Del Mar council candidates debate city issues

Dozens of people recently packed Del Mar City Hall for the first of two council candidate forums.

About 90 community members filled the room, some sitting outdoors, to hear the six candidates share their opinions on a variety of issues facing Del Mar during the Sept. 29 forum in the council chambers at Southfair.

Incumbents Mayor Sherryl Parks and Councilman Al Corti, along with challengers Jim Benedict, David Druker, Ellen Haviland and T. Patrick Stubbs are vying for three open seats. Councilman Don Mosier has decided not to run for re-election.

Council candidates had an opportunity to share their top priorities for the city as well as discuss several top issues in Del Mar during the forum, which was moderated by the League of Women Voters of North County San Diego.

Parks and Corti said they would like to finish the work they have started on a variety of projects, including completing the new Del Mar Civic Center.

City officials and community members kicked off the construction of the complex with a groundbreaking ceremony in September. The roughly $18 million project is expected to be completed in spring 2018.

“Working together we’ve accomplished a lot that we can be proud of today,” Parks said. “I am running for council to finish what we started.”

“Over the last four years, we’ve accomplished much … and we’ve done it all in a fiscally responsible manner,” Corti added. “I ask you now to allow me to serve you another four years because there is much to do and finish.”

From revitalizing downtown to maintaining safe access to the beach and bluffs, to solving the city’s short-term rental issue, incumbents and challengers agreed on most priorities. Druker, who previously served on the council from 1996 to 2008, disagreed with the other candidates on two key issues.

Druker opposed a proposal to end the city’s law enforcement contract with the Sheriff’s Department and build a standalone police department. Instead of creating its own department, he said the city should expand its contract with the Sheriff’s Department.

“We do not need our own police force,” Druker said. “The added bureaucracy, the added potential liability, could kill Del Mar.”

Since its incorporation in 1959, Del Mar has contracted with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services. The city began exploring its law enforcement options more than three years ago when residents raised concerns over the cost of services, the lack of police presence in the community, and the slow response to low-priority calls. There have also been concerns over the rising cost of services.

Benedict, a member of the city’s finance committee, spoke in support of the proposal. The sheriff’s subcommittee, an offshoot of the finance committee, has studied the costs and supported the idea of a standalone department.

Benedict said he would like to hold a public workshop after the New Year so community members can learn more about the proposal.

Stubbs also supported making a change and Corti, a liaison to the finance committee, agreed.

“The security services that our community desires and needs is not being met by the Sheriff’s contract and the Sheriff’s contract is spiraling out of control,” Corti said.

Parks and Haviland both said they need more information before they can make a decision on developing a police department.

“I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before I can support having our own police department, but I do think that as a community, we should look at ways to better address community policing so people feel like the individual characteristics of their neighborhood are understood by the law enforcement community in our city,” Haviland said.

Del Mar voters will voice their opinions on a variety of issues this November.

In addition to selecting three candidates to fill three council seats, voters will have their say on two Del Mar initiatives. Druker also disagreed with the other candidates on one of these initiatives.

Driven by opponents of the controversial Watermark project, Measure R, if passed, would require voter approval for development projects in any commercial zone that are 25,000 square feet or larger by amending the community plan, housing element and municipal code. The council in July agreed to place the initiative on the November ballot rather than adopt an ordinance they didn’t support.

“There is no history of a runaway council in Del Mar,” Parks said. “Time and again, when a big project had a split vote or confusion in the community, our council has brought that project to the vote of the citizens.”

Druker argued that Del Mar residents should be able to decide on large developments.

“Del Mar residents should have the ability for direct say on major developments,” Druker said. “Measure R gives us this ability to have a say on changes to the community plan on development only that are larger than 25,000 square feet.”

All candidates, however, said they supported Measure Q, another ballot initiative that would increase the city’s sales tax by one cent to help cover the costs of various city services and infrastructure projects.

The finance committee initially proposed the sales tax increase earlier this year as a way to help pay to underground utility poles throughout the city. The council later decided that revenues could also help pay for other projects, such as implementing the Shores Park master plan and improving streetscapes.

Supporters have said the measure would create a way for visitors to help pay for some of the city services and infrastructure. Many local business owners, however, have opposed the measure and argued it would create a burden on local businesses.

When discussing the possible negative impacts of the initiative, Stubbs said it could set a tone for how Del Mar feels about visitors, while Druker said it could serve as a disadvantage to businesses.

“This tax may have some impact on the businesses in town and make them uncompetitive with businesses in neighboring communities,” Druker said. “So therefore, I believe, we need to help the businesses with some of this money by doing Camino del Mar streetscape so that they will have, and we will have in turn, a more inviting atmosphere to serve the tourists.”

While acknowledging the concerns of local businesses, Haviland said she thinks the tax is “justified.”

“We have a lot of city improvements that are currently unfunded that I think we need and will greatly benefit the city — not just the residents, but also the businesses,” Haviland said. “I would want the funds to go to the top priorities that are determined by our residents and how those funds get spent would also require citizen oversight.”

If the measure passes, candidates agreed that the citizens should set the funding priorities.

“I would be looking back to the community as to how you want us to prioritize that money and I would support that decision,” Corti said.

Benedict was the only candidate who gave his personal opinion on how he wished the money would be spent. He championed undergrounding the city’s utilities.

“They will never come down unless we find a way to fund it,” he said. “I think this is a wonderful way for us to improve the quality of life for our city and improve our safety.”

Another forum to discuss Measure R is scheduled for 6 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5, also in the council chambers.

Del Mar council candidates will have another opportunity to share their views on issues facing the city in the second candidate forum from 6-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Powerhouse Community Center. Hosted by the Del Mar Times, the forum will be moderated by former NBC San Diego news anchor Susan Taylor, who now serves as director of external affairs at Scripps Health.