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Imperial Beach Mayor's two terms in office: A reflection

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina walks proudly around the outside of his city’s upgraded library.

The modern building has a unique Imperial Beach flare and it is the cornerstone of a revitalization effort the mayor launched when he took office in 2014.

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Erik Anderson
Imperial Beach Library on Oct. 13, 2022
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That election wasn’t decided until more than a week after election day. He won that contest by just 43 votes. Four years later, he was reelected in a landslide.

But Dedina’s time in the mayor’s office is coming to a close after he decided earlier this year that two-terms were enough.

The past eight years have seen many changes in San Diego County’s southernmost beach town. The new library, an aquatic center at Mar Vista High School that opens next year, an outdoor gym at Dunes Park, the Bayfront Bikeway village and less trash in empty lots are highlights Dedina is quick to point out.

However, it is the library, with its ocean themed artwork and the replica woody wagon with a surfboard reading area, that captures his vision of the city.

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“Everybody got it,” said Dedina. “You don’t need to make it fancy, but you need to make it accessible, colorful, warm and friendly, and a resource for everybody.”

County officials, businesses and community advocates all bought in and spent millions to turn the community hub into something special.

Imperial Beach Mayor's two terms in office: A reflection

“It helped us fuse everything that we did in Imperial Beach for the last eight years,” said Dedina, “To really renovate it and just restore this beautiful dynamic we have in Imperial Beach. The ocean, the community and doing things that make the city better for every part of the city. That’s what this is about.”

Dedina’s energy and ability to build coalitions helped Imperial Beach residents catch the wave of positive change during his tenure.

Murals scattered around the city capture the beach town’s spirit.

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Erik Anderson
Mural near Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach on Oct. 13, 2022

San Diego businesses, The Brigantine, SEA180, Coronado Brewery, and Mike Hess, invested in the beach town’s front door, near the pier. The area welcomes both locals and tourists.

Dedina implored those with resources to invest in the city, not just their businesses, and they did.

“He’s been a great voice for the city,” said Kim Frink, a local resident for 10 years and the backer of a plan to open a co-op grocery in a town. The community did not have a supermarket before Dedina became mayor. “He really has been driven to bring attention to the problems that we have in our community, so he’s very much what I would say an 'activist mayor.'”

If there is one issue that has dominated Dedina’s two-terms in office, it is the city’s battle with a growing cross-border sewage problem. Sewage flows out of Mexico, into the United States, and fouls the ocean off the Imperial Beach coast.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina talks about rising sea levels on Apr. 18, 2019.
Kris Arciaga
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina talks about rising sea levels on Apr. 18, 2019.

“It’s a serious public health issue and an environmental disaster. And it really impacts people’s lives,” Frink said.

Dedina, who cut his activist teeth on efforts to preserve the Tijuana River Estuary, has pushed hard to fix what he calls the country's only ongoing environmental disaster.

Pollution has pummeled Imperial Beach, both of his four-year terms.

During one particularly bad moment, the problem was so severe, local residents could not leave their homes because the smell made them sick.

Complaining did not get results so he sued the federal government. Several south bay governments joined the litigation, and additional lawsuits were filed by clean water groups and state officials.

An emotional Dedina reflected on the legal fight when a San Diego federal judge rebuffed the Justice Department’s efforts to have the lawsuits thrown out in August of 2018.

“It’s been a long fight,” Dedina told reporters outside the courtroom. “And you know what, me and my kids, our community has been suffering from. Me personally … a very emotional morning for me ... vivid memories of taking my kids to the emergency room. You know, we have little kids here. Our kids are getting sick. Our lifeguards are getting sick.”

The lawsuit focused attention on the issue, but the problem got worse. Two years later, Dedina stood in front of the Imperial Beach Pier and chided public officials for failing to act.

“The river flow in the Tijuana River should be zero gallons a day during dry weather. Today it is 60 million gallons a day,” Dedina said. “The entire sewer system in Tijuana has collapsed. And it appears there are absolutely no efforts underway in Mexico or on the part of the U.S. federal government, the Trump Administration to actually move forward and ask for emergency repairs so we don’t endure an entire summer of polluted beaches.” In typical Imperial Beach fashion, protesters hovered in the background with signs saying “Blah, Blah, Blah”.

They were upset that change was not happening faster.

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Erik Anderson
Serge Dedina, local officials and the region's congressional delegation celebrate the $300 million in federal funding for cross border sewage projects on Jan. 31, 2020

When the USMCA trade deal was signed in 2020, the agreement included $300 million to deal with border pollution problems in San Diego. It was a significant victory.

By November of last year, the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a $630 million comprehensive solution that included a plan for sewage capture and treatment facilities on the U.S. side of the border and in Mexico.

Earlier this year, Mexico promised to commit $147 million dollars to fix Tijuana’s sewage issues. It called for new pipes, pumps, and a new sewage treatment plant south of the city.

Environmental reviews are underway and construction could begin on some projects by the end of the year.

“Indefatigable. Never ceasing. Constant,” David Gibson said about Dedina’s long-running battle for clean water. Gibson is the state’s top water pollution regulator in San Diego.

“And I think that’s what it took. This issue has been going on for a very long time, so what was different about it now? I think Serge offered that kind of perspective to elected officials in Mexico as well as in San Diego, California, and Washington D.C.”

He credited Dedina’s willingness to connect the problem solvers with solutions and he pulled it off without losing touch with his hometown’s unique flavor.

“This is not anywhere else,” Dedina said. “You’ve got to be cool and funky and grassroots, and community. And that’s what works here.”

Four candidates are on the November ballot to replace Dedina. Two, Paloma Aguirre and John ”Jack” Fisher are current city council members in Imperial Beach. Shirley Nakawatase is a certified public accountant and Vance Locke is an artist.

  • Imperial Beach residents will welcome a new mayor to city hall in January, as Mayor Serge Dedina returns to his environmental activism roots. In other news, Veterans needing resources can find them all in one place in Vista this weekend. Plus, we have some weekend arts events worth checking out.
  • San Diego County will pay just under $4.5 million dollars to Tanya Suarez, who blinded herself in 2019 while in jail. The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed against the county by Suarez, who said deputies on the scene failed to prevent her own self-harm while hallucinating under the effects of methamphetamine. Then, San Diego’s utility rates, already among the highest in the nation, will be going up again this January. And, local school board races are of high interest in the upcoming election, in part because of school districts’ role in pandemic response. After, we cover the District 2 and 4 races on the San Diego City Council. Finally, we hear about an amusement park that used to call San Francisco’s Ocean Beach home.

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