiations with UCSD and Caltrans, and some of the private hospitals there to decide on the best route going forward. We have some direct access ramps that are going to be going in to the campus area, vote drive, also with the five/56 connectors, we're working with those, and coming up with an alternative there. The widening of Highway 5. That as well.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

LIGHTNER: And traffic light coordination.

CAVANAUGH: Let me go to the next question for you, Sherri. You've criticized as being disengaged as a council member without clear policy stands. What issue would you say that you've been a driving force on in the council?

LIGHTNER: There are two facets I think -- two things. Water policy is something I've been a driving force on. We've actually implemented the first ever water policy as you well down. We're in the process of making some adjustments to that. And the economic development and strategies committee, we've worked very hard to that to -- we've offered connect to be careers, hire youth programs, regulatory relief. We're also working on the economic development strategy which the city has not had since 2001, incorporating the comments from the auditor's report out and evaluation of the economic development program at the City of San Diego. We have also led on sequestration, it's all related to economic development and strategies comity.

CAVANAUGH: Okay then. And Ray Ellis, let me ask you to respond, and what issues would you take the lead on in City Hall?

ELLIS: Well, let's go right to the issues we'll take lead on. First and foremost, the citizens in district 1 overwhelmingly passed pension reform Proposition B, we need to now aggressively implement that. That's an issue that my opponent and I are very different on. I was a big supporter of pension reform. I did it and led it while I was on the pension board. And I've been a big supporter along the way. Now we've got to properly implement it, and there are some challenges there. There are lawsuits, unfortunately, from the city unions against it, and we've got to deal with those. So that's one area. On the business side of things, as you probably know, our campaign has been endorsed by every single business organization in this race. They've known me as a job-creator, and I want to bring those skill sets and those experiences to City Hall to make sure we're creating an environment for positive job growth because that helps us socially and economically because it raises our top line as far as revenue goes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the next question

LIGHTNER: Do we get rebuttal?

CAVANAUGH: Well, a 30 second rebuttal, if you would like.

LIGHTNER: I'm actually the only one here who's done pension reform, and I've done that since I took office. And I have supported Proposition B, and look forward to full implementation going forward.

CAVANAUGH: And your rebuttal?

ELLIS: Well, I think that's a misnomer at best. Ms. Leitner could have collaborated, worked with the mayor, worked with other members on City Council to get Proposition B, those elements executed on City Council and chose not to. She could have put it on the ballot working with mayor Sanders, chose not to. Last week she got a question at a forum and decided not to answer the question about.

LIGHTNER: The forum you chose not to attend.

CAVANAUGH: Easy now. If I may, I want to take back this little --

LIGHTNER: Okay, yes, ma'am.

CAVANAUGH: I have a question about Proposition B.

ELLIS: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to go to you, Ray Ellis. You were a volunteer for the city pension board, you were an early supporter of Proposition B, and Sherri Lightner also supports Proposition B. But you've criticized her for not supporting it early enough. Difference does that make?

ELLIS: I think it makes a lot of difference. Because I think it shows a style. She had the opportunity to collaborate with her colleagues on City Council if she truly believed in pension reform, and that was good for taxpayers. But that's hard to do when the organizations backing your campaign are City Hall unions. There's a conflict there. This is the same group now suing the city over the implementation of Proposition B, and there's an inherent conflict there. I think we need to work together with our colleagues to move the initiatives forward, and overwhelmingly the voters paddled that in district 1. 70%. So I'm in alignment with the voters in district 1. And unfortunately Ms. Leitner is out of alignment. She didn't come on board until April of 2012 on this issue. And that was when everybody knew it was going to pass, and so it was too little too late in the game.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So you have a minute to respond, Ms. Leitner, and also I wanted to ask you, do you see problems in implementing prop B? Are you supporting this wholeheartedly?

LIGHTNER: I wholeheartedly support the implementation of Proposition B. It is the will of the voters. There are some concerns we have right now with respect to Social Security in the recent assembly that went through and how that's going to work. But we are working on that. We're working with the labor unions on that. With respect to why did I take till April to endorse Proposition B? That's when we finally got the legal and financial assessment done by the independent budget analyst, and the city attorney's office. I did support it. As far as actually implementing pension reform, the biggest part of Proposition B is the salary restriction. That is what we've done since I've been in office. Our whole council and mayor worked together to introduce a 6% cut to the employees, introduce the historic retiree healthcare plan, which will save us over a billion dollars. We have done it. And we keep working on it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me direct a question now to Ms. Leitner. You said that one of your accomplishments has been to bring the neighborhoods to City Hall.

