Lightner, Ellis answer tough questions at City Council debate


By Claire Harlin

Traffic, transit and development in the rapidly growing Carmel Valley/Del Mar Heights area were only a few issues that steered an animated debate between San Diego District 1 City Council candidates Ray Ellis (R) and incumbent Sherri Lightner (D) on Sept. 19 at a forum presented by the Carmel Valley News, Del Mar Times and La Jolla Light.

More than 300 people packed the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium for the debate, in which the candidates fielded questions from both the audience and the community newspapers’ staff — a means to test their prowess and display their very distinct philosophies. For four years, Lightner has served District 1, which encompasses Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights. The former mechanical engineer is fighting a tough re-election campaign following a close June primary election, in which she garnered only 41.5 percent of the vote to trail Ellis’ 45.6-percent win. The race is crucial in that a win for Ellis, a Carmel Valley resident, would result in a shift to a Republican majority on the council.

Just as the Interstate 5/SR-56 interchange project, meant to link I-5 South to 56 East and 56 West to I-5 North, was a big issue in the 2008 election, it resurfaced again as a prominent concern for both candidates. When asked what would be the best solution — a direct connector, auxiliary lane improvements, a hybrid or a hybrid with a flyover — Ellis said every alternative has potential problems, but the flyover would definitely disrupt the neighborhoods due to sound. Following the release of the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in June, Lightner has been vocal in her opposition to every alternative except one — no build. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is expected to make a decision on the preferred alternative by the end of the year.

Lightner said her priority as District 1 Councilwoman has been to bring a neighborhood voice to City Hall, and that goal remains, along with improving water supply and bringing jobs to San Diego. Ellis said he has been dedicating his life to volunteer work for the past six years, working with organizations such as Voices for Children and Second Chance, and his priority is helping to solve the city’s financial problems. As president of the city’s pension board, he said he has seen first-hand how San Diego’s pension liabilities have been draining the budget, and that’s why pension reform is a top priority.

“I’ve been working on pension reform since before Lightner was on the City Council,” said Ellis, adding that Lightner should have worked harder on the issue and put it on the ballot.

Lightner replied, “I’m the only one up here who’s actually implemented pension reform … That’s why we’ve saved the city a billion dollars since I’ve been elected.” She also said retiree healthcare reform that took place during her term resulted in more than $800 million in savings to the city.

Lighter became passionate when the subject of public transit came up — and she said she’s been working especially hard to put more transit in place in Carmel Valley due to both the lack of current transit options and the exponential growth of the community. Lighter was a driving force behind securing funding for a senior shuttle launched in Carmel Valley in February. She has also been advocating more east-to-west routes, and was able to secure both a route from Solana Beach to 4S Ranch and a route from Rancho Bernardo to Qualcomm Stadium.

“If you can’t tell, I really like transit,” Lightner said. “That’s where our future is.”

While neither candidate took a firm position on the future use of the San Diego Polo Club fields, located at the corner of El Camino Real and Via de la Valle, both recognized the importance of the property in its current use. In comparison to other sporting events, Ellis said the San Diego Surf Cup soccer tournament has one of the biggest economic impacts on the city, bringing in revenues that are comparable to that of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

The lease on the property expired earlier this year, and the bidding process was supposed to open up to potential tenants, but the city put the process on hold, pending a conclusion on the El Camino Real re-alignment project — which would affect the size of the property for lease.

(Note: just before presstime, this newspaper received word that the San Diego Polo Club should get some information about the lease process by the end of this month. See story on page 1 in this issue.)

Lightner said holding up the Polo Club lease process is “inappropriate.”

The use of the fields has been a concern for local environmentalists and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, and while Lighter acknowledged the environmental group would like to have the property, she said “the polo games are pretty amazing.”

Both Ellis and Lightner said they do not support Kilroy Realty’s mixed-use One Paseo project in its current form. Ellis said the size of the 1.8 million-square-foot project, which is currently under environmental review, is “way too robust for the community.”

“My wife and I are over there at least every other day and understand the impact on the community,” Ellis said. “There are still questions that need to be answered. There are more questions than answers.”

The project, planned for Del Mar Heights Road and El Camino Real, requires the alteration of a number of planning documents, including the community plan, and Lightner said that has residents rightfully concerned. She said she has been working with the developers, who are revising the plan due to community pressure, and her final decision will do no other than reflect what the community wants.

The candidates had a slightly different view on the state of the city’s finances. Lightner said the city has a surplus that has made it able to do things like start a police academy and increase lifeguard staffing, while cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco face millions in deficits. Ellis, however, said the surplus was a short-term situation and it’s now over, so the city needs to take charge.

“We have the tools to have a better bottom line, but we need to be more active in engaging that,” he said.

While Lightner opposed a special tax district that would fund the $520 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, she said she supports expanding the center — and can’t wait for it.

“I just have questions with the financing,” she said. “I’m not sure about a tourism marketing district.”

Ellis said, if elected, he would do whatever it takes to support the expansion, which would provide much-needed economic growth.

When asked about a special tax district that would ensure arts and culture entities have a dependable funding flow, however, Ellis said he would not support an increase. Still, he said he recognizes the importance of a vibrant arts community, from both a business and educational standpoint.

“It’s an economic driver and quality of life issue,” he said.

Lightner replied, “I support a penny for the arts.”

Not only that, she said she is glad to see some local schools incorporating art and music into their standard curriculum.

In a final question, moderator Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego associate political science professor, asked the candidates who they support in the San Diego mayoral race.

Lightner has worked closely with candidate Carl DeMaio, but said her full support goes to his opponent, Bob Filner.

“I believe he has a strong interest in the community and a fine understanding of the city and region as a whole,” she said, adding that he “actually knows that Mexico exists and might be important to our longevity here” when it comes to cross-border economic development.

Ellis declined to pick a candidate for mayor, but he said he’s in line with DeMaio on fiscal issues like pension reform.

“I have been trying to stay out of the partisan side,” he said. “That’s why our campaign has been able to attract Democrats and Republicans.”