SAN MARCOS — The nine candidates for the San Marcos City Council and mayor’s seat sat facing about 70 people inside of the sanctuary at the Rock Church.
Each took turns introducing themselves to the crowd and answered three questions posed by a moderator.
Candidate forums like this one, hosted by the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce, are a rite of passage for most hopefuls for elected office in other cities.
But in San Marcos, a city that has had unopposed and virtually unopposed elections in recent years, the candidate forum was the first one in recent memory.
“We haven’t done one of these forums in a few years, and it’s an important community conversation, so I am glad we are having it,” said Councilman Chris Orlando, one of three candidates for mayor in San Marcos. Rebecca Jones, the city’s current vice mayor, and children’s author Bradley Zink are the others.
The city’s change from an at-large voting system to one that elects officials by district — and the fact that both districts up for grabs are open seats — has generated more candidates for office than at any time over the past decade in San Marcos.
San Marcos changed the way it elects officials in response to a legal threat by a Malibu-based law firm that argued that San Marcos’ citywide elections diluted the city’s Latino vote.
In District 1, which includes the city’s Richmar community and the largest concentration of Hispanic voters, attorney Maria Nunez, Old California Coffee House & Eatery owner Craig Garcia and Clifton Ireland Jr., Oceanside Councilman Jerry Kern’s council aide, comprise the field.
In District 2, which includes San Elijo Hills along with Old Creek Ranch, Discovery Hills, Rancho Dorado, a trio of political veterans square off: Planning Commission Chairman Eric Flodine, Vallecitos Water District board member Mike Sannella and San Marcos Unified School District board member Randy Walton.
Each of the candidates were asked the same three questions at the Aug. 16 forum: describe their qualifications for the position, explain what they would do to help grow business and retain existing businesses and if they believed additional housing benefited or hurt local businesses.
The contrast in the candidates could be seen in the latter question, which exposed some of the alliances that have already formed among the field.
Jones, Sannella and Ireland — all Republicans — answered in the affirmative, though Sannella’s answer overlapped with some of Orlando, Nunez and Walton’s response.
The latter trio, which includes two registered Democrats and a declined-to-state that has allied with the two in the race, argued that the city needed to focus on so-called “workforce housing,” housing for lower- and middle-income residents.
Walton pointed out that while the city has built more than twice the number of homes it was mandated to build in the most recent regional housing needs assessment, they have only built 63 homes over that eight-year period for moderate-income families.
“Affordability is the real issue,” Walton said. “We need to be very purposeful about how we are going to grow. This will help us rebalance what is clearly an imbalance in our current housing stock.”
Orlando in his answer argued that the city’s recent slate of housing approvals has only exacerbated the problem.
“We aren’t solving the problem, we are making it worse,” Orlando said. “The question is, how are we going to grow.”
Sannella echoed Walton’s answer, pointing out that in his capacity with the regional Economic Development Corporation that large corporations say the biggest concern they have about moving to San Diego is the lack of housing for their workforce.
“We need to have a housing ladder,” Sannella said. “We have to give the next generation the same opportunities to climb the ladder.”
Jones and Garcia, however, said that the city needs to build housing to satisfy state and regional housing mandates, and can mitigate the issues that come with increased housing with careful traffic and transportation planning. Jones touted her plan, which calls for so-called “dynamic traffic signal sequencing” to help traffic flow better in San Marcos.
“We need to make sure developers pay their fair share,” Jones said.
In response to the question about retaining and recruiting businesses, Flodine, Ireland Jones and Sannella argued that the city needs to be responsive to business’ needs and reduce the red-tape that keeps businesses from opening sooner.
“We need to make sure they open as quickly as possible,” Jones said.
Ireland also said that the elected officials should take on as big of an ambassadorial role as possible.
“The council needs to be out at front at events, at the chamber, because the goal is to help attract and retain businesses,” Ireland said.
Nunez, who pointed out the economic disparity in District 1 compared to other districts in the city, said that the city should help businesses in the district access capital and other resources.
“It is a great opportunity for the city to bring in new businesses to the district and help them grow,” Nunez said.
Zink, Walton and Orlando each pointed to the city’s educational ties — San Marcos is home to multiple universities and colleges and a major school district — as the key to attracting businesses.
Zink suggested that residents and the public donate more to schools, that it would be the best investment they could make toward the local economy.
Walton said that by touting the city’s educational prowess and helping those entities grow, it both increases the region’s customer base as well as provides a bullish employee base for prospective employers.
“It also sends a message to the world that we care about education,” Walton said.