VISTA — Though election season and electoral races draw out differences between candidates, a Sept. 18 Vista mayoral candidate forum bore out at least a decent chunk of the opposite, too. That is, despite having plenty of differences in style and in policy proposals, the three candidates on the ballot for the city’s Nov. 6 mayoral election share many similar views, as well.
The three candidates — Republican Party Mayor Judy Ritter, local business owner and Republican Dominic D’Agostini, and independent City Councilman Joe Green — sat on a panel at the Shadowridge Golf Club in Vista, which played host to a question-and-answer session moderated by the Vista Free Press. More than 90 people filled the room at the golf club.
Many contentious city issues were raised during the forum, including the Measure Z referendum initiative on allowing storefront marijuana dispensaries into the city, homelessness and its accompanying mental health crisis, housing development and housing density, the “sanctuary city” debate and the city’s involvement in that arena, and whether or not the city should have its own police force, among other issues. On some of those issues there was broad support from the candidates, while on others there were sharp differences.
Among the biggest differences in policy views came on the marijuana issue, with Ritter saying she is against storefronts selling the recreational drug, saying it would fundamentally change the character of the city.
“I think it is going to change our city,” Ritter said, adding that Vista used to be the “meth capital,” where people would come to get the drug. “I think it will bring our city down and it will take a long time to bring the image of our city up.”
On the other side of the debate — and on each side of the table, with Ritter seated in the middle — the two other candidates came out in support of Measure Z. Some against the ballot initiative have said it would have a corrupting influence on children, to which D’Agostini compared it to the arcade game establishment Dave and Buster’s, which sells alcohol despite being a venue primarily for youth recreation.
Saying he felt it was only a “matter of time until it becomes federally legal,” D’Agostini said that he thought Vista should get ahead of the curve and begin developing its cannabis industry to bring “tax dollars into the city.” But the storefronts should be well-regulated and zoned, much in the same way bars and taverns are, he said.
Green came at the issue from a legal perspective, saying the city is still 22 years behind the 1996 California state law which legalized medical marijuana. It is time to get with the times, he opined.
“I feel like our council and the council I sit with right now is the reason why this regulation is even on the ballot,” Green said. “Our inability to implement a policy that allows a limited number of marijuana dispensaries within our town is the reason our citizens’ initiative is on the ballot. If we could have come up with a policy before the signatures came up, we’d already have a policy in place. Unfortunately, the council I sit with is scared of marijuana.”
Green also chided the city for what he said was ignoring the will of its residents who, in a poll, stated at a rate of 67 percent that they would like storefront marijuana dispensaries in Vista.
The “sanctuary city” law issue, too, brought a 2-to-1 split along the same lines on how the city of Vista should involve itself in the debate over SB 54, the California Values Act. That bill, under a specified set of circumstances, calls for local law enforcement officials in the state to go against the grain and not work as agents on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Green, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the city’s involvement in the issue, called for a diametrically different approach to the issue. It is one he coined the “Vista Values Act.”
“I feel the California Values Act could just as easily be called the Vista Values Act,” Green stated. “I don’t support the filing of the amicus brief … because of the demographic I represent in Vista and simply because I’m not elected to a partisan office. It’s not about being a Republican or Democrat, it’s about being a Vistan.”
D’Agostini said that he initially supported the city’s current approach on the issue, with the City Council voting on June 26 to join as an amicus curiae signatory in the Trump administration’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court calling for a reversal of SB 54. But then, as he did research, he said his views changed.
“I didn’t want to harbor illegal criminals in my town, but after researching and filtering through a lot of information, I’m going to go against my party on this one and I would vote against joining the amicus brief,” said D’Agostini. “At this point, this is between the federal and state government and shouldn’t be decided at a city-level. This is a law set by California and until the law is changed, I feel we should follow it.”
For her part, Vitter took more of a conventional law and order-type view on the issue, saying she supports the city’s current approach on the issue because “we are a nation of laws” and the state should abide by federal law.
“We are a nation of laws and we need to follow the national laws,” Ritter said. “And that’s why (the Vista City Council) voted 3-1 to add our name to the amicus brief for the lawsuit that is the United States of America v. State of California, so that’s kind of what’s that all about.”
Both Green and D’Agostini also championed having received no endorsements from other politicians and only have received support from members of the Vista community. Green, perhaps in a veiled dig at his Republican Party City Council colleague John Franklin, also said he has no ambitions to run for any higher offices other than mayor of Vista. Franklin, as his side business, manages campaigns for Republican Party congressional candidates, including — most recently in the California’s 49th Congressional District — Darrell Issa and Diane Harkey.
Those issues drew sharp distinctions, but on issues such as whether the city should have its own police department (negative), homelessness and mental health (much more needs to be done), and whether the city should allow for digital billboards to flash on the sidelines of Highway 78 (negative, mostly with single-word “no” answers), similarities aplenty arose, as well.
Perhaps one of the most unique policy proposals came from D’Agostini, who stated that he would consider a bussing program to take people who served time in the San Diego County Jail in Vista to their last known address. He said it could serve as a potential means to put a damper in both the homelessness and mental health crises.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.