North County Update: Political Battles in Oceanside, Poway
GLORIA PENNER (Host): San Diego’s North County is dotted with low profile cities whose elected officials usually attract little media attention as they go about their municipal business. Well, not anymore. Both Oceanside and Poway are rumbling with signs that political restlessness is afoot and changes are ahead. So, Kent, let’s start with Oceanside where a recall against Councilman John (sic) Kern solidly failed last month in a special election, an expensive special election. What was the issue there? What’s going on?
KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): The – This actually harkens back to our earlier discussion. The public service unions there, police and firemen particularly, put forward a – basically financed a recall campaign against Jerry Kern, looking at him as the weak sister of a 3 to 2 council majority, and one that they thought they could knock out. They – with – Using as a starting place, some people through the mobile home villages started the recall campaign using not allegations of misconduct but basically we don’t like his politics, he is developer friendly, as the excuse to go after him.
PENNER: Excuse me, is that what the split is? You have – or had 3 to 2, 3 that are development friendly and 2 that were labor friendly?
PENNER: Yeah, okay.
DAVY: Very much so.
DAVY: The mayor, Mayor Wood, and Councilman Esther – Councilwoman Esther Sanchez would be on the labor side. All of this is now complicated. The recall fails but it’s complicated because Rocky Chavez, who is one of the 3 of the majority, has taken a job as the – as Schwarzenegger’s Veterans Administration…
DAVY: …deputy or something.
DAVY: That now leaves the council as a 2-2. They cannot agree on anyone to fill as an interim so they’re going to have to have a special election in June to do this. Now, the next wrinkle is that Jack Feller, who is also on the council and part of the majority, decides it’s an opportune time to put forward onto a ballot an issue of Oceanside becoming a charter city. The principle background of that is that in becoming a charter city, it can avoid paying prevailing wages on government construction contracts. Again, the labor, public developer, if you will, business split.
PENNER: Okay. The complications of this, unfortunately we don’t have time for but we…
PENNER: …but what you’re really saying is that you have a paralyzed city council now with a 2 to 2 and they have to – there will be a special election in June to bring in the third person.
PENNER: John, let me ask you, when you have a split on a city council, you know, business versus labor, what’s at stake here?
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, it depends on who you talk with. It’ll be the best of times and the worst of times. In this case, for instance, you’re talking about becoming a charter as opposed to a general purpose city, which is a good thing. San Diego’s a charter city and that means it has a different status under the California constitution. But when you tie to that this labor issue, we see throughout San Diego County the problems with labor. People are looking at are we going to be pushed toward prevailing wage in terms of the whole labor market? Not prevailing – labor – what’s the other term that we’re dealing with?
PENNER: What does it mean? Forget the term. Let’s go…
WARREN: It means that the…
DAVY: The wages. The wages.
WARREN: …wages – the wages are going to be higher on the position than they are in terms of the prevailing wage.
PENNER: But at least there’ll be jobs.
WARREN: Yeah, but the question is, the people who are hiring don’t necessarily want to pay that higher wage if they can get workers cheaper, so this gets tied into, in the North County case, into a very important question in terms of the charter versus general purpose and it makes it more complicated for the public.
PENNER: What – Leslie, what happens when you have this kind of a situation in, you know, a pretty big city in San Diego in terms of the public being served?
LESLIE WOLF BRANSCOMB (Editor, San Diego Uptown News): It’s governmental paralysis. I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before. The public basically will not be served. The general city services will continue, of course, during this time but we’re talking about a period of a minimum of 7 months where nothing is going to happen. These two factions are going to fight each other, and then the odd thing is whoever the new person is comes in with an extraordinary amount of power. That person is going to be able to make virtually every decision regarding the City because of the split on the council. So whichever side that person falls on, and hopefully it’ll be somebody fair and in between, they’re going to come in there with basically the power to run the city for the next, at least, year or so.
DAVY: I think that it’s important to understand in the – the underlying context of this is, and the struggle it has to do with public service or public sector pensions. All of this is grounded on the notion that police and fire, particularly, have 3-at-30 pensions allowing people to retire at 50 years old on 90% of their salary. And as the collective city managers here have said, Bill Lockyer has said, it’s unsustainable. And the fight is really about how do the unions protect their ability to fend off a tax on those pension benefits.
PENNER: So that’s what it comes down to. Is there any chance that, as Leslie said, somebody sort of fair and impartial will be elected in June?
