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Candidates at Council Forum Wrestle Over Lemon Grove City Finances

Incumbent George Gastil bristles at being mocked for needing council pay to make ends meet.

How can Lemon Grove find the money to repair its pot-holed streets, revive its downtown and restore its shuttered Recreation Department?

At Monday night’s City Council candidates forum—their lone meeting of the season—cures ranged from less reliance on expensive consultants and quickly outdated software (Lou Melendez) to “power purchase agreements” and selling naming rights to city facilities (Racquel Vasquez).

One urged better downtown security and street cleanup (Mark Gracyk), and another saw inspiration in La Mesa’s downtown Village, calling on the city to recruit some “good restaurants” (Matt Mendoza).

George Gastil, the lone incumbent in the race for two council seats, said he wanted a 10-year plan and hoped to promote arts and culture in Lemon Grove.

But it was left to candidate Mike Richards to summarize the core dilemma facing City Hall.

It’s a Catch-22, said Richards, a purchasing manager.

“You can’t get top-line businesses (which generate sales-tax revenue for City Hall) without infrastructure,” he said. And without those tax revenues, you can’t build infrastructure.

With outgoing Councilwoman Mary England watching from the back of the middle school auditorium, the six candidates for Gastil’s seat and England’s vacated spot sparred for 90 minutes in a forum sponsored by Lemon Grove Patch.

Nearly 70 people attended the event moderated by Patch editor Christine Huard at Lemon Grove Academy for the Sciences and Humanities. 

They heard Melendez mock a council member—apparently Gastil—for saying he needed the modest council stipend of $800 a month.

When the Lemon Grove Little League recently asked the City Council for $4,000, Melendez said: “I asked the City Council: Why don’t you just donate your [monthly] salary? All of them in one month make $4,000. … One person on the council said, ‘No, we need that money to pay our bills.’  Can you believe that? They’re on the council because they need the money to pay their own bills. Wow.”

A visibly angry Gastil fought back.

“I’m an adjunct college professor. I make $30,000 [a year], teaching some of your kids. … I don’t make a whole lot. Do I use City Council to supplement my income? Yes,” he said sharply. “I do.”

But Gastil later would explain that he passed up a council pay raise and said, “I’ve actually saved the city $9,600—by slashing my own pay. I hesitated to mention that because people might think I’m insane.”

Democrat Gastil sat next to Democrat Vasquez, who he is teaming with in pursuit of the four-year seats, and she came under attack as well, although obliquely.

Gracyk, who called himself the only candidate with private-sector experience, said: “I haven’t taken any special-interest money. I’m not bought or sold by any union boss … not in anyone’s pocket.”

He likely was alluding to Vasquez, whose website boasts endorsements from at least seven labor groups, including the American Federation of Teachers’ Local 1931, Deputy Sheriffs Association of San Diego County, Lemon Grove Firefighters’ Local 2728 and United Food and Commercial Workers’ Local 135.

The six candidates offered a wide range of replies to a question about Propositions T and Q on the Nov. 6 city ballot—the first an outside-sponsored measure to permit medical marijuana dispensaries in Lemon Grove and the second a City Hall-initiated measure that would tighten controls on such pot shops if passed.

Gastil said it was up to city voters to decide, “and I’m not going to tell them what they want.”

Gracyk, who said he spoke as a parent of two children, criticized Prop. T as being “brought by outside interests” and said he couldn’t support it. He called it “not the best influence for our children.”

Melendez was skeptical, saying he had looked at statistics and discovered that 80 percent of the profits from marijuana sales came from “people who are addicted to the product.”

He asked: “Do you really need dispensaries all over the state?”  He also has public-safety concerns.

Mendoza called it a “bad proposition on both sides.” He worried about lower property values for those selling next to a home growing medical marijuana.

“I don’t want to pimp out my city to get $700,000 in revenue,” Mendoza said. “That’s what the city would get. … But it’s wrong, and it’s bad for Lemon Grove.”

Richards got to the point: “The short answer is: No.”

He noted that marijuana is against federal law.

“If the people who want to smoke marijuana want to make it legal, they should be addressing the federal government. ... Change the law on the federal level, and the problem goes away.”

Vasquez pointed out that 1,600 Lemon Grove signatures put Prop. T on the ballot—“and that’s a lot of signatures for the city. As a council member, I’ll support the will of the people.”

She advised people who support medical marijuana to also vote for Prop. Q, “so there is oversight regarding those dispensaries.”

Candidates were given 90 seconds—policed by Coronado Patch editor Jennifer Vigil—to answer questions and also had opening and closing remarks.

In her 2-minute closing statement, Vasquez said she’d heard from residents that the three “key areas” were public safety, quality neighborhoods and economic development.

“There’s no one else who will work harder than I will work for you,” she said.

Gastil, noting some new development and plans for the Promenade, said: “We’ve got so many things here in Lemon Grove to be excited about.”

Gracyk, who again boasted of his combination of private-sector and public experience, said: “I pledge to you to work hand in hand with the members of the City Council, the school board … to collaborate, to do what’s best for the community.”

Lou Melendez, who several times Monday night said saying his name fast sounded like Lemon Days, added: “I’m trying to save the money that’s in your wallet.”

He showed a chart that he said depicted Lemon Grovians as paying twice as much in “sanitation fees” as any city in the county, which he said was a hidden tax that went to fuel a 10 percent staff salary boost and 17 percent increase in retirement benefits.

