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candidates forum—their lone meeting of the season—cures ranged from less reliance on expensive consultants and quickly outdated software (Lou Melendez) to “power purchase agreements” and selling naming rights to city facilities (Racquel Vasquez).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