September 8, 2006

“Just political garbage”

Chula Vista Mayor fights back

By José A. Álvarez

For the past year, Mayor Steve Padilla has been involved in a series of controversial issues: The public announcement of his homosexuality. The hiring and firing of his personal bodyguard. The appointment of a councilmember. The controversial car allowance and redevelopment stipend. The payroll advances. The photographing of his opponent’s guests at a fundraiser. All this while running the city and a campaign for his reelection. Recently, Padilla agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview and for nearly forty minutes he answered questions on the political turmoil that has embattled his administration, his opponent Cheryl Cox, and his campaign to remain at the help of the city.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mayor’s responses have been edited because of space constraints).

Question: In Chula Vista, incumbents have a history of always coming up on top during elections. In the June primary you came in second. Were you surprised by the results?

Padilla:No.

Q: How come?

Padilla: A very, very low turnout. Historically, when we look at the turn out precinct by precinct on election day, some of them were 18 percent, historically low. There had been a very concerted effort in the previous four, five months to sensationalize things that frankly, I think a lot of them really aren’t issues.

Q: A couple of them were issues?

Padilla: There were a couple things that if I had to do over again, I’d do it differently perhaps. Perhaps they were mistakes that I made, but they weren’t earth-shattering mistakes. I think they were mistakes that you learn from. But they certainly weren’t issues that indicated that the city was on the wrong track. I think when you combine the fact of who was voting, how low the turn out is —and the lower the turn out is the voters tend to be a little more hemogeneous in terms of the demographics. They are not diverse.They’re more conservative. I think when you combine that, I am very happy with where we came out. So, when you combine all those things, it says to me we can win this election without a doubt. The turn out in November will probably be two to three times larger. I wasn’t surprised and I am not disheartenend.

Q: After the election, there seemed to be a flurry of activity on a number of issues in Chula Vista. The bayfront redevelopment. The Chargers. Some have speculated that this activity was a way for you to improve your image after the election and some of the problems you’ve encountered in the last year. Was that the case?

Padilla: That’s ludicrous in that the bayfront has been going on for almost four years. The bayfront did not just happen over night. Gaylord (agreement) did not just happen over night. The bayfront success has been the result of three and a half years of hard work and very public hardwork, from changing the whole approach, to creating a Citizen’s Advisory Committee, to bringing all the parties together to work collaboratively with the labor community, the business community, getting a whole new land use plan done. All of those things did not happen over night, so the idea that that was done politically strikes me as funny because the reality is that it’s just an example of the hard work that’s been done in the last three, four years coming to life.

Q: Speaking of the bayfront, what is the timeline for the redevelopment to take place and what projects should residents expect to see there?

Padilla: If the entitlement process goes along, it could go through the Coastal Commission by the spring of 2007, which means that as far as the Gaylord part of the project, you could see them turning dirt in the sense of having something built there by 2010, 2011. Whithin the next four or five years, we could actually see things start to materialize.

Q: With regards to the possible moving of the Chargers. How feasible is it for the City of Chula Vista to be the new home of the Chargers?

Padilla: Very feasible. First, let me say that I think that the Chargers are very serious and exploring all of their options in the entire region and that includes Chula Vista. We have been excited to meet with them on a couple of occassions. They are now meeting with private property owners that own a piece of the property near our university site that could be the home of the new facility. The piece that we need to get to is to get a little more detail as to how it would come together and, most importantly, what does the community think. What do they want to do? Because we work for the community and we need to know whether this is something they want and how far they want us to go. We’ve said that from the very beginning. So far, I can tell you that the feedback I have gotten has been positive.

Q: Over the past year, you have been involved in a number of controversial issues that have led some to question whether you would be the best person to lead the city. Let’s begin with your decision to officially announce to the public your sexual orientation. Was that a difficult decision?

Padilla: No. Personally, my own moral code tells me that truth is important. I was at the Pride rally to present a proclamation that recognized the contributions of gay and lesbian people all over the region, not just in San Diego but in Chula Vista and everywhere else. Chula Vista is the second largest city in the region. It’s got a quarter of a million people. It probably has thousands of gay and lesbian residents. And I represent them too, as well as everyone else. And to not acknowledge in that setting what most people knew to me was not appropriate. For me to do that, to not acknowledge that would have been wrong.

Q: Do you think your coming out changed some people’s perception of you and your ability to lead the city?

Padilla: I suppose that’s possible. Or maybe even probable with a small percentage of people. But I have great faith in my community. I love this city very much. It’s been good to me my whole life. And I would really like to think that it’s not the kind of city that would judge me on anything other than my talents and my ideas and the things that I’ve done. Are there going to be people out there who are going to dislike me, or hate me or never support me because of that, sure. But that is the reality of life. There is nothing I can do about those people, except to tell truth and to speak truth and that’s the way that bigotry is overcome. It’s the way that obstacles are overcome and social progress occurs.

