By Joe Tash
Steve Danon and Dave Roberts, who are both running to succeed Pam Slater-Price on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, traded jabs and put forward their ideas for generating jobs and improving San Diego’s business climate in a lively debate on Monday, Sept. 24.
The debate was sponsored by the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce, and all of the questions — most of which centered on topics related to business — were prepared by the chamber’s public policy committee. Reporter Alison St. John of KPBS radio served as moderator.
The debate drew a crowd of more than 200, according to chamber officials, which was highly partisan, applauding loudly following responses by their favored candidate. The event was held at the offices of AMN Healthcare in Carmel Valley.
Slater-Price’s retirement means that a new member will join the Board of Supervisors for the first time in 16 years. All five of the current board members are Republican, white, and graduates of San Diego State University. Roberts, a Democrat and Solana Beach deputy mayor, is running against Danon, a Republican and chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray.
Danon beat Roberts 33 to 31 percent in the June primary, but at Monday’s debate, Roberts cited a poll he commissioned as indicating he is now in the lead. The 3rd Supervisorial District includes Carmel Valley, Solana Beach and Del Mar, and stretches inland to encompass Rancho Bernardo and Escondido.
Danon, who spoke first, immediately went on the attack, criticizing Roberts for voting in favor of a business license fee and other fee increases in Solana Beach.
Among Danon’s key issues is streamlining the county’s permit process for businesses, and ending a $5 million neighborhood investment program that has been called a “slush fund” by critics because each supervisor controls a $1 million share of the money.
Roberts touted his own business experience, including his work as an executive with defense contractor SAIC. He linked Danon to the inability of Congress to deal with federal debt and budget issues, and said Danon has failed to support the popular network of community planning groups that advise the Board of Supervisors on land use issues.
“Why can’t Congress get its act together? Why can’t Steve tell his boss what to do back there?” Roberts said.
“Dave, if you wanted to run against Congressman Brian Bilbray, you had that chance two years ago,” Danon responded.
While Danon ridiculed the use of the neighborhood investment money for grants to arts groups such as the San Diego Opera and Old Globe Theater — recommended by Slater-Price, who has endorsed Roberts — Roberts said the money is important to such groups as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the San Diego Burn Institute. Roberts said the program should be maintained, as long as it is run in a “fair, open and transparent manner.”
The two candidates also clashed over transportation issues. Danon said Interstate 5 must be widened because high-tech and bio-tech firms and other businesses need to be able to efficiently move their products. He said, however, that he also supports mass transit and livable, walkable communities, with plenty of bike paths.
But Roberts — echoing the concerns of many North County residents who have battled with Caltrans over controversial plans to widen I-5 — said the county needs representatives “who understand we can’t pave our way out of our transportation problems.”
“I want to make San Diego County the bike capital of the world,” Roberts said.
Throughout the debate, discussion came back to jobs and the economy, and which candidate has the best vision and credentials to make a difference.
Danon said the county needs a “culture revolution” to become more business friendly and dramatically cut down waiting times for permits. Supervisors should leverage resources in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, and work closely with industry and the defense community, he said.
“You need a strong advocate,” to identify and execute on economic opportunities, which will create jobs and reduce poverty, Danon said.
Roberts said he has the right mix of business and government experience across such industries as high-tech, real estate and health care. He’s also got the right temperament, he said, to work collaboratively with a variety of public and private entities.
“I pull people together, that’s my reputation,” he said. “The newspaper says I’m likeable, that’s probably one of my best traits.”