Melendez said. “You are the taxpayer. You are the one in charge. You are the owners of the city. You are the managers. You are the people who must protect what’s in that wallet.”

Mendoza cited his management experience and called it unacceptable that the Lemon Grove branch library, promised for a September debut, “probably won’t open until springtime.”

“We need to unite the community and make this a city that no one wants to leave,” Mendoza said.

Richards recalled the city’s origins from “residents who just got tired of the way the county was trying to manage us. It’s morphed into the typical government mentality of ‘spend more, tax more, fee more.’ This culture has to change or we cannot go forward.”

The entire candidates forum can be viewed here on Ustream.

Ivy Westmoreland October 30, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Big thanks to the PATCH for offering this debate. It was very interesting having the opportunity to listen, evaluate, and ponder each of the responses. I personally am a big supporter of Lou Menendez because of his background experience, the desire he shows in supporting sound financial decisions for our community, and most importantly has put together a plan of attack for solving many of our problems. I attended the debate and among others he showed confidence, was well prepared, and solid in his his answers. It is my wish that the next time a debate is organized that every seat is filled and only then will we as a community make the best choices for Lemon Grove.
James Davis October 30, 2012 at 04:45 PM
This was VERY informative. Thanks to the candidates and Patch for hosting this.
Helen Ofield October 30, 2012 at 05:50 PM
The four contenders for office did very well at last night's debate. To clarify a point in Ken Stone's thorough coverage, the new library was never promised for September. The projection for grand opening has always been spring 2013. Only the revamped Lemon Grove Academy for the Sciences & Humanities was promised for September, and it opened on time for the first generation of students to study in this impressive new magnet school.
Summer Hemphill October 30, 2012 at 08:23 PM
The State Appellate Courts have recently ruled that storefront medical marijuana dispensaries are legal in California & that cities are "pre-empted" from banning them ! Since the defeat of Measure T would conflict with these court rulings a no vote is absolutely meaningless & Lemon Grove will be forced to comply with state law regardless of whether it passes or not ! The fact that this is lost on every one of these candidates is further indication that they lack even a basic understanding of legal issues involved ! This is a controversy solely of the present City Council's making & could have been avoided had they chosen to put the needs of their constituents & the law before their unwarranted & ill-conceived biases in the first place ! The patients & dispensary operators are the law-abiding good guys (white hats) & the politicians who defy the law are the bad guys (black hats) ! I predict that Lemon Grove voters will side with the good guys & form a posse to drive the bad guys out of town ! Vote Yes on Measure T (good guys) & Vote No on Measure Q (bad guys) on November 6th !!!
Lemongrovelocal October 31, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Thank you patch for hosting the forum and for the article and the video which was nice since some of us were unable to attend. I think all the candidates have ambition and great ideas that will help make this city a better place. In response to Mr. Melendez’s comments about the Mr. Gastil’s need to take the modest council stipend, I think it was in bad taste and uncalled for. Maybe he is in a better situation than others but it does not mean he needs to mock them. Mr. Melendez…take a lesson from the schools in lemon grove and be a peace builder: “I am a peace builder, I pledge to praise people, to give up putdowns, to seek wise people, to notice and speak about hurts I caused. I will build peace at home, at school (work for this instance) and in my community each day.”
Lemongrovelocal October 31, 2012 at 02:13 AM
I’d also like to touch on the subject of sewer rates. I just received my taxes and noticed that my sewer service charge is $524.16 for the year or $43.68/month. I also remembered that about a year ago there was an article on the patch about the sewer rate case study and that there was a chart that showed Lemon Grove right in the middle.( http://lemongrove.patch.com/articles/berkeley-consulting-firm-regrets-error-on-la-mesa-sewer-rates#photo-6163040) What he didn’t point out was that each agency calculates their sewer fees differently. Some are consumption based (La Mesa) and some are based on a flat rate (Lemon Grove.) If you read the calculation breakdown for La Mesa, you would notice that their maximum single family bi-monthly bill is $88.14 or $44.07/month which means that some people do pay more than Lemon Grove.(http://www.cityoflamesa.com/DocumentView.aspx?DID=61) Also, given the fact that the City has been furloughed for 4-5 years, I hardly doubt that this sewer fee is a “hidden tax” to fuel a 10 percent staff salary. The salary schedule is on the website and hasn’t changed much over the last few years (http://www.ci.lemon-grove.ca.us/documents/58/Salary%20Plan%20July%201%202010%20approv_1.PDF). I’d like to know where Mr. Melendez is getting his numbers! I wish each of the candidates good luck and I ask the voters to do their research before they vote.
Jennifer Lynn Mendoza October 31, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Thanks so much to the Patch for hosting this event. It was informative and enlightening to hear everything all of the candidates had to say. I was only disappointed that more Lemon Grove voters were not in attendance.
Michael Richards October 31, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Lemon Grove is at a crossroads, much like California and the US. Government's can not continue to spend more than they or the public can afford. Our City has been able with some rather hard decisions to servive these past few years but must continue to be very pactical and conservative on decisions affecting our community. I think if the persons attending this meeting listened to each and every question and answer by the different candidates, the direction of this election and the City will become clear.
Christine Huard (Editor) November 01, 2012 at 02:57 AM
Good point about the library. A Patch report from July 13, 2011, says the library is projected to open in early 2013: http://patch.com/A-kcx8

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