ESCONDIDO — It may not have been an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show,” albeit at times, things got heated at the Sept. 25 mayoral candidate forum hosted by the Methodist Church of Escondido.
The two candidates — Republican Mayor Sam Abed and his opponent, Democrat Paul MacNamara — took 37 minutes of questions from the audience written down and submitted via index cards and asked by the moderator.
That moderator, Mary Anne Dijak, explained to The Coast News that the Methodist Church of Escondido has held forums of the sort since 2010. Dijak serves as the chairwoman for the Believers In Action Ministry Team at the Methodist Church. The congregation previously held another candidate forum in August featuring Ammar Campa-Najjar, Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for California’s 50th Congressional District.
“We offer the forums because as United Methodists we believe the strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens,” said Dijak, also noting that the church does not endorse candidates for elected office, but does come out in support or against certain policies and proposals at times. “We set the forum up in a way that creates a nonpartisan atmosphere where candidates and the community can be heard in a respectful way.”
During the mayoral forum, many hotbed issues came to the fore, including competing visions of downtown development along the city’s Grand Avenue, affordable housing, the issue of California as a “sanctuary state” under the auspices of AB 54 (the California Values Act), whether the proposal to revamp the downtown Ritz Theater should receive expedited permitting, among others.
On Grand Avenue, both candidates said they support building up the area, creating a territory in which people want to do business and spend time and money. It’s how to get there in which the candidates disagreed.
Abed said he believes a housing-first model — in which people live in the area and will therefore spend time in money in the area — is the best way forward. MacNamara, for his part, said he believes locally owned businesses, bars and restaurants can lead the way and create what he referred to as a “North County Gaslamp,” paying homage to the historic downtown San Diego district.
For the sanctuary state and SB 54 issue, the candidates came out on different sides of the spectrum.
Abed said he is against it because “it hurts most the low-income people in our community,” saying he believes it will lead to the harboring of criminals. MacNamara, however, said the bill still allows for those undocumented immigrants who have violated criminal statutes to be prosecuted under the letter of state law and he does not believe the city should take a stance on it.
During the forum, an audience member also raised a question about the proposal to redevelop the downtown-based historic Ritz Theater. First reported on by The Coast News, Escondido’s New Vision Church has plans to convert the space into a preforming arts center, as well as a congregational space for Sunday prayer and festivities. The redevelopment proposal was recently given expedited permitting status by the city, a story also broken by The Coast News.
MacNamara said that he supports the project based on his cursory review of it so far, though he has yet to look over all of the documents. He did not comment on the expedited permitting issue. Abed, though, gave full-throated support for easing the regulatory review process and said the city should make it easier to develop downtown for project managers in general.
“We need to speed up the process. Yes, this is a great project,” Abed said. “This is a great gathering place.”
Near the end of the forum, the question was raised as to if city officers should be able to profit from their jobs. Abed said that the current arrangement works well, in which officeholders go to the city attorney and seek ethics counsel before taking a vote on them, abstaining from voting or discussing issues whenever a conflict arises.
“I don’t understand the question and I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Abed said. “Every councilman has an interest in the city … We own homes, we own businesses in the city … Talking about this is nothing but political grandstanding … Everybody profits, everybody profits from projects in the city. Even as a property owner, as a business owner in the city, so let’s not go there.”
On the contrary, MacNamara said that he believes that city officials should not profit from their jobs and should avoid even the appearance of doing so.
“I think that if you’re going to build a community and you’re going to work on this as a community effort, you can’t be beholden to developers and others outside of the city,” MacNamara said.
After the mayoral forum, candidates for City Council District 1 and District 2 held another separate panel to discuss policy issues.