New Del Mar mayor places civil discourse atop his agenda

As Del Mar's new mayor, Dwight Worden's top priority for 2018 is to increase the civility of the discussion and debate around contentious city issues, whether it's short-term rentals, the pros and cons of a Del Mar city police department or how to provide more affordable housing.

Worden, 70, is serving his first one-year term as mayor, a largely ceremonial post in this seaside town that rotates among members of the City Council. Worden is nearing the end of his first four-year term on the council, following a 30-plus year legal career during which he represented most of the municipalities in San Diego County at one time or another, and even served as Del Mar's city attorney for seven or eight years.

During the past year, the community has been riven over such issues as police protection, the firing of the city's popular chief lifeguard and whether residents should be allowed to rent their homes to vacationers. As mayor, Worden said, he wants to "have our community not be so fractured and angry at each other."

Worden said he's been dismayed to see the breakdown in civility in American politics. "Over my dead body am I going to let that creep into my town."

In an interview at a Leucadia coffee shop, where he had biked from his home in Del Mar, Worden said he was dismayed to hear from some Del Mar residents that they don't want to speak before the City Council for fear of how they will treated by the audience. That's why he plans to enforce civility during council meetings, and encourage a similar, civil atmosphere during meetings of city advisory committees.

"I would like people to feel like we're sitting in someone's living room talking about important issues," said Worden, who in addition to his experience as an attorney on environmental and city government issues, plays upright bass, fiddle and mandolin with a bluegrass band.

Worden, who said he hasn't decided yet if he will run for another term on the council in November, also wants to make sure that the new city hall, which is under construction, is up and running smoothly by the end of 2018. The project has been in the works for decades and is on time and under budget, which he called a "minor miracle."

His third top priority is meeting a state-imposed goal of providing 22 new affordable housing units in the next four years.

"Either we're going to make it or I'm going to die on the hill trying," said Worden.

Reaching the goal is both necessary to comply with state law and the city's community plan, and it's also the right thing to do, Worden said. "A good healthy community is a diverse community."

Del Mar will have to look at a variety of options, from so-called "tiny houses" to the city purchase of a small apartment building, to accessory dwelling units on residential properties, Worden said. The city is also exploring a partnership with the Del Mar Fairgrounds, under which some dilapidated housing behind the racetrack could be upgraded for disabled access, and used for year-round worker housing.

He conceded that, in order to meet its housing goal, the city will have to "fight, scrounge, beg, borrow and steal."

While not as time-sensitive as the affordable housing issue, Worden said, the question of how Del Mar will provide law enforcement services for its residents is an important one.

While the community is split over maintaining a contract with the county Sheriff's Department or starting a city police department, Worden said a "middle option" might be the answer for Del Mar. That would involve maintaining a contract with the sheriff to handle serious crimes, while hiring non-sworn community service officers to handle more routine situations, such as traffic control and crime prevention.

Through that hybrid model, he said, the city might be able to achieve its goals of better service and lower response times without having to pay more for police protection.

Worden said he looks forward to continuing his work on the council in 2018, particularly because of the close contact and exchange of ideas between city leaders and their constituents.

"That's what makes local government so great," he said.

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