Escondido Democratic Club
There were few surprises as candidates for Escondido Mayor in the November election met for a forum August 20, sponsored by the Escondido Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Sam Abed and Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz repeatedly demonstrated the starkly different choice before voters.
Perhaps the ‘news’ was the presence of Stephen Siaw, an unexpected newcomer to the race and to city politics. It was Siaw’s first appearance at a public candidate forum. The approximately 100 people in attendance welcomed him warmly.
Chamber Governmental Affairs chair Kevin Svetich asked a wide-ranging mix of questions that covered the key issues. Here’s a quick summary of significant responses:
The Lakes Initiative: It was news for most that Diaz will support the measure, which would allow construction of 340 homes on the former Escondido Country Club golf course. She had sent out an announcement only the evening before (see separate post). She said the proposal “represents a compromise” and “not everyone can be happy.” Abed reminded the audience that he had never taken sides on the issue but had sought compromise. (See a review of his position on the Escondido 2014 blog.) He said “let the voters decide” and the city would work with the developer. Siaw said he is a “big individual liberty guy” who supports allowing landowners to develop their property.
Change to Charter City: Abed is all for it. He said he wants to give “power to the people” to run their own city and escape regulations imposed by Sacramento legislators. He claimed a charter would allow the city to save “$30 million” by escaping prevailing wages for construction projects. Siaw said he believes in the separation of levels of government, but wonders “Is it well thought out? Is it well drawn up?” He cited the Bell, California example of what can go wrong in a charter city. “I want it to be a bit more thought out,” he concluded, “I don’t support it.” Diaz noted that the Charter proposal has “failed once already” and wasn’t created by the voters through a citizens committee. She noted that there is less consistency for charter cities because the law on them still being litigated. She does not support the proposal because it allows cities to avoid competitive bidding, change elections laws and run a budget deficit.
Support for the arts: Siaw said he supports “anything the arts have to offer.” Diaz noted several ways she had worked behind the scenes to bring art activities to fruition. “I love the arts and do support them,” she said. Abed noted that the city supports the Center for the Arts to the tune of $1.8 million each year, “but we have to balance the budget” and “government cannot support every organization in town.”
How to attract employment: Diaz said “money will go where it can get a return,” and it is the city’s job to “create a foundation” for business to locate in Escondido.” She cited costs to business if the city falls behind in implementing storm water runoff plans. She said the city “shouldn’t turn away offers” and cited how everyone had to work together to bring John Paul University to town and to allow the County’s new administrative center to overcome objections. She mentioned quality of life issues, saying a marketing plan had found that people wanted their city to be “pretty, friendly and fun.” Abed reviewed statistics that he uses to show how many jobs and businesses his policies have brought to the city. His message was that he knows how to do it and has proven that. Siaw celebrated Escondido as “a great little town,” and said the city needs to “get out of the way so small business can have the best chance.” Doing that, he said, would bring good new jobs.
The current mix of business and social services: In a passionate reply, Abed said the city “used to have a balance,” but “we lost this balance because of political correctness.” Too many agencies and too much low-income housing had increased the poverty rate from 12 percent in 2000 to 20 percent by 2010. “We cannot afford to be a magnet for poverty,” he said and he called on other cities in the region to share the burden. Siaw thinks the mix is good and that “we can always reduce government involvement.” Diaz seemed to support expanding social services. She noted that she works at a social service agency (Interfaith Community Services) and that the city does not need to get other cities accept the needy, but “to accept them and help them.”
Land for business expansion/location: Again, Siaw thought government’s role is to “get out of the way” and encourage development. Diaz noted that Escondido has land, “the problem is, it is quite expensive.” She fears cost may be the issue for some of the larger employers. She said location decisions are a trade-out between cost and benefit. “We just need to be inviting, to confirm that this is a good place to invest their money.” Abed said Escondido has the lowest percentage of land available for business in the region and pointed to his efforts at creating a business park north of downtown.
Incentives to promote business and growth: Diaz proposed a low-cost loan program to help businesses upgrade older buildings, and more funding to the visitor’s center. She noted that just being friendly can be part of the difference. Abed pointed to an effort he and Council member John Masson have begun to streamline city regulations that would “help get government out of the way.” Siaw echoed that, saying the city would attract “a lot more development if business owners didn’t have to jump through all these hoops.”
How to build consensus in city of council districts: Abed got really agitated here, proclaiming that “districts have divided our city” and blaming districts on out-of-town unions reacting to the first Charter proposal. He said he would “make sure to minimize the impact” of districts and continue to unite the city, but did not specify just how. Siaw said he believes in districts, because they “enable people to have a representative that represents them.” Diaz said “I’m not afraid of districts,” even though it was forced (as settlement of a lawsuit). She noted that local school districts had made the change to districts voluntarily. “It’s not divisive,” she added.
A balanced budget and size of reserves: Siaw said he supports a balanced budget, of course, but if the reserve is “building up to a level where it is a badge of honor” it may be too high. He questioned having too much in reserve when not “spending on stuff that makes the city a nice place to live. I don’t believe that’s in the best interests of Escondido.” Diaz explained that reserves are built up in good times to help see the city through bad times. “There is a balance” to be observed between spending and saving. She criticized closing the East Valley Branch Library during bad times and liquidating its assets over just $200,000. “There are times when saving a dollar is not the best long term investment.” Abed jumped to his feet, exclaiming that at last he could show off his chart. He bragged of balancing the budget and said “fiscal discipline is at the core of my values.”
The Mayor’s image outside the city: Diaz noted that the Mayor “sets the tone for the city” and remembered that Mayor Holt-Pfeiler was seen as “compassionate but moderate, reasonable and a nice person.” She noted that there has “been a harsh turn since Mayor Abed was elected” and said she would like to be seen more like Holt-Pfeiler. “I like to collaborate,” she reported. Abed said “it’s about leadership” and criticized Diaz for “fighting” him, other Council members, and city staff. He said he is proud of his long list of endorsements. Siaw said his advantage is “being a regular guy.” “It’s important to have regular people instead of career politicians” in city government.