VISTA — Two City Council incumbents and two hopefuls squared off at the Shadowridge Country Club on Oct. 8 in front of an audience of nearly 100, most of them seniors, for the second of this election season’s two debate forums.
With the sharp decline on Wall Street fresh on everyone’s minds, the economy took center stage as an issue. Financial advisor and Planning Commissioner John J. Aguilera called for immediate action in the face of the growing state and federal crises, and he criticized what he called City Council’s “wait and see” attitude.
“I don’t think this is a rough patch that’s going to be over in the next six months,” Aguilera said. “We need to make decisions which will turn a potentially bad situation into a good one.” Aguilera argued that the city depends too much on its retail trade and proposed lowering fees and fast tracking development to attract a wider range of businesses.
Retired banker Gene Ford helped create the 401(k) retirement plan, and he touted his financial experience and his leadership in two south Vista resident organizations. “I have an exceptional background in the things that will have to be known in the coming years,” Ford said. “All of my efforts have been from outside City Hall. I’d like the opportunity to make contributions from the inside.”
Steve Gronke, teacher and incumbent councilman, conceded that the hard times had already hit the city’s portfolios, but he assured the audience that civic projects funded by the Proposition L sales tax were safe thanks to a built-in cushion of funds, and he proposed that the city might alleviate the recession by starting more redevelopment projects.
Ford shot back that the city didn’t have the funds to begin planned redevelopment projects like the much-awaited improvement of the South Santa Fe corridor, let alone for starting new ones.
“My ideas would be grand if I only knew ahead of me I had access to about a billion dollars,” Ford said. “The facts are that doing all these things is wonderful, but where are you going to get them paid for?” Prioritizing was a must, he said.
Restaurateur and incumbent Frank Lopez said the Shop Vista program and the city’s charter status, which he strongly advocated, would help the city weather the crisis by keeping jobs and tax dollars local.
On the touchy topic of illegal immigration, all of the candidates agreed that it was a federal issue and that their hands were largely tied at the city level.
“We do not have the tools as a city to address it,” Gronke said. “Escondido’s attempted to do a number of things and has always found the door closed because they find themselves in a legal bind.”
Aguilera proposed better enforcement of existing laws, and cracking down on uninsured and unregistered motorists to find illegal immigrants. Lopez said the city had already made progress, noting that the Vons shopping center on South Santa Fe Avenue used to be crowded with some 150 day laborers. Now, he said, that number is down to less than 50, most of them legal.
Each of the two outsiders brought their pet projects to the forum. Aguilera wanted to make sure the proposed 32-acre sports park didn’t get lost in budget overruns. He also promised more police patrols in Shadowridge. Ford championed transparency and said he would foot the bill for a hot line directly to his house.
The two incumbents sparred briefly over fire safety as smoke clouds from the first fire of the season hung menacingly in the west. Lopez said Vista was unprepared for a big fire and proposed building wide green belts to protect the city proper. Gronke replied that the city did have a plan which called for an orderly evacuation.
“If (a fire) comes through … we could lose homes,” Gronke said. “But if people do the right thing, we won’t lose lives.”
Both incumbents stood on their voting records as testaments to why they should be re-elected.
“I’m just really proud of the things that I’ve accomplished,” Gronke said. “I just hope on Nov. 4, you think about voting for me because I think I’ve done a great job here and I want to keep doing that.”
“Our great mayor, Morris Vance, has said this many times,” Lopez said. “Quite frankly, this is the greatest council we’ve ever worked with, so why change now?”
The mayor’s response? “The only person I’m endorsing right now is John Aguilera.”