Solana Beach City Council race one of the most heated in years

By Joe Tash

In 2008 and again in 2010, election time in the city of Solana Beach was a sleepy affair. When no one challenged incumbent City Council members seeking new terms, elections were cancelled.

This year, things are much livelier: six people, including one incumbent, are running for three seats on the five-member council. The five challengers are all making their first run for elected office, although they have all been involved in civic, volunteer and business activities.

No matter what happens on Nov. 6, the composition of the council will change, as two council veterans, Mayor Joe Kellejian and Councilman Dave Roberts, step down (Roberts is running for county supervisor).

The six candidates include incumbent Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, who is seeking her third term, along with David Zito, Peter Zahn, Vickie Driver, Paul Frankel and Daniel Powell. The six candidates are aligned in two groups; Driver, Frankel and Powell question the city’s direction and charge that it is facing financial difficulties, while Heebner, Zahn and Zito contend Solana Beach is on a solid financial footing, and they generally support the current council’s agenda.

Earlier this month, Driver, Frankel and Powell declined to attend a candidate forum co-sponsored by the Solana Beach Clean & Green Committee and the Solana Homeowners Group. In a joint statement, the three said, “We have decided not to participate in the Oct. 8 candidate forum because the format of the event is not conducive to an informative and broad discussion of the issues most important to Solana Beach residents.”

Driver, Frankel and Powell have also issued at least one joint mailer and a blast email critical of the city’s finances, which Heebner, in an email to supporters, slammed as “blatantly false.” (See story below.)

While the members of the two groups support each others’ candidacies, both sides deny they are running as a slate. Rather, they point out similarities in viewpoint and experience between themselves and the candidates they support.

As of Sept. 30, the end of the latest reporting period, none of the candidates had a compelling lead in fund-raising. According to campaign finance statements released by the city clerk’s office, Driver raised $3,825 and loaned her campaign $1,000; Frankel raised $1,320 and loaned his campaign $5,000; Heebner raised $3,410 and loaned her campaign $1,000; Powell raised $2,320; Zahn raised $2,361 and loaned his campaign $2,000; and Zito raised $3,325 and loaned his campaign $2,000.

The Solana Beach Sun conducted telephone interviews with the six candidates. Following in random order are brief profiles of the six people running for seats on the Solana Beach City Council:

Peter Zahn

Zahn is a business attorney who has served on the board of the Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce, and also as an organizer for Fiesta del Sol, the city’s annual music festival at Fletcher Cove.

He also founded the nonprofit U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit business association, and serves as the group’s board chairman. Although the state had suspended the Green Chamber’s corporate status in June for failure to file a 2009 tax return, Zahn said the paperwork has since been filed and the suspension should soon be lifted.

Among the major issues facing the city, said Zahn, are protecting and enhancing the city’s quality of life and community character.

“The key thing is to make sure we have balance in terms of the amount of development that goes on in the city, while maintaining our small town coastal character,” he said.

He said some of his opponents are supported by real estate and construction interests, and one of the candidates has called for “over-the-counter permitting, presumably with little review… This is really a throwback to 1987 when we had unbridled development… that was one of the key reasons we incorporated.”

Zahn said he would use his business and legal experience to help attract and retain growing companies, and to bring both visitors and revenue to the city. He supports the current Highway 101 improvement project, and said he would like to see similar efforts along the Cedros and Stevens corridors, to create “attractive, livable, walkable spaces.”

“My sense is that the city is generally doing very well. There are certain areas we have to keep the spotlight on, how we spend, how we budget, the choices we make from a fiscal standpoint. By and large, the policy choices have been very good,” he said.

Daniel Powell

Five years after graduating from USC with a business degree, Powell launched his own real estate sales and leasing firm, focusing on office, retail and industrial property, which he still runs. He also volunteers with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy and the Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Reforming the way the city does business — and interacts with its customers — would be one of his priorities if elected, he said.

“I would like to see city government be more like an Apple store or a Starbucks, and less like the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said.

“I feel that sometimes the people that actually pay the bills are neglected and frankly almost treated as second class citizens, I think that’s wrong,” Powell said.

Two of his business tenants have come to him, complaining that months after contacting the city, they still had not received the sign permits they requested.

“I want my tenants to come and say ‘Wow, that was a pleasant experience’ (dealing with the city),” Powell said. “That hasn’t happened once. And I’ve owned property in Solana Beach since 1996, and I’ve probably had maybe 100 tenants.”

