VISTA — Two mayoral hopefuls in Vista are publicly accusing each other of dishonesty after one candidate’s policy decisions raised questions about his commitment to law enforcement and public safety.
Deputy Mayor John Franklin and Trustee Cipriano Vargas, of the Vista Unified School District, are both hoping to replace outgoing Mayor Judy Ritter.
According to a website launched earlier this month and statements made to The Coast News, Franklin’s campaign took aim at Vargas’ record on law enforcement, accusing the school board official of diminishing security at Vista schools by terminating three school resource officers (SROs), whom he reportedly referred to as a “school to prison pipeline.”
Franklin also alleged Vargas made other inflammatory anti-police statements, calling law enforcement a “resource to intimidate the community,” and proposed “cuts of $54.9 million from local police budgets,” according to the website.
“(Vargas) is running from his record on public safety,” Franklin said. “I start with the fact that he made the motion and cast the deciding vote fire SRO’s out of schools in 2019. He made the claim that this decision was purely for budgetary reasons, but subsequently, more than 200 employees – not teachers – were then hired. So the claim that this was a necessity for budgetary reasons just doesn’t hold water.”
Just earlier this month, Vargas and the Vista Unified school board voted to rehire the SROs that were fired three years earlier, which Franklin calls a politically-calculated stunt intended to obscure his opponent’s past opposition to law enforcement entities.
“They just ratified an agreement between the city and the schools to bring back SROs, but why is this just weeks before the election,” Franklin said. “Why not sooner if this was right thing to do? It’s totally a political stunt.”
Franklin also went after Vargas’ alleged ties to the Center on Policy Initiatives (CIP), which has publicly advocated for redirecting funds away from local police departments and disbanding San Diego Police Department’s “street gang and gang intervention units,” according to KPBS.
Franklin said the group employs extensive anti-police rhetoric on its online platforms.
“Cipriano was not just endorsed by this association (CIP), he is credited by the organization as being the author of its budget priorities, which include ‘dismantling racist street gang units,'” Franklin said. “I think it’s pretty clear where he stands when it comes to supporting law enforcement.
“Vargas has also been quoted as saying that, ‘The emotional stress and anxiety’ that students face because of the presence of law enforcement, ‘negatively impacts the learning outcomes of all students,’” Franklin continued. “So basically, after six years of BLM and defund the police rhetoric, all of a sudden, we’re now supposed to believe that he’s pro-law enforcement? What gives? This is not right. He’s trying to pull wool over voters’ eyes and over his easy-to-document public record.”
A CPI spokesperson reached out to The Coast News to refute Franklin’s claims.
“The Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) did not endorse Cipriano Vargas or any other candidates for elected office,” the spokesperson said. “As a 501(c)3 we are unable to endorse candidates. Additionally, the 501(c)4 entity Policy Action, which exists to do work aligned with CPI’s mission, did not endorse Cipriano Vargas or any other candidates in this election cycle.”
The CPI also denied Vargas was the author or had any involvement with the coalition’s budget priorities, as Franklin claims.
“The budget priorities Franklin refers to … were created by the Community Budget Alliance, a coalition of community organizations that is facilitated by staff at the Center on Policy Initiatives,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, the claim that the Community Budget Alliance’s (CBA) budget priorities were exclusively CPI’s agenda is false.”
While CPI denies endorsing Vargas, his picture is featured on the organization’s website masthead, Franklin argues, calling the organization’s rebuttal a “game of semantics.”
Vargas is also a strategic initiatives and community engagement manager for Supervisor Terra Lawson Remer’s public affairs and community relations team. In the bio on Lawson Remer’s website, Vargas’ policy areas include Invest in San Diego Families, which is convened by CPI.
Additionally, Vargas worked with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) — a coalition member of CPI — on budget advocacy. According to its website, ACCE credits Vargas for his work on budget policy development: “Cipriano worked with ACCE on budget advocacy as part of the Invest in San Diego Families coalition.”
“Since Cipriano refuses to answer these questions, I suppose voters will have to make up their own minds,” Franklin said. “For me, I wouldn’t be caught dead appearing on the masthead of any organization calling to defund the police. This is an attempt to confuse and obfuscate, plain and simple.”
Vargas responded to Franklin’s accusations in an email statement released to The Coast News on Tuesday.
“John Franklin is lying,” Vargas said. “He’s lying about his record, and he’s lying about mine. He’s been on the council for eight years. During his tenure, homelessness in Vista has gotten worse and crime is now increasing. To deflect public attention from his failures, John Franklin is engaging in Donald Trump ‘Big Lie’ tactics.
“From the day I announced (my candidacy) for mayor, nearly a year ago, the centerpiece of my campaign has been to make Vista a safe, livable place for families to bring up their kids. I have pledged repeatedly to increase the numbers of sheriff’s (deputies) on patrol in Vista to combat the increase in crime that has occurred on John Franklin’s watch. I have promised to build a shelter for homeless veterans and children to help deal with the dramatic increase in homelessness that has occurred on John Franklin’s watch. I am proud of my commitment to public safety. On the school board, now that COVID has abated and the schools are fully re-opened, I successfully passed a motion to hire three sheriff’s deputies to keep our children and staff safe.”
When pressed for comment, Vargas did not answer The Coast News’ questions over his role in terminating three SROs, nor did he respond to questions about his purported advocacy to defund local police departments and dissolve gang intervention units.
Vargas also took aim at Franklin’s alleged affiliation with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun organizations that the school board member said represent interests adverse to school safety. Franklin has denied any connection to the NRA.
“Unlike John Franklin, I strongly support banning the sale of assault weapons and a number of gun safety measures that would keep Vista’s schools from experiencing the kind of horrible carnage experienced at Uvalde,” Vargas said.
Franklin responded by saying Vargas’ past decisions related to law enforcement are indicative of his future handling of law enforcement issues facing the city.
“Safety and discipline have repeatedly been on gruesome display in our Vista schools during the last several years,” Franklin said. “Cipriano Vargas has presided over a school board that has minimized disciplinary problems, fired school resource officers and created an unsafe environment for learning. Multiple highly publicized reports, including the recent incident at Vista High School and the gun on campus at Rancho Buena Vista High School, both reported on in this newspaper, make that clear.
“With his long, clear and repeated history of anti-law enforcement statements and his public actions to fire school resource officers from Vista schools, how possibly can we believe that he is the Law and order candidate who will advance the mission of increasing the numbers of deputies patrolling our city? Past behavior is always the best predictor of future performance.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include statements by the Center on Policy Initiatives in response to Deputy Mayor John Franklin’s claims about his opponent, Cipriano Vargas.