Lightner faces down first-term challenges



Sherri Lightner marked her first anniversary as District One representative on the San Diego City Council this month as a host of major issues bubbled on the city’s front burner — a massive budget shortfall, a proposed renovation of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the widening of Interstate 5 through North County and ongoing debate over the I-5/SR 56 connectors, to name a few.

In October, Lightner reorganized her office after the departure of chief of staff John Rivera, and she has opted to supervise her eight-member staff herself.

One year after her transition from La Jolla and University City activist to elected official, Lightner, a mechanical engineer by training, said she has no regrets.

“It’s great. It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun. I’m employed by a lot of really terrific people,” she said, referring to her constituents.

One of the thorniest issues she’s dealt with so far was a projected $179 million budget deficit over the next 18 months. Lightner joined the council majority in two votes this month supporting Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan to close the gap, which included employee layoffs, reduced park maintenance and cuts to library hours and lifeguard staffing.

However, she is working with council colleagues to restore the city’s $368,885 contribution to the multi-agency San Dieguito River Park, another casualty of the mayor’s budget plan.

Among the options under consideration for funding the popular park — which stretches from Julian to Del Mar — are moving the payments from the Parks and Recreation Department to the better-funded Water Department, and collecting overdue rent from the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club for land it leases from the city.

She and her staff are also digging into an environmental impact report for the fairgrounds expansion project, which is proposed to include new exhibit halls, a 330-room condominium hotel, a 60,000-square-foot health club and training facility, the paving of dirt parking areas and other construction.

Although the ultimate decision will be made by the fair board, whose members are appointed by the governor, Lightner said residents of her district, which includes La Jolla, Carmel Valley, Del Mar Mesa and Torrey Hills, have expressed concerns about such issues as traffic, the amount of construction proposed and biological impacts.

Members of community planning groups in her district, which advise Lightner and the City Council on planning issues, gave Lightner high marks for her accessibility and willingness to listen to their concerns, but noted that her true test may be yet to come, as key issues in the district begin to heat up.

Joe LaCava, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, said Lightner and her staff have worked well with the community during her first year in office.

He said they have been effective in letting the community know about city developments that affect La Jolla, and in helping La Jollans connect with the right city staff person to assist them with their concerns, whether it’s filling a pothole, street-cleaning or some other issue.

“I think she’s done a terrific job in light of the challenges of a difficult economy and the city’s budget troubles, as well as the challenges of being a freshman council member,” LaCava said. “I’m very excited about the years ahead and working with her on La Jolla issues.”

In 2010, the community is likely to work with Lightner on such issues as improvements to the Torrey Pines Road corridor, an update of the La Jolla Shores planned district ordinance and the La Jolla business improvement district, LaCava added.

Among her own goals for 2010, said Lightner, are to work toward a comprehensive water policy for the city, and to bring “green and clean” technology and jobs to the city.

“We’re perfectly positioned for it. We should be the solar city,” she said.

She’s also launched an effort to “re-connect” with the communities she serves, which will include regular meetings with the community planning groups.

“I’m glad to be where I am and I’ll do anything I can to help out the community,” she said.