Powell said the city should get back to basics such as maintaining roads, public safety and sanitation, and he criticized the council for putting a business license tax on the ballot, which voters rejected.

“There have been decisions made by this current council that I fundamentally disagree with and that is why I’m running,” he said.

Lesa Heebner

Heebner, who has run her own kitchen design and culinary business and written two cookbooks, was first elected to the council in 2004, and she ran unopposed for her second term in 2008. She decided to run again, she said, because, “There’s more work to do.”

Among the work still pending, she said, is a planned update of the city’s general plan, or blueprint for development; completion of the Highway 101 renovation, for which she worked to secure funding through a federal loan program designed to stimulate economic growth; and a joint effort with the North County Transit District to redevelop the land around the Solana Beach train station.

Although some of her opponents have criticized both the cost and the scope of the Highway 101 renovations, which includes widening sidewalks, adding trees and landscaping and other amenities, as well as adding parking and improving storm water drainage, Heebner defended the project as a needed, fiscally-sound endeavor.

While the renovation project is intended to draw visitors to the 101 corridor and stimulate economic activity once it is completed, Heebner said it’s already paying dividends. One property along the corridor that had been purchased for $3 million and remained undeveloped has recently sold for $8 million, she said.

“I would say doing the 101 is already paying off for our community,” she said.

According to Heebner, construction of the 101 project will cost $7 million, plus $564,000 for design and engineering. The city will pay for the work with $5.5 million in bonds, along with some $2 million from reserves earmarked for such projects, Heebner said. The total tally for the project, including interest on the bonds, is about $14.5 million.

Challenger Paul Frankel said the project will cost more than $18 million including interest and design costs, bringing it to about $15 million when a federal interest subsidy is factored in. (He also questioned whether the subsidy money could be allocated to other projects.)

Heebner also took issue with a mailer sent out by her opponents, which she said contained untrue information about the city’s finances.

“They don’t have issues to run on so they’re making up false claims,” she said. “Our city is in absolutely fine financial state. We are healthy.”

Vickie Driver

Driver, a research scientist and co-founder of a Sorrento Valley biotech company, has volunteered with the city’s safety commission and its emergency response team.

High on her list of priorities is improving traffic circulation and road safety in the city, around schools such as Skyline Elementary and Earl Warren Middle School, and for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“I hear from everybody that traffic is terrible trying to get in and out of the neighborhood, twice a day, every day,” during school drop-off and pickup times, she said.

Traffic safety is a big issue for kids and parents, Driver said, “Especially if we’re trying to make Solana Beach a biking and walking friendly city and trying to get away from cars.”

Another issue, she said, is communication between the city and its constituents. She said business owners along Highway 101 have complained that they weren’t informed when construction was about to begin on the major street renovation project, which was detrimental to their business.

Either the city didn’t get the word out properly, or the business owners didn’t pay attention, she said. But in any case, “somehow the communications gap needs to be bridged.”

If elected, Driver promised to base her decisions on fact, rather than emotion.

“I think my scientific background brings an analytical point of view to any of the issues that might arise,” she said.

She said it’s been clear from the beginning of the campaign that Heebner, Zito and Zahn are running together, which “more or less” means that she, Powell and Frankel are on the same side.

Although the race is nonpartisan, she said she is a Democrat, Frankel is a Republican and Powell is an independent.

“We still see eye to eye on most of the topics we discuss. I think that would bring healthy discourse to the City Council,” she said.

David Zito

A software architect with Hewlett Packard, Zito has lived in Solana Beach for 21 years.

“I am running because I have a 20-year history of volunteering in the community in many different ways,” he said. Among his past involvement in civic affairs was authoring a ballot proposition, approved by voters, that requires a public vote for any zoning or general plan change that increases density. His “lengthy list of endorsements” testifies to his involvement in the community, he said.

While he, Zahn and Heebner are “not a slate,” he said the three candidates do have the same vision: “(we) believe Solana Beach is best as a small, beautiful, charming coastal community.”

In contrast, he said, their opponents, keep talking about reducing restrictions on development. “That seems like a big-growth message… that’s not my vision for Solana Beach.”

Among the most important issues facing the city is the pending general plan update, and making people understand the city is in good financial shape. The city also must work to complete a land-use plan with the California Coastal Commission, so that residents and businesses won’t have to get approval from both the city and the commission when they want to do work on their property. Once the plan is approved, he said, only properties along the beach bluff will still need separate approval from the commission.

