By Joe Tash
Incumbent District 1 San Diego Councilwoman Sherri Lightner has her hands full as the June 5 primary election approaches, juggling the responsibilities of what she called a “more than full-time job” while trying to fend off three challengers for her seat.
Lightner, a mechanical engineer and former La Jolla and University City activist, is running against businessman Ray Ellis, attorney Bryan Pease and retired business executive Dennis Ridz, who is chairman of the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board.
The race is officially non-partisan, but party affiliations may impact the outcome: Lightner and Pease are Democrats, while Ellis and Ridz are Republicans.
Thanks to last year’s citywide redistricting following the 2010 census, District 1 will look a bit different after this year’s election. Rancho Peñasquitos is no longer part of the district, and a sliver of La Jolla has been reunited with the rest of the community.
The district now includes Carmel Valley, Del Mar Heights, Torrey Pines, University City and La Jolla.
If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast June 5, the top two vote-getters will face off in a November runoff.
Among the top issues citywide are city finances, pension reform, expansion of the convention center and a new Chargers stadium, while North City issues include a proposed mixed-use development on Del Mar Heights Road called One Paseo, and planning for the completion of connectors between Interstate 5 and State Route 56.
Three of the candidates — Lightner, Ellis and Ridz — support Prop. B, a measure on San Diego’s June ballot that proposes to reduce city pension costs by providing a 401k-style retirement plan instead of a pension to all new city employees except police officers, and change other city pension rules.
Lightner noted that the city has already transitioned most categories of new hires to a 401k-style plan. The ballot measure would add firefighters, managers, lifeguards and elected officials to that list. Eventually, she said, the choice of pension or 401k will be offered to current employees. Retirees already receiving a pension would not be affected by the changes.
“We have righted the city’s financial ship” through pension reform, managed competition and reforms to retire health benefits, Lightner said. Those efforts, along with an improving economy, have helped the city improve its credit rating and go from an annual budget deficit to a surplus since she took office.
But Ellis, a former appointed member of the city’s pension board, criticized Lightner and her council colleagues for failing to increase their own pension contributions, and not moving aggressively enough on managed competition, which is when city employees bid against private companies to provide city services.
Ellis said city voters approved managed competition six years ago, but so far the city has only processed three such competitive bids. In one case, the city’s fleet management department trimmed $4.4 million from its own budget while winning a bid to maintain city vehicles. Ellis said the council should have been scrutinizing the budgets of city departments more closely, and acted sooner to save taxpayer dollars from waste and inefficiency.
“As an oversight body, I think the council has a responsibility to ask some tough questions there,” said Ellis.
Pease, who represented supporters of a seal colony in litigation regarding Children’s Beach in La Jolla, questioned Lightner’s Democratic credentials.
“I thought voters needed an alternative to the incumbent, who ran as a progressive Democrat but is looking more and more like the Republican candidates that are running to the point where it’s indistinguishable,” said Pease, regarding his decision to run.
Pease opposes both managed competition and Prop. B, the pension reform initiative.
“Generally, I think privatization is a bad idea, shortcutting labor and environmental regulations, and having a race to the bottom to see who can shortcut the most procedures,” he said.
As for the pension initiative, he said changing to a 401k system would expose employees to risk over their pension benefits, while costing the city more money because fewer people would be paying into the system. He said he does support capping “pensionable pay,” or the pay that is used to calculate employee pension benefits.
Although financial issues dominate much of the conversation around City Hall, in Carmel Valley and surrounding communities, a major issue is the proposed One Paseo development, a mixed-use development that would include some 1.7 million square feet of retail, office and residential space.
Kilroy Realty wants to build the project on a 23-acre parcel at the corner of Del Mar Heights Road and El Camino Real. Currently, a draft environmental impact report for the project is open for public comment, and the project could reach the San Diego City Council for a vote by this fall.
The project is controversial because many residents are concerned about its size and the amount of traffic it would generate.
Ridz, a former financial executive with Johnson and Johnson, and a member of the Torrey Pines planning board for five years, questioned why Lightner has taken campaign contributions from Kilroy executives and people affiliated with the developer.
On the other hand, Ridz said, Lightner has strictly followed a city attorney’s opinion in opting not to attend local planning board hearings in which the project is discussed.
“To me, our voice is being silenced,” said Ridz, who contends that Lightner should recuse herself when the Kilroy project comes before the council.
Lightner said, however, that she fully intends to vote on the project. She said the opinions of contributors — who have fallen on both sides of the issue — won’t influence her vote.
“I have definitely voted against people who have given me money in the past,” said Lightner. “My special interest is the community, and I will support the people in the community.”
Ellis said he shares the concerns of community members who question the density of the One Paseo project and the traffic it would generate.
“I’m worried about the scale. I think it’s too robust and we’ve got to take a good hard look” at the project, he said. He faulted Lightner for not doing more to facilitate a discussion between the developer and residents.
“I’m suggesting she engage and facilitate a conversation with the stakeholders more aggressively than she has,” Ellis said.
However, Lightner cited her ability to bring the concerns of community members to City Hall as one of the key accomplishments of her first term.
“It’s critically important the communities have a voice in what’s going on. We have delivered that voice to the neighborhoods,” she said.
All four candidates said they support restoring operating hours for city libraries and recreation centers that were cut in recent years when the city faced budget shortfalls.
Meanwhile, Ellis was leading in fundraising as of March 17, the most recent campaign finance filing period. Including a $30,000 loan from himself, Ellis had raised $204,515, followed by Lightner with $171,093. Pease reported $11,039 raised, including a $5,000 loan from himself, and Ridz reported a $999 loan from himself to his campaign.