July 29, 2005

Commentary:

METHODS MATTER: EHC, PADILLA & CHULA VISTA

By John Chávez

The recent appointment of Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla to the California Coastal Commission is a case study in backroom politics – likely contrary to the public interest and certainly not reflecting the desires of the majority of the citizens of Chula Vista (and the region in general). To Mayor Padilla’s credit, he has implemented some positive measures during his mayoral tenure: the pending under-grounding of the existing overhead electrical power lines along Interstate 5, more public interaction and access to City offices (except his own), a campaign for a new university, etc. Mayor Padilla is articulate and reasonably bright.

However, to Mayor Padilla’s detriment, he has consistently ignored overwhelming citizen opposition to his overly aggressive and grandiose development plans and projects: Españada high-rise condos, General Plan Update, Urban Core Specific Plan, Chula Vista Redevelopment Corporation, and planning for the Chula Vista bayfront (with the Port of San Diego as a partner). The citizens of Chula Vista have consistently opposed the fast-track mega-development goals of Mayor Padilla. Four different independent polls (including two by the City itself) all show that 70% or more of the citizens of Chula Vista are opposed to “high-rise” (often defined as 8 stories or more) ANYWHERE in Chula Vista. The Mayor in his hubris continues to try to minimize this massive public outcry against his excessive development and planning processes by painting citizen opposition as “a small and vocal minority”. (70%+ on any public issue or policy is an overwhelming majority by anyone’s measure!)

Enter the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) who began a focused community organizing campaign in Chula Vista (and National City) some 3-4 years ago – with the Chula Vista bayfront in the center of their target zone. As above, it is appropriate to recognize the many positive contributions EHC has made (and continues to make) in our region: water quality, air quality, eliminating toxic lead in paint and candies, closure or relocation of gross polluters in local communities, etc.

I attended that initial EHC (Chula Vista) community organizational kick-off meeting at a labor union headquarters in San Diego’s Mission Valley a few years ago. EHC and their environmental and labor partners were cautioned at that time to not manipulate the (Chula Vista) community and to allow the empowerment and leadership to come from within the community, and not be (over) driven by “outside” organizations including EHC and their partners. EHC was encouraged to partner with our community, but not usurp local leadership.

Subsequent to that initial EHC organizing meeting, it became apparent that EHC indeed engaged in manipulation of community members and community events. “Public” meetings and “community forums” were packed with labor union members from outside the community (and in some cases outside San Diego County) masquerading (or at least giving the appearance) as local community members. After many complaints about these deceptive tactics, EHC subsequently reduced this form of manipulation.

Then later (and continuing) first-hand reports surfaced of EHC privately mis-representing themselves to public officials (City of Chula Vista, Port, and ??) as partners, if not agents, of bona fide South Bay community groups. This EHC tactic subsequently went “underground” and later key meetings between EHC and elected officials often excluded other local community groups (but sometimes included other environmental and labor union groups).

Myself and many other local community members continue to meet with EHC (and San Diego Baykeeper, labor unions, business groups, etc.) as part of the Port of San Diego Bayfront Master Plan process. EHC led and got needed concessions and commitments on the Chula Vista bayfront for wetlands and habitat protection, parks and greenbelts, etc. However, during the bayfront planning process it has become evident that EHC continues to engage in their own private dialogue with the (thus far) only designated bayfront developer (Pacifica) and the City of Chula Vista (notably with the Mayor, Steve Padilla).

It has also become evident that the recent appointment of Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla to the Calif. Coastal Commission was not only agreed to by EHC – it was spearheaded, brokered, and led (“behind the scenes”) by EHC. Interestingly, almost all “community” reaction to this appointment quoted in the news media came from SD Baykeeper, EHC’s most frequent and loyal partner – while EHC themselves disingenuously remained publicly silent and invisible.

So in the currently tainted regional political arena, why would EHC place Mayor Steve Padilla, who has never met a development project that was too large for his tastes, as a watchdog (the fox in the chicken coup?) over excessive development on the California coast? You’d have to ask EHC, but you might pursue why EHC has met most of their major bayfront planning goals while the citizens of Chula Vista continue to fight to keep mega-scale development plans from literally bull-dozing over local public interests. EHC has had a series of private meetings with various Chula Vista officials, particularly with Mayor Padilla. Let us be clear – there is no allegation here of illegality, nor malfeasance – but there is a lingering odor of something substantially less pleasing than roses: backroom deals and less than sanitary politics. The goals are not so much at issue here, but the methods and tactics are. We encourage EHC and their partners to continue pursuit of their many admirable goals, eschew less-than-forthright tactics, and engage in a new trust-based dialogue and relationship with our community.

Another player in this political mini-drama, Speaker of the (Calif.) Assembly, Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), was contacted and advised by many Chula Vista residents that Mayor Padilla would be a poor choice for the Coastal Commission, given Padilla’s disregard of his constituency in his aggressive pursuit of massive development - out of place in the family oriented community of Chula Vista. Mr. Nunez ignored this community input and appointed Padilla anyway. We urge community members to contact family members and friends in Los Angeles and San Diego to clearly let their elected officials (Nuñez, state representatives, County Supervisors, city council members, mayors, etc.) know that this pattern of blatant disregard of the will of the public comes with a price in future elections. Elected officials should take note that the electorate can usually tell when officials and candidates are unresponsive to their community and yet respond (sometimes inappropriately) to lobbyists and “public interest” groups that employ paid full-time “community” organizers.

If you, Mr./Ms. Politician, do not favorably remember your community, the community will remember you at the polls during future elections - and that remembrance may well be less than fond. In this post-Stripper-Gate political era in the San Diego region, “business as usual” is at last becoming the political anathema it should be. In this region, the public will no longer tolerate officials, organizations, and individuals who surreptitiously engage in dirty politics and manipulation of information for selfish interests and/or interests contrary to the will and the benefit of the community. The Mayor of San Diego recently resigned due lack of public support and in Chula Vista there is serious consideration of (Mayoral) recall and initiatives to defeat Mayor Padilla’s mega-development schemes and plans. It is time for public servants to serve their public and for public interest organizations act in the best interest of the public as whole. Their words matter little, but some of their nefarious actions may taint our communities for decades to come. In our barrio, the lowest person is the one who is not “straight up” and forthright – we care not just for what is done, but how it is done also. We simply ask for (demand !) truth, candor, and respect.

Mr Chávez is a resident of Chula Vista

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