By José A. Alvarez
What a difference the presence of a candidate makes. Within a week, there have been two debates between the aspirants to be the next mayor of Chula Vista.
In the first, the attacks went in only one direction, towards the absent Mayor Steve Padilla and there was little reaction from the 100 or so participants. In the second, the accusations flew in every direction and the more than 300 audience members were right in the middle of it.
For nearly two hours, retired realtor Petra Barajas, Councilmember Steve Castañeda, school board member Cheryl Cox, and businessman Ricardo Macias, answered questions about Chula Vista’s future and launched accusations at each other with many of them still headed towards Padilla, who had missed the previous forum because of a prior commitment.
Barajas opened the evening’s discussion and tried to use the story of the Wizzard of Oz as example of how she, Dorothy, would improve City government, but her analogy missed the point and left the audience confused when she could not remember which character was supposed to receive a heart, which was to get courage, or which to get a brain.
Castañeda followed and used the opportunity, like in the first debate, to attack Padilla and talk about how the “scandals” and “chaos” confronting the Mayor have replaced other important issues.
“If you’ve read the newspapers or have watched TV, you know what is going on in the Mayor’s office,” said Castañeda, adding that he is running for mayor to restore “trust and dignity” in city government.
Next was Cox, whose opening statement was more mellow than in the last debate when she said she was running for mayor to solve the “crisis” and “restore confidence” in City Hall.
“What we have is drama, drama about body guards and BMWs,” Cox said at the first debate.
Macias made the same statements this time around repeating that he’s running for mayor to end the “scandals and nonsense going in the city.”
Padilla defended himself by saying that in his three and a half years in office, he has delivered results and delivered on his campaign promises. He gave the progress made in the development of the City’s bay front and the future arrival of a university as examples.
“The proof is in the pudding. Chula Vista is on the move and it’s only because of strong leadership,” Padilla said.
Restoring the public trust was the first question again with the four candidates wishing to unseat Padilla saying that decisions need to be made in public and “not hiding in the back room,” in Barajas words.
Castañeda went further saying that elected officials need to be “responsive to the people that elect them and not the four members of the City Council that appoint them,” referring the controversial appointment of Councilmember Patricia Chavez. Castañeda has said he believes Council member should be elected and not appointed.
Padilla shot back saying that what elected officials should do is deliver on their promises and “admit when you make mistakes.”
“It’s easy to throw stones,” said Padilla, defending himself from the accusation that he rushed the appointment of Chavez because she was his selected candidate and the controversy that ensued the hiring and firing of the Mayor’s body guard. “You voted for the body guard… (and) are now running from your decisions when it’s convenient.”
Macias, who will not collect a salary and instead will donate it to the needy, said “I am not going to point people’s faults, unless I have to,” and then brought into the discussion the controversy of the condo conversion of the complex where Castañeda lives. The apartment complex was to be turned into condominiums but the City Council has stalled its approval process, not allowing buyers to move in.
On the issue of eminent domain, Barajas, Castañeda, and Macias said they will vote in favor of Proposition C that would restrict the City’s ability to seize properties. Padilla said he believes in “the spirit” of Proposition C, but is convinced the measure “might be dead on arrival” because it is “flawed” and might be legally challenged. Cox, who in the past had said the City should be able to confiscate properties but only on rare occasions would not say whether she will vote yes for the measure. When pressured by Macias and the moderator, radio host Rodger Hedgecock, she began squabbling with the former San Diego mayor. “It’s not a yes or no question,” she said. At that point, Macias quipped about the ballot including a “check spot for maybe.”
On the City’s growing population, which is expected to reach 270,000 by 2010, the majority of the candidates talked about the need for improved roads and infrastructure.
“I think all of them are on Telegraph Canyon Road between 8 and 9 in the morning,” joked Cox, adding that streets and roads “need to be built at the same time” as housing developments.
Baraja’s responded that what city leaders don’t realize is that “people are going to die.” “The city needs its own cemetery,” said Barajas, who did not participate in the last debateshe was present at the forumbecause one of the sponsoring organizations does not take her candidacy seriously.
“Bring us back to the living,” joked Castañeda. He added that “we’re addicted to growth” and that the city needs to stop relying on developers building and “paying for things” because the city will eventually be forced “to dip more and more into the general fund.”
On the issue of affordable housing, the development of the bay front, public safety, and the redevelopment of the downtown business district and other areas of the city, all of the candidates offered similar responses, with all the candidates saying the city needs additional police officers and agree the city has done a good job fighting crime. All areas of the city, they said, deserve the same attention when it comes to redevelopment and all believe the city should continue requiring developers to build affordable housing.
Regarding the bay front, Barajas criticized the city’s failed efforts and its “plans that never materialized.”
Padilla responded saying “we have made more progress in the last three years than in the last 25,” and that his administration should be ready to take its proposal to the California Coastal Commission in about 8 months.
Throughout the evening, the audience gave their approval by applauding their candidate’s responses. The only booing came on the possibility of the Chargers moving to Chula Vista and Macias’ assertion that “we do want the Chargers here.”
Seeing the reaction, Macias added that “you’re not going to make everyone happy and I’ve learned that in a very short time.”
“Welcome to our world,” was Padilla’s response, adding he will support “whatever my community wants me to do” but that the city will not subsidize any team.
“Don’t waste our time. If your serious come to us,” said Padilla, indicating that the city will meet with the Chargers owners May 31st. “But if you’re not have a nice day.”
Castañeda said he would also never ask “the taxpayers to subsidize” the team. Cox responded that she was “skeptical” of the city being able to struck a deal with the team because “if San Diego can’t get a deal, I doubt that Chula Vista can.”
For her part, Barajas, who is running for mayor for the third time, said she does not support the “eating alligators of taxpayers’ money” coming to Chula Vista, and that, instead, the city should build a professional soccer stadium that will benefit “all the citizens’ of Chula Vista.”
When closing time came, the candidates once again did not miss the opportunity to take one final shot at their opponents.
“The true testament of a leader is when they deliver things they say they will do. You hold yourself accountable for the good and the bad,” said Padilla, adding that he felt like “swiss cheese” because of some of the attacks that have come his way. “I have made mistakes and I have owned to those mistakes…This city is moving ahead and I want to finish the job.”
Macias encouraged voters to make the right decision. “I hope I am first and that you vote for the right person,” said Macias, adding that he will support their decision 100 percent “even if it’s not me.”
Cox reiterated her statement about city officials living “by the rules” and that she will help Chula Vista “stay out of the news for the wrong reasons and get in the news for the right ones.”
City government, Castañeda concluded, should be more open and “treat people with respect when they come to city hall,” referring to Padilla’s past outburst towards some organization leaders who have challenged him on several issues.
“I will end the divide between city government and the residents…and restore trust back in city government,” he concluded.
And Barajas? She encouraged voters to “follow the yellow brick road” when they go vote.
The election is June 6 and if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote, then the two highest vote-getters will compete in a runoff election in November.