He supports the 101 renovation as “an excellent use of funds,” although conceding that construction is causing disruptions for local businesses. He compared the renovation to another major project, the lowering of the railroad tracks below Lomas Santa Fe, which also created traffic headaches, but was seen as a success once it was completed.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Zito said. “We just need to get through the pain of doing it.”

Paul Frankel

Frankel, co-owner of a painting and floor-coating company, has coached and volunteered with the Solana Beach Little League. He said he decided to make his first run for public office after he was told of an incident in which supporters of Councilwoman Lesa Heebner approached a home-builder friend outside City Hall, and told him he had to change the plans for a project he was working on, or they would see to it that the project was not approved.

While Frankel stressed that Heebner was not personally involved, he was troubled by the reputed incident.

“I mulled it around and thought about what the appropriate response would be, and decided the only way this is going to change is if we have some new faces at City Hall, so I decided to run,” Frankel said.

Heebner questioned why Frankel didn’t tell her about it. “I would have looked into it like I do everything,” she said.

Frankel said he would pursue three main goals if elected: restore property rights that he believes have been compromised by actions of the current council; refocus city government’s attention on basics such as public safety, including traffic issues; and try to make Solana Beach a friendlier place for residents, visitors and businesses.

The only piece of the 101 renovation he supported, he said, was the sewer and drainage work that would have cost $2 million to $3 million. Instead of pursuing the larger project, he said, the city should have focused on adding parking to the Solana Beach train station, allowing a reduction in business parking requirements, and making it easier for businesses to locate in the city.

“I believe the Highway 101 project is icing on the cake when we haven’t baked the cake yet,” he said.

A new council majority is needed to change the direction of the city, he said.

“This election is very pivotal for the city. If Vickie Driver and Daniel Powell and myself are not elected, very little if anything will change in the community… it will be pretty much business as usual,” he said.

Solana Beach officials respond to mailer about city’s financial problems

By Claire Harlin

As Election Day inches closer and the Solana Beach City Council race heats up, it’s likely residents have received at least one of a handful of mailers that have been sent out or received a forwarded email or two in their inbox. As with any race, contention is building, fingers are pointing and information — both accurate and inaccurate — is flying, and it’s up to voters to weed through it. One particular joint campaign flyer sent out by candidates Vickie Driver, Daniel Powell and Paul Frankel, however, likely has caused the most stir, even at City Hall.

The mailer says the city is in “serious financial trouble” and points to budget deficits and high litigation costs spent defending lawsuits, in addition to calling out City Councilmember and candidate Lesa Heebner specifically for increasing taxes and fees — including a $3,000 home remodeling fee, a 30-percent increase in the hotel tax, a trash fee, increases in two business fees and a new business tax.

City Manager David Ott said the city’s financial trouble was “significantly overstated” in the mailer, which also attributed the city’s borrowing of $3 million from the city’s sanitation fund to being a means to cover increased employee pension costs that were a result of the “overly-generous benefits approved by Lesa Heebner.”

The city’s unfunded pension liability of just over $3 million began accumulating in 1986, according to a memo by Councilman Tom Campbell. Although Solana Beach was the first city in the region to implement full pension reform, the city was still faced with a bill to CALPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System), and had the city paid the pension administrator at its interest rate of 7.75 percent, interest would have totaled more than $1 million, Ott said. It made financial sense, he said, to borrow the money from the sanitation fund because it was at a lower interest rate and the city would be able to pay it off in eight years as opposed to 12.

“It was a prudent, well thought-out financial move to save the city money and increase our investment return on the sanitation fund at the same time,” Ott said.

In response to the city’s litigation costs, which the mailer showed jumping from $10,761 to $552,477 since 2008, Ott said, “One year you may have litigation but another you may not.”

He said much of that increase can be attributed to one particularly expensive case, in which the city was sued under the claim that sewer lines were leaking and causing inundation. The city won the case and Ott said that the city has not only received about $30,000 reimbursed but it saved itself from having to pay more than $1.2 million in property damages and the other side’s legal fees.

In Campbell’s memo, he also called inaccurate the mailer’s claim that there have been budget deficits in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. He said Solana Beach has “weathered the stormy recession” and is “the envy of most small cities.”

He said in 2009 and 2010 the city did budget for a deficit to prevent cutting back services, but in every other year from 2003 to 2011 the city operated under a budget surplus.