LIGHTNER: Yes, ma'am.

CAVANAUGH: What do you mean by that?

LIGHTNER: A big part of the reason I ran was I was frustrated with the way in which our neighborhoods were ignored by the council office. And it is something that I worked very hard on. I do listen to the planning groups. I have folks -- I go to the planning groups quarterly. And I have staff that attend those monthly. It is part of what I did when I started to run was to go to the planning groups, find out what the interests were in the community. We have as a result of this interaction done a number of thing, including bringing proposition C to the voters in 2010 for the development of Pacific highlands ranch to get those parks in place, to do some of the projects that have come forward. I've asked the developers specifically to work with the community. And flower hill mall which has hundreds of jobs right now, they came to see me, and I said I want you to work with the community to get their approval. And they did it, and I went to bat for them at the coastal commission, I was happy to ask the mayor to support it there as well.

CAVANAUGH: And that's time. Ray Ellis, how would you get the voice of your constituents to the City Council?

ELLIS: Well, first of all, I think that we need to be well-connected to the communities and neighborhoods. And then we also not only need to take the neighborhoods to City Hall, but we need to make sure that we're bringing our very valuable taxpayer dollars back to our community. So we've got to address the underlying financial issues so we can make sure our roads are repaired and trimming trees like we're supposed to, make sure we keep our library hours open. So I'm willing to address those issues working with anybody on City Council, and the next mayor, working with anybody to achieve those objective. And I think the La Jolla light summed it up pretty well in their endorsement for our campaign. While Ms. Leitner wanted to bring the neighborhoods to City Hall, unfortunately their quote was that she left the neighborhoods on the steps of City Hall rather than fighting for them in council to bring those valuable taxpayer dollars back to our communities.

CAVANAUGH: Ray Ellis, the next question is for you. Today the City Council's budget committee will see a budget projection of five years of surpluses for San Diego. This spring, San Diego had a budget surplus, and library and rec center hours were restored, money for police officers and the fire department was announced. But on the campaign trail, you still say that these big budget cuts are in place. Do you distrust the city budget numbers?

ELLIS: No, I just look at the level of services that have had to have been cut to achieve those balanced budgets. Our library hours are below where they were 10 years ago: The police department just went before City Council four weeks ago to present a plan to spend $60 million over the next five years to just to get us to staffing levels in 2009. There's a whole host of them. Our city has settled lawsuits of palm fronds falling out of trees versus spending $2.4 million a year to trim the trees citywide. They funded a little bit here to trim certain types of trees, but just two weeks ago in La Jolla, we had a big eucalyptus tree come down, almost demolish two cars, a grandfather with two children in it brushed up against it. Thank goodness they weren't hit with that. And this is not the kind of city we want to live in. And we have tools to correct it if we get the right people elected.

CAVANAUGH: Sherri Lightner, a minute to respond, and also can San Diegans be assured the days of big budget cutbacks are over?

LIGHTNER: The days of big budget cutbacks are over. We note that we have the biggest surplus right now with respect to our reserves, 14.5% in reserves. We do have an issue with our annual required contribution to the pension this year, largely because the pension board returns for the last fiscal year were not so good. They were 0.3%. That is during the leadership of my opponent here that it did fall to that level. With respect to -- we have added fire and police academies to help bring those numbers up. We will have to pursue that aggressively. We will also with the library and rec center hours, they have been delayed a little bit because of the implementation of Proposition B, it looks like we're in place now, we've started hiring folks. And then also with respect to tree-trimming, yes, we have started that. That's at council direction this year. And we've learned that we can do that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and a 30 second rebuttal?

ELLIS: Well, I think that the investment returns were below the rate of return. The year before when I was president of the board, they were almost 25%. But this goes to the heart that you've got to be planning over the longhall. You've got to be efficient about businesses, innovations, I've run businesses large and small, and I want to wring that knowledge to City Council so we're not having the same conversation over and over and going quarter by quarter or year by year.