Q: Are you surprised, though, that the issue has not been brought up more in the political arena?

Padilla: I think that when my opponent says, “I’ll be a mayor you can be proud of” and pretends that it’s just about silly things like body guards and stipends and things when the city is doing better than most other cities in the entire region is a little disingenuous. I think the attacks have mostly been about personal issues and my personal conduct rather than my leadership of the city. There is a reason for that because they know my leadership of the city has been very good. So when you can’t attack someone’s record, you attack them personally. You demonize them. I don’t think it reflects at all in the majority of the people. I think it’s a very small group of people. And it hasn’t been overtly raised. I don’t think it should be or would be because I think it would backfire. But I think there are people, including my opponent, who hope that that is there.

Q: Around the same time, at your request, the city manager at the time hired a personal body guard for your protection. Was your coming out one of the reasons that you decided to get a body guard?

Padilla: No. It was not before that day and it was after. We’ve had security for the mayor since I became mayor. I’ve always had security. I’ve had it provided to me by the police department on an event-by-an-event basis. There were threats. There were threats and threatening, menacing people, people who were not well mentally, people who had criminal records, drug-use records, records of possessing fire arms. They paid a little extra attention to me and to my staff; people who were threatening in their demeanor. It’s a legitimate consideration. It was approved by the police chief and by the city manager and by the city council as a whole. The mayor of San Diego has five full-time detectives around the clock assigned to protect him at a cost of nearly half million dollars. I don’t understand why when the mayor of Chula Vista had one person assigned Monday through Friday during business hours that became a front page story on some of the papers. To this day I don’t understand it.

Q: While at your service, your bodyguard chauffered you around, yet you continued to collect your car allowance. You’ve since repaid the city, but why did you do it?

Padilla: I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. When you are as busy as someone in my position and you begin receiving more and more threatening letters and contacts and you’re concerned about your safety and then you have a security detail assigned to you, it changes your life, especially when you have a child. And it’s a very difficult thing to adjust to. The last thing on my mind was “remember to turn off my car allowance.” I don’t go over my pay check line by line. If I was corrupt or dishonest, I would be a very wealthy man and I am not a wealthy man. I get paid well but I am certainly not becoming a millionaire. When I realized that I have overlooked it among all the silliness that was going on, I reimbursed the city. So to me, it’s a silly sort of issue and I don’t agree at all on the implication of some that there was some kind of evil intent on my part. It was an oversight. I had a lot on my mind. And I corrected it, as soon as I became aware of it.

Q: Who protects you now?

Padilla: The Chula Vista PD at various events. Depending on the event, I might have a security detail.

Q: Have the threats ceased?

Padilla: They continue. Anybody in my position who is a very visible person, who participates in a media market that is 5.5 million people, a member of a state commission that is pretty influential, there are people writing me letters all the time. I have a lady that writes me letters all the time that has imaginary violent encounters with me. And I’ve never met her. There are people that write nasty emails, anonymous phone calls, things like that. Any public official is going to get that.

Q: The bodyguard issue became a “mess” for the city costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Have you regretted the decision to hire one?

Padilla: I don’t regret the decision. I regret how we did it. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have been a little more open about the threats and about being more detailed about what they were like, who was writing me, giving some examples, maybe even showing photos of people if I could legally get away with it. I would have put it out there and said: “Here Council. Here is the concern. Here is what the Police Chief is saying. Here is what your city manager is saying. Here are the examples. Now you have some choices here. How would you like to handle it?” I would have proceeded a little bit differently. We were very concerned about being private about it. The city of San Diego doesn’t have a dialogue in public at a City Council meeting to talk about the threats against Mayor Sanders, Mayor Murphy his predecessor. When you discuss those issues publicly, you make the situation worse. I think we wanted to handle it privately, but looking back at it, I would have probably been a little more open about it so people understood what was going on.

Q: What about the $1,500 redevelopment stipend. You collected the stipend for several months and yet the Chula Vista Redevelopment Corporation never met.

Padilla: We all got the stipend. We all approved the stipend. We all earned the stipend. The stipend wasn’t connected to the meetings at all. The stipend was approved as part of the establishment of the CVRC. It was done over a course of a dialogue that took place over two years. It was discussed in a public meeting. It was in the staff report. It was discussed publicly. The stipend was not tied to meetings. The stipend was paid for the additional work in dealing with setting up the CVRC, dealing with all the issues that we had to deal with, (including) how do we handle the process, how is it going to operate, what’s going to be the public participation. There is a lot of work that is done and that leads to an increased workload. I find it interesting that not one member of the council made a statement about it, complained about it or returned their money until after the press wrote a story about it. I find that very telling.

