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Poway City Council: All Boys Club In A Town Of Women

Credit: City of Poway

Poway City Hall is pictured in this undated photo.

The last woman to serve on the Poway City Council was Merrilee Boyack, who sat on the board from 2004 to 2012. Boyack said there were instances when she felt her approach was different because of her gender.

“I felt very drawn to and connected to the people,” Boyack said. “That reaction wasn’t quite the same with the other council members. It was just a different perspective.”

Women make up more than half of Poway's population of 49,417 people. According to the census, 400 more women than men live in the city. But, at least for the next two years, Poway will have an all-male council leading the city. It joins Santee in being one of two cities in San Diego County without any female council members.

The City Council voted unanimously on Jan. 20 to appoint Barry Leonard, a retired technology executive, to fill the seat left vacant by Steve Vaus when he was elected mayor in November. Leonard and Karen Dunn, the owner of Poway Transmissions, were two of the 19 people who applied for the vacant seat, and they were selected as the finalists.

The decision to appoint Leonard came after a 90-minute discussion among the council members. The council members also heard from three public speakers who all urged leaders to choose Dunn to diversify the board.

Past Female Members Of The Poway City Council

Linda Oravec, 1980 to 1986

Mary Shepardson, 1980 to 1986

Linda Brannon, 1986 to 1990

Kathy McIntyre, 1990 to 1992

Susan Callery, 1992 to 1996

Betty Rexford, 1994 to 2010

Merrilee Boyack, 2004 to 2012

Source: City of Poway

“As I look up at you gentlemen— and I say this with all due respect — you’re lacking one thing in your group,” Glen Larson told the City Council.

Larson is pastor at the Poway Community Church, where Dunn is a member of the congregation.

“A woman would be an asset to your deliberations and to our community," Larson said. “There’s just a different perspective and it helps round out a broader sense of speaking for the community.”

The issue of gender didn’t sway Councilman John Mullin’s vote. He said he felt appointing a person based on gender was an insult.

“I reject that notion,” Mullin said at the meeting. “I will make the selection based entirely on the merit of the person. Both of the applicants can stand on their own two feet, regardless of gender.”

Mullin and Vaus voted for Leonard, stating his two-year service on the Budget Review Committee gave him much-needed experience to serve on the City Council. They also noted that Dunn’s ownership of a business on Poway Road might force her to recuse herself when the city begins discussing the future of development on the city’s main thoroughfare.

"I'm a great guy and she's a great gal. So, there you go," Leonard told the City Council while highlighting his work on the Budget Review Committee and his ability to think independently.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilman Jim Cunningham changed his mind and gave Leonard the third vote needed to win the seat. Deputy Mayor Dave Grosch also later changed his vote in support of Leonard.

Cunningham told KPBS that he initially supported Dunn because of her diverse background.

"Not only is she a female candidate, but she has an active small business on Poway Road and she lives in South Poway," Cunningham said. South Poway, a less affluent part of the city, is not represented on the council.

Cunningham said he ultimately voted for Leonard because he wanted the council to appear united.

“I do not want a divided council,” Cunningham said. “I have to give some deference to the mayor on this one, Karen. I want a council united, not divided.”

The result was a surprise for Dunn who said she applied for the vacant seat at the encouragement of Vaus. Vaus ran a campaign based on diversifying the council, which has long been dominated by men, or those from North Poway.

“I was helping Steve Vaus with his mayoral campaign and he asked me if I would be interested in running for his open council seat. He told me what I needed to do and what the process would be,” Dunn said. “Being the strong community supporter that I am, I thought it would be a good way for me to help Poway.”

Dunn has lived in Poway for 17 years and has gained the support of former mayor Bob Emery and Poway's first city manager Jim Bowersox. She said she thinks the City Council needs a female member.

Poway Demographics

Total Population: 48,547

Male: 24,071

Female: 24,476

Median Age: 39.8

Housing Units: 16,571

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

"Everyone should feel like they have a voice in that community," Dunn said. "If they don’t feel like the leaders show that diversity, they may not connect with them.”

Dunn expressed skepticism over the argument that being a Poway Road business owner would force her to recuse herself on many issues. She said she reviewed the City Council meetings from July 2014 to December 2014, and only found two issues where she would have had to recuse herself.

On the other hand, she said, her business experience would be an asset on the council.

“I do believe my experience on Poway Road means quite a bit,” Dunn said. “In many ways, the principles of running a business and running a city are alike."

Women are well represented among Poway’s business owners. Females, according to the latest census numbers, own 21 percent of the 5,646 businesses in Poway.

Vaus confirmed that he did ask Dunn to apply for the vacant seat, but said he later realized that Leonard would be "more effective" as a council member.

"I love Karen," Vaus said. "But as the process went on, I realized Karen would not have the opportunity to be as effective because of the location of her business."

Vaus said he would love to have a more diverse council, but experience is key.

"I would love to have a woman on the City Council," Vaus said. "The more diversity we have, the better, but not at the expense of expertise or effectiveness. I got three daughters and a wife — you will find no bigger champion of women than me, but I have to close my eyes and pick the person who is best qualified."

Dunn said she isn’t sure whether she’ll run in two years when two City Council seats will be up for election.

“I don’t know if I’ll run. I didn’t even consider applying for the vacant seat until Steve (Vaus) asked me,” Dunn said. “I thought I was just doing him a favor. I thought we were trying to make the council diverse.”

Leonard, who has lived in Poway for 11 years, will be sworn into office on Feb. 3.

Some council members said they hope Dunn will consider joining a city committee overseeing the Poway Road Corridor Study.

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