DAVY: Well, perhaps elected. But, you know, she’s right in the sense that everything is polarized. There were candidates proposed to fill the spot but because of the fear that they’re going to line up on one side or the other, you’re not going to get the decision on it. You’re going to have the same kind of fight from the edges, I think, once you get into the election and who is going to fill that third spot then you’ve got, you know, then you’ve got an election coming up in November.
PENNER: Are the people in Oceanside engaged in all this or are they unaware or just standing on the sidelines?
DAVY: Oh, I think they’re – I think it’s a very engaged electorate. If you look at the kind of web comments that we had on our stories, the amount of letters to the editor, the conversation that goes on, this is a hot topic.
PENNER: All right, speaking of topics, to the east of Oceanside, Poway’s city councilwoman Betty Rexford is the target of a recall drive. It’s sparked by a charge of abuse of power of her office. Now, is this all about, again, back to you, Kent, is this all about Rexford’s alleged behavior or are there political factions involved here as well?
DAVY: Well, I’m less familiar with this story. I think that this is more about Rexford – the allegations of Rexford’s conduct than any underlying political sense that I can discern anyway. There were allegations in a lawsuit that Rexford had used her position to kind of bully some neighbors. The City ultimately – let’s see, some of those allegations against the City and her were dismissed in a motion for summary judgment but ultimately the City settled for, I think, a half a million dollars on the lawsuit.
PENNER: But there is a recall against her now.
DAVY: And that has spurred the recall.
PENNER: Okay. How disruptive are recalls generally, John, to council meetings, the work on behalf of the public. I mean, do recalls really work to the benefit of the public?
WARREN: Well, recalls are very difficult. I think the public is romanced by the idea because it seems to give them a shortcut approach to solving a problem. But when you get right down to the whole issue of getting the required number of signatures and getting them validated and all of the cost and everything, it becomes a whole different issue. And I think in this case, it’s going to be much different than the case in Oceanside because we have one individual, Vaus, in Poway, who is financing and pushing and wants to run and wants the position or at least is the one who’s behind trying to stop – and it doesn’t seem that the general electorate is as much behind this as this individual. So I think that’s where it makes a difference.
PENNER: So it’s a one-person march against Betty Rexford, is that it?
WARREN: Well, what – I’m seeing one person is getting the credit in terms of initiating and pushing it. I could be wrong since I’m not there. But in terms of recalls overall, you really have to have a greater groundswell for success than what we see here.
PENNER: Okay, now before we leave, again in North County, something sparked a – Once around the table, I’m going to ask you for a very brief response to this. About 13 years ago, you remember Jack Murphy Stadium was renamed Qualcomm in return for $18 million and that began the era of naming rights. And now with money short, we hear that, again in North County, the transit district is discussing naming rights for Sprinter stops and Coaster stations, and people can actually buy the right to name rooms in the Carlsbad City Library. All right, let me start with you, Kent, and you got about, oh, 20 seconds.
DAVY: I’m going to pledge a buck-two-ninety-eight for – to establish the Gloria Penner Oceanside Transit Station.
PENNER: I love it. That’s great. I’ll take it. No, really, is this harmless?
DAVY: I think so.
PENNER: Okay. It’s an appropriate way to raise money?
DAVY: Oh, it’s not going to raise a lot of money.
PENNER: Okay. What do you think, John? I mean, is it okay to start naming things that are public property?
WARREN: I think it amounts to selling the public interest and I think it’s a very bad move.
PENNER: It is a bad move, even though we need the money.
WARREN: We’re going to always need the money. Even after they sell it, they’re going to still need more money. Then what are they going to sell? The children of the people that they name the place after?
DAVY: I think they should just lease the name.
DAVY: Then they can resell it.
PENNER: All right, Leslie, let me have your wisdom on this. Is it okay to have naming rights to public places like train stations?
BRANSCOMB: I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. I remember when Petco Park was built. Now when we talk about Petco, everybody understands you mean you’re going to the ballpark, you aren’t going to the pet store. The, whatever the name of the business is just becomes synonymous with the place rather than with the actual thing. We could have the Budweiser Transit System, it doesn’t mean everybody’s going to drink beer, it just means they’re taking the train.
PENNER: Well, panel, I thank you all very much for your wisdom. Thank you to Leslie Wolf Branscomb and to John Warren and, of course, to Kent Davy as well. Remember, listeners, you can always reach us at KPBS.org/Editors. This has been the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.