VISTA — Vistans will fill two open City Council seats at the polls this November. The candidate pool includes two incumbents, Councilmen Frank Lopez and Steve Gronke, as well as two newcomers, Gene Ford and John Aguilera.
Lopez, the only Latino on the council, was elected to office on his third attempt in 2004. The current mayor pro-tem has operated the Casa Linda restaurant on South Santa Fe Avenue for almost 30 years, and it is no surprise that business and urban blight are two of his primary concerns.
“I think redevelopment in the South Sante Fe corridor where my business is has been a challenge,” Lopez said. “I think the city has somewhat avoided this area for many, many years.”
Lopez said that his fellow council members have made the stretch of road a low priority and that if he isn’t re-elected, any progress toward revitalizing the corridor will likely disappear.
The restaurateur’s vision extends beyond his own street. Lopez wants to see a parking structure built downtown to accommodate the increasing volume of shoppers.
Lopez is also an advocate of the Shop Vista program, which highlights and encourages the patronage of the wide variety of Vista’s commercial and artistic offerings. He was a strong supporter of Vista’s becoming a charter city which, among other things, allows Vista to negotiate building contracts with local companies even if they don’t provide the cheapest estimate. He said the cost benefit ends up in Vista’s favor as the dollars spent stay in the community.
“Local businesses use local employees,” Lopez explained. “Those employees live in our communities. Those dollars stay here.”
Lopez also touted his record in fiscal responsibility. He said that his years as a small business owner have given him a grounded perspective on how to balance the city’s budget particularly in the current lean times.
“I think we need to cut back even more,” he said. “I don’t want to scare the people, but this is not a three-month… recession. This is going to be a year or two.”
At the same time, Lopez said he was not willing to increase revenue in ways he believes will restrict development in Vista. He voted against increasing impact fees on new construction though he was ultimately overruled.
“I think we have slowed up development in Vista since we’ve increased those impact fees,” Lopez said. “We’ve had projects which have ceased — especially housing projects.”
Lopez is endorsed by the San Diego Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the Vista Firefighters Association, County Supervisor Bill Horn and fellow council member Judy Ritter.
“You’ll never find a more honest person who believes in the community and believes in the people,” Lopez said of himself.
Gene Ford, the director of the Shadowridge Owners Association, founding director of South Vista Communities and chairman of the board for Solutions for Change, is hoping the third time will be the charm in his bid for a City Council position.
Ford is running on a platform of mending the disconnect between city staff and city residents. Ford believes it is too difficult for citizens to get in contact with officials and committee members. He said the situation is particularly acute for persons interested in starting up a business.
“I’ve heard from too many sources that people are told to do this, they do it, and then are told they need to do more,” Ford said. “Six months later, they’re no closer than when they started. That’s not a good situation. … If you look around this city, there’s just too many empty storefronts. Those need to be worked on. We should take a firm but prompt response to people who want to do business in the city.”
Ford said he would set up a telephone hot line that would go straight to his house so there would always be someone the public could reach. He also proposed creating a community ombudsman, a representative of the people in government affairs.
A retired banker and former president of a trust company, Ford believes he can do a better job investing the city’s sales tax revenue, increasing returns by up to 2 percent in a risk-free fashion. Ford said he will be happy to detail his plan should he be elected to the council.
Ford also wants to combat what he sees as the rising tide of “mini-dorms,” houses rented out to groups of students.
“Certain areas of Vista (have) become very seedy, very tired looking,” Ford said. “I think code enforcement needs to take a bigger role in monitoring the appearance of our neighborhoods.” He recommended augmenting the over-tasked city department with community volunteers to flag code violations.
While the retired Shadowridge resident praised Mayor Morris Vance for his leadership in realizing a slew of new city projects, including a city hall and two fire stations, he believes there is room for improvement and that new blood on the council is what is needed.
“I’m not a reactor,” Ford said. “I’m a proactive person. I’ll bring a lot of energy. I’ll bring a lot of ideas.”
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