Q: Also, on 10 occassions you took pay advances claiming financial difficulties. Some have criticized you for that. Why is that? It became an issue. Why do you think that it became an issue?

Padilla: I think that it became an issue because there are people that don’t agree with my politics. People that don’t want to see me reelected decided to make an issue out of it. Since when in this country do we beat up on people for living up to their obligations? The program that provides for employees to take advances on their paychecks is open to all city employees, not just me. There are 26 other city employees that have used that program. The program was brought to my attention by the city manager. I was informed that it was private. So I used it to help pay some debt and refinance my house so I could pay my dad money that I owed him. I owed a lot of money because of a very difficult time in my life when I was getting divorced and afterwards. It has absolutely nothing to do with the condition of the city or its finances or my leadership of it. And so I just take it as a personal issue. An issue that there was an attempt to try to damage my personal reputation and that is the only way I can explain it.

Q: Ten times in one year, and at the same time you made some expensive purchases. You bought a new home. You bought what some might consider an expensive vehicle.

Padilla: The home is what allowed me to pay my debt. It’s probably the greatest thing I’ve done financially in the last three years. Getting into the real estate market when I did so that it wouldn’t pass me by is the only way I was able to pay off the car. The car is paid for. Most of my father’s debt is paid for. I don’t regret most of those decisions. And I think most Chula Vistans understand and believe that. They know me. They’ve known me for 12 years. A balanced budget 12 years in a row. The city’s financial shape under my leadership has never been bad. To me is much ado about nothing.

Q: The Chula Vista City Manager left his job under pressure on election night and it has been reported that he was granted a lucrative severance package in exchange for his silence. How much did this cost taxpayers and why the need to keep him quiet? What is it that he is not supposed to talk about?

Padilla: It’s absolute boloney. It’s absolute imaginary boloney. First of all, he already is entitled to a severance of a year in his contract. What we did for him is kept him on the payroll, instead of giving him a lump sum payment, which actually is better for the taxpayers. In the long run it will cost more but it’s better on the cash flow of the city. David Rowlands was entitled to a severance package of one year under his contract. That is number one. Number two: The decision to accept David Rowlands’ retirement was a unanimous decision of the City Council. There was not one dissenting vote. I had one vote. There were four others and everyone of those members saw the issues the same way. There has been a lot said about silence and gag orders. It’s actually ridiculous. There is no gag order. Dave Rowlands is free to talk about any political subject he wants. He can criticize me, the Mayor, the Council. He can express his opinions about every issue, whatever. He is free to speak about any of those issues provided he tells the truth. He is not free to slander the City, but he is free to talk about all those issues. Yeah, there’s been some sensationalizing about whether there’s a gag order. I find it silly.

Q: Why on election night?

Padilla: Because it’s the only night on an election year when a decision like that should be taken. That night was picked on purpose because it was therefore not part of the election campaign. The action of the Council could not be viewed as affecting the outcome of the election before people voted. People had already voted but the votes were not counted. And it was done before the results were known on purpose so that it could not be seen as a reaction to the election results.

Q: Do you think it’s going to become a campaign issue come the general election in November?

Padilla: I don’t see that it could be or should be. What would be the issue?

Q: It’s been reported that he was pressured to leave.

Padilla: He works at the pleasure of the city council. He serves at the will of the Council. He is an unclassified at-will employee and the Council and the Mayor are the City Man-ager’s boss.

Q: Did he retire or did you pressure him to leave?

Padilla: He retired and beyond that I am not free to comment.

Q: Now you want him back. You want him to be Port Commissioner.

Padilla: I think he’ll be a very good Port commissioner.

Q: Why the change of mind?

Padilla: There’s no change. Absolutely, no change. Being Port Commissioner is not being City Manager. And being City Manager requires one set of skills, one set of realities. City managers on average last organizations four, five years. The fact that he was City Manager, the fact that he retired or even if he was asked to retire, has nothing to do with whether or not he has the knowledge about port issues or the port plan to where he can be an effective port commissioner. That is an entirely separate issue.

Q: Last December, the Council rushed through the process and appointed Patricia Chavez as the new councilmember. The appointment created a lot of controversy with some groups accusing you of rushing the process to get your candidate on the Council. Was that the case?

Padilla: I guess these people have given me a lot of power. They seem to think that I magically control the whole Council all by myself. And that’s just absolutely ludicrous. The reality is that we were up against a 30-day deadline to make a decision. We were right before the holiday break. We had a coun-cilmember resign because of permanent illness. We had a political campaign underway… The process was understood by the Council. No matter what anyone said later on. We all talked about it in public. We were all in there. It’s in the minutes. Everybody knew the process. I always found it amusing that there was this controversy on this issue. That it was unfair. That it was rushed. It was the entire Council that did it. Now, looking back at it. What I would have done is do a better job of explaining the process to the public. I believe that was a mistake. We should have explained. We should have been more clear. We interviewed three candidates for seven and a half hours in public and it wasn’t until this election became controversial in some quarters that people decided to distance themselves from their voting record, which is amazing to me.