CAVANAUGH: And your response?

LIGHTNER: Just that the return on investment for the pension board was the same during the same time that Mr. Ellis missed six of the seven investment committee meetings. Plus if you know, he hasn't turned up to vote 10 times in the last 16 years, and he chose not to appear at a forum last week. So does he really want to show up and run City Hall?

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you -- go to another question, Sherri Lightner. You're the incumbent, but you did not win the popular vote in district 1 in the June primary. Does that send a message to you about your performance?

LIGHTNER: Absolutely not. We had a number of folks runs, and two of my former opponents have endorsed me. Upon it was an extremely low turnout, about 36% of the voters actually turned out. And we expect roughly 80% turnout this fall.

CAVANAUGH: And over to you, Ray Ellis, to respond, and also is this campaign more about Sherri Lightner's record or your proposals?

ELLIS: I think it's both. I think that we have seen a lack of performance and leadership in engagement from my opponent. And I think I've got solutions, and this notion of me not showing up is simply not accurate. If you look at the public records, there were over 100 meetings over three years I was on the pension board. I attended 90% of those meetings as a volunteer, donates of hundreds and hundreds of hours to it. And as far as my voting record goes, I have had a perfect voting record over the last eight elections, spanning over seven years, and Ms. Leitner is just trying to distract voters. So we need to put somebody in who's going to be willing to tackle these tough issues and lead. Of

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a quick 30-second, Ray Ellis, who do you support for mayor?

ELLIS: I haven't officially endorsed in the mayor's race. We've been focused on district 1, and that's where we're putting all of our efforts. From a financial perspective and financial management perspective, I'm certainly more in alignment with Carl DeMaio.

LIGHTNER: I have endorsed Bob Filner for mayor, and the last time we were here, my opponent endorsed anybody but Bob.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. I'm running against the clock, but I do have one last question to Ray Ellis, and it's for both of you. You claim special interests run the show in San Diego politics. But they won't run you. Yet a KPBS investigation found that you had a meeting this spring with UT San Diego publisher Doug Manchester, and fellow Republican Carl DeMaio. Isn't that cozying up to downtown special interests?

ELLIS: Maureen, I am certainly willing to sit down with anybody and talk about how to move our city forward. I did have a meeting with Mr. Manchester, it was a meeting to introduce me to Hank Nordove, he is the ex-CEO at gen probe. Doug excused himself to did to another meeting, and Carl left shortly thereafter. Hank and I had a lengthy discussion with the innovation sector, and how important it is to San Diego, some of his experience in doing business in this region and how we can help grow that section. I'm willing to talk to people like Hank any time so we can learn more about what city government can do to grow our economy, create jobs, and expand our innovation sector. So that was the purpose of that meeting.

CAVANAUGH: And Sherri Lightner, what is your take on the power of interest interests on the City Council?

LIGHTNER: There certainly are special ands out this, and they do try and influence decisions on City Council. They have not been successful with me. Shall I rephrase that? My special interest is my community. It comes first, and I will represent the neighborhoods of district 1.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. We have time now for our closing statements. And let me go to you first, Sherri Lightner.

LIGHTNER: I'm very proud to run on my record as a City Council member. We have delivered to the communities of district 1. And they know the ways in which we have done that. I've taken an independent leadership role on the council both with the water policy and the economic development and strategies committee. Definitely I am the first one in, are the last one out, I work very, very hard at what I do, and I love working for my communities. I view it as a privilege to serve the neighborhoods of district 1. And they are my passion. Of

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And Ray Ellis?

ELLIS: First of all, thank you so much for having us in here today. This is a very important election for San Diego because it's going to layout the framework if you will for the next couple of decades. And I believe I am the only candidate who's got the leadership skills, who's got a track record of class action as evidenced by my work on the pension board with six labor folks and seven independents electing me to be vice president and president of that organization. I know how to work with people to produce results. And last but not least, the vision to move things forward in San Diego. We have challenges, but we've got some wonderful opportunities that we need to put leaders in place to seize those students and move them forward for our communities, our neighborhoods, and our quality of life in San Diego. And I'm the only candidate that has the skill sets to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.