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Councilman Kersey Is San Diego’s Open Data, Infrastructure Guy

Reported by Katie Schoolov

This year we’ve been telling you more about San Diego’s city councilmembers. Up next is Mark Kersey, a Republican who represents Ranchos Penasquitos, Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo in District 5. KPBS’s Claire Trageser has this profile.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey talks to students about voting at Willow Grove Elementary School in Black Mountain Ranch, March 12, 2015.

Councilman Mark Kersey's fast-rising status has some predicting he will run for higher office, but he said he’s not thinking about that now.

After cruising unopposed in 2012 to a seat on the San Diego City Council, Mark Kersey quickly made a name for himself. He took on San Diego’s recall laws in the midst of the scandal surrounding then-Mayor Bob Filner, began tackling the city’s infrastructure issues and shepherded into law an open data ordinance to make more city information public.

His fast-rising status has some predicting he will run for higher office, but Kersey said he’s not thinking about that now. He intends to run for re-election next year in his northern San Diego district. Beyond that, he said, he loves being in San Diego, and “that's good enough for right now.”

Councilman Mark Kersey

Represents: District 5, which includes Black Mountain Ranch, Torrey Highlands, Ranchos Peñasquitos, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Sabre Springs and San Pasqual.

Age: 38

Family: Divorced. Son, Tyler, age 9

College: Northwestern University, majored in history and political science. Graduate school at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

Career: Started telecom consulting firm Kersey Strategies

Other interests: Coaching Tyler's little league team and checking out San Diego’s craft beer scene.

Fun fact: Kersey’s stepfather was mayor of his hometown.

Special Feature Who's On San Diego's City Council?

KPBS is profiling the nine people who make up the San Diego City Council, and sharing details about their backgrounds and their goals. They each represent a different geographic area of the city, but their actions affect all of the people who live in America's eighth largest city.

Kersey, one of four Republicans on the nine-member council, has sometimes been on the losing side of issues, including when he voted against raising the minimum wage and for allowing people on the beach at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool during harbor seal pupping season.

He shared that lesson in democracy of not always getting your way when he spoke this month to a group of second-graders at Willow Grove Elementary School in Black Mountain Ranch. The students were given a scenario: They had money to spend and could decide whether to build a recycling program, an art display or a butterfly garden.

“What about Grant? What do you think?” Kersey asked a boy in an Arizona State University T-shirt.

“It would just be keeping the butterflies in a cramped space, and soon enough the plants will die and then the butterflies will die and you just have a dead garden in the middle of your school,” Grant told him.

“OK,” Kersey said with a laugh. "That's, uh, OK."

The students cast their ballots, and recycling ended up the winner.

But unlike the kids who unsuccessfully backed the art display and butterfly garden, Kersey may still have the chance to get his way on the minimum wage increase. A petition effort put the question on the June 2016 ballot.

“I think I took five or six votes on (the minimum wage) and came up short every time, but that's how the process works and it's OK,” he said. “Just like we told the kids, just because you vote for the one that doesn't win doesn't mean you're wrong, doesn't mean it's bad. It's just other people want the other one.”

Kersey was first introduced to politics in high school when his stepfather was elected mayor of Canal Winchester, a small town outside Columbus, Ohio.

“It was one of those things where everybody knows everybody, so I think at that level it's more like running for high school student council than anything. It's just a popularity contest,” Kersey said.

His father, now retired, worked at Ohio State’s business school. His mother is an editor of social studies textbooks.

Kersey majored in history and political science at Northwestern University, interned for an Ohio congresswoman and governor, and then later attended UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Almost 14 years ago he moved to San Diego for a job, then two years later started Kersey Strategies, his own telecom consulting firm. He still owns the company, but his brother-in-law began running it after Kersey was elected to the City Council in 2012.

Kersey said he picked open data as one of his first projects because of his tech background.

“Open data is really something that gives a lot more tools to average citizens, to small businesses to be able to access their government and be able to really understand different data points about what's going on in the community,” he said.

He worked closely with Open San Diego, an open government advocacy group, to help draft the ordinance.

“I sat down with some people in our open data community almost two years ago now and they said this is what's going on in some other cities, this is something that has tremendous potential in San Diego,” he said. “We've got such an innovative group of companies and workers and startups that if we could really get the city on board with this, we could really help connect people to the government better and potentially create more jobs and create more companies that are doing things we haven't even thought of.”

Now Kersey is turning his focus to the funding gap for fixing the city’s roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure. He chairs the council’s Infrastructure Committee, which in January heard a report that the city faces a $1.7 billion infrastructure funding gap.

“For a number of years, the city essentially stopped investing in infrastructure, and we just weren't doing basic things like maintenance and repair of all the things we own,” he said. “As a result, we've gotten to the point where it’s like if you don't change the oil on your car for years and years, well, eventually your car is just going to be shot and you're not going to just catch up and suddenly start making all your oil changes. You either need a new engine or potentially a brand new car.”

He’s now working on a ballot measure that would raise more money for infrastructure repairs, but he doesn’t know exactly what it will be yet.

“My only real two parameters were it needs to be politically feasible and it needs to be financially feasible,” he said. “It's got to solve the actual problem, and it's got to be something people actually want to support. So what we're going to do is spend the balance of this year figuring out what is the right bucket of things we could put together that's going to accomplish those two goals.”

One option, he said, is to make use of what are called enhanced infrastructure financing districts, which Gov. Jerry Brown authorized late last year. They act in a similar way to redevelopment agencies, which were dissolved in late 2011.

“It's kind of a watered down form of the old redevelopment we used to have where you're taking the future property tax growth and you're able to bond against that today based on the investments you're going to make in the infrastructure going forward. And you can use that to actually make those infrastructure investments,” Kersey said. “That is something I'd like to see.”

Using the districts would require 55 percent voter approval, a lower threshold than the two-thirds majority needed to impose a tax.

Kersey also wants to allow businesses to flourish in San Diego, but he wants business owners to be specific about their bureaucratic frustrations.

“When I open up the city's municipal code, there's no chapter called Red Tape. It's not that simple,” he said.

Business owners and leaders need to give examples of what’s stifling them, Kersey said.

“Is there a specific law, a specific regulation, a specific city policy that is holding you back? Everybody loves to rail against government, and I get it. It's an easy thing to do and in many cases it's justified,” he said. “But as a guy who would love to help change things and fix things and make things better, just railing against government isn't helpful.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey hands out a certificate to a second grade student at Willow Grove Elementary School in Black Mountain Ranch, March 12, 2015.

Back in the Willow Grove Elementary School classroom, the debate over butterflies and recycling is finished, and Kersey is fielding other questions about his work.

Grant, who fretted over butterfly mortality, raises his hand and asks, “How hard is your job?”

“We have to make tough decisions just like this, so that can be kind of difficult,” Kersey says. “But some people actually work really hard for a living, like people digging ditches or having to spend all day out in the hot sunshine getting sweaty, or people who have to fix toilets for a living. Doesn’t fixing toilets sound like an actual hard job?”

“Yeah,” the students say in chorus, some giggling.

“Would you want to do that?”

“No,” the students say.

“There are plenty of people who have much harder jobs than me,” Kersey tells them. “Grant, what do you think?”

“Cleaning Porta-Potties, you get a lot of money since no one wants to do it,” Grant says.

“Yes,” Kersey tells him. “I don’t know what Porta-Potty cleaners make, but they should get paid a lot because that is a gross job.”

The students laugh again.

“On that note, we’re going to finish up here,” Kersey tells them. He passes out certificates and “I voted” stickers. Then it’s back to his council job.


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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