Q: That happened with the appointment of Patricia Chavez and the body guard issue. How did that make you feel?

Padilla: Of course it’s dis-sapointing. I understand the nature of politics. I just firmly believe that strong leaders have to have the courage and the conviction to stand by their decisions. If you make a decision, stand by your decision. If you make a mistake, admit your mistake. I’ve admitted tons of mistakes. It seems that I’ve been crucified for some of this stuff. And some of it, I deserved. I give you that. I am not above making mistakes. I am not above learning from them or taking responsibility. But what it is dissapointing is to see people try to rewrite history, try to back pedal from their own decisions or from their own record because it’s convenient. All I have to say about that is that’s not what leaders do.

Q: Let’s turn to the most recent incident in which one your campaign workers and city employee was involved in a public confrontation that has caused embarrasment to the city. Did you have him go and take those photos?

Padilla: All of my staff members know they have a constitutional right to participate in the political process on their own time without using any city resources. They have that right. They also have a responsibility that their actions don’t reflect poorly on the city. My experience in my 20 years in politics knows that political campaigns record and monitor and observe other campaigns. My opponents have sent people to document my events. They have sent people to be guests at my fundraisers to spy on who’s there and what’s going on. I’ve had some prettly low things done to me in this campaign. I know what it’s like. It’s politics. A portion of what happened there that night was something that went beyond that and that is the subject of a personnel action and the person involved does need to receive appropriate discipline because of it. And beyond that, I am not able to comment on it because it’s primarily a disciplinary matter.

Q: Initially you supported his ability to go and take photos if he so chose. Now it has been reported that he will be reprimanded and will lose two weeks of pay. Is that a change of attitude?

Padilla: Not at all. The dicipline had nothing to do with the taking of the pictures. The discipline had something to do with an incident that was incidental to that activity.

Q: Can you comment on that?

Padilla: I can’t without breaking the law.

Q: The troubles from the previous year have battered your administration and led some people to question your character. What do you have to say about that?

Padilla: Nonsense. Lets take those issues one at a time. Which one of those issues has to do with me and not the City Council. Maybe the picture taking by Jason in my campaign which I was not happy about but which he has a right to do. I appreciate him wanting to help me on what other campaigns have done to me. I’ll take the knock for that one. But we’ve also disciplined this employee for going beyond what he was supposed to do. So what does that say about my character? It says that this Mayor will publicly defend his employees about their constitutional rights, but he will publicly hold them accountable for doing things that are not within their constitutional rights. Let’s take the other issue that had nothing to do with the Council. The paycheck advances. How does that say that I am a person of bad character? I am a person who was moving heaven and earth to pay my father back money I owed him. Where I come from, living up to your obligations is a sign of good character. I did not take anybody else’s money. It wasn’t a loan from the city. It was my salary and I used to live up to some obligations I had and to improve my situation.

I suppose some people would say that because I am gay I have bad character. But that is something that I don’t accept or agree with at all.

They’ve attacked my character because I’ve had a body guard that was based on threats and was approved by the whole City Council. I am a person of bad character because we received stipends, all of us, that we all approved and that was a unanimous decision. The appointment of Patricia Chavez. I am a person of bad character because I was one vote of five that thought Patricia Chavez should be appointed to the City Council.

I’ll tell you this about my character. I was taught that character means keeping my promises. And when I campaigned for this office, I said that I would make redevelopment of downtown a focus and I would get the bay front developed. I said I would create a new redelopment corporation. I did all of those things. I said that I would get the university project moving again. I did. Everything from parks, to streets, to roads, to finances, to putting new cops and fire-fighters on the streets, I have kept every promise.

It’s interesting how these issues all happened right around the time that the election was coming up. That is not an accident.

Q: Have any of these issues made you reconsider running for reelection?

Padilla: Not at all because I think why should you quit. Why should you give in to such ridiculousness if you know that you are a good person of character, if you know that you are doing a good job and you know that you’ve improved the city. I think a lot of people hoped that that’s what I would do. We’ll throw so much stuff at him. We’ll make it so miserable for him, that he’ll just give up. And that is not part of my character either.

I think the real issues in this campaign is how good is the city doing. Are we better off than we were four years ago? Have we made progress on along all this important issues? Have we oppened up the process to citizens? I think the answer to all of those things is a pretty resounding yes. And when you measure the performance of a mayor, you ask yourself, what kind of shape is the City in? What has he done? That’s what you really judge the mayor on. This other garbage is just political garbage.

My goal is to make sure everyone in Chula Vista knows that before they vote and their decision is their decision.

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