District 4 Supervisor Candidates Sound Off On Homelessness
Monday, April 30, 2018
Photo by KPBS Staff
One of the most competitive local races in the June 5 primary elections in San Diego is the District 4 seat on the County Board of Supervisors. The seat is being vacated by Ron Roberts, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits.
Currently, all five supervisors are Republicans, despite the fact that Democrats make up the largest share of registered voters in the county. Democrats have long seen an opportunity for victory in District 4, where they have an even greater advantage in registrations than the county at large.
Five candidates — four Democrats and one Republican — are on the ballot in District 4. The district stretches from southeastern San Diego to La Jolla and includes the region's greatest concentration of street homelessness downtown. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote on June 5, the top two finishers compete in a November runoff.
County supervisors oversee a budget of nearly $6 billion, the largest share of which goes to its Health and Human Services Agency. Supervisors determine how federal, state and local tax dollars are spent on social service programs for the elderly, disabled, youth and low-income individuals and families, as well as treatment programs for mental illness and addiction. It also decides where and how much housing can be built on land outside the county's 18 incorporated cities.
Two of the most pressing issues in the district are homelessness and affordable housing. Below is a list of all five candidates with brief descriptions on how they say they would address those issues if elected.
Democrat Omar Passons has a personal connection to homelessness and county social services. He grew up in the county's foster care system. His biological mother was mentally ill and homeless, and he never connected with her until his late 20s.
"She wrote me a letter, as best she could, and it asked me to go say thank you to the people who had helped her at the Neil Good Day Center," Passons said. "And I remember getting out of my car and looking around at the trash and the needles and the despair in people's faces, and thinking, 'This was her reality.'"
Passons is now a land use attorney and previously worked for the federal government evaluating public health and social service programs. He said his success in life shows what is possible when the county does a good job supporting children.
Last year his campaign released detailed policy proposals for homelessness and housing affordability. His plans include hiring more homeless outreach staff and spending more money on permanent housing for the homeless.
"Over the course of the last decade I just realized that there's only so much that philanthropy and there's only so much that social service can do," he said. "We need our government entities to support better, to change the system of support in important ways."
Fellow Democrat Nathan Fletcher teaches political science at UC San Diego and is a former assemblyman and Marine veteran. While he served in the Assembly as a Republican and later ran for mayor as an independent, Fletcher has been a Democrat since 2013 and has been endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and a number of Democratic elected officials.
He says the county has misplaced budget priorities, pointing to current supervisor Ron Roberts' offer of $150 million in county funds to help pay for a new Chargers stadium.
"They had $150 million to build something in San Diego, but then when it came to tackling affordable housing they said, 'Oh, we have a tiny fraction of that to tackle affordable housing,'" Fletcher said. "So we called for the creation of a $150 million renewable housing trust fund to really invest in some of these affordable housing projects, to invest in some of these density type things we can do to really increase the supply and availability of housing."
Fletcher's plans also include reduced fees for so-called "granny flats" in the unincorporated county.
Retired District Attorney and former judge Bonnie Dumanis is the only Republican in this race. She said as DA, she often had to deal with issues of mental health and drug addiction because they had not been dealt with by anyone else.
"We had victims that were homeless, we had defendants that were homeless and had mental health issues," she said. "So all of the issues that we dealt with in law enforcement, and as the DA and as a judge, were because society is not dealing with them."
In February Dumanis' campaign released its "Whole Person Wellness Initiative," which calls for the creation of mental health crisis centers where family members or law enforcement could drop off individuals for short periods of time, and connect them with longer-term treatment.
"The two biggest areas in the county for budget are public safety and health and human services, and they intersect," Dumanis said. "And obviously we want to keep San Diego safe, public safety is number one. But we have a homeless issue that I have ideas for that I know I can implement because I have implemented these ideas in the context of the criminal justice system."
Lori Saldaña is a former Democratic assemblywoman and a current instructor in the community college district. She and Fletcher have been the symbols of a growing divide among the county's labor unions. A number of Democrats have attacked her for accepting the endorsement of the Working Families Council headed by Mickey Kasparian, who was accused in multiple lawsuits of sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination. Kasparian repeatedly denied wrongdoing and settled the lawsuits out of court.
Saldaña has not put forward detailed written policy proposals like some of the other candidates but said the county needs to start addressing homelessness with more data and education.
"We need to understand how many units are at risk of development and losing our affordable housing that we currently have in stock," she said. "And we need some hearings to listen to people who have wound up on the streets to understand what do they need. You can write all the plans that you would like. But if you don't have the insights from hearing from the people who are currently homeless, understanding how they got there, how do you know that plan will be effective?"
Ken Malbrough served in San Diego's Fire-Rescue Department for 31 years, retiring as a deputy chief in 2012. He now sits on two volunteer advisory boards in the city of San Diego: the Consolidated Plan Advisory Board, which recommends spending plans for federal grant money, and the Chollas Valley Community Planning Group, which advises the City Council on land use matters in the Encanto neighborhood.
Malbrough said the county should be wary of building more in fire-prone areas, and that the region's severe housing shortage suggests the county's General Plan, last revised in 2011, may need another update.
"It's probably time to start looking at updating their General Plan so it meets the demands of the region," he said. "We have to look at our zoning. We have to look at our permitting processes so they're more efficient and effective."
On homelessness, Malbrough said the county cannot see its role as helping just individuals.
"It's actually a win for all of us," he said. "It means jobs, it means opportunities for businesses. So it's an opportunity for all of San Diego."
The race for District 4 San Diego County Supervisor is one of the most competitive local races in the June 5 primary elections. Four Democrats and one Republican are on the ballot, and all see tackling homelessness as a top priority.
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