VISTA — In a sit-down interview with The Coast News, longtime Vista Mayor Judy Ritter, who has served as the city’s mayor since 2010 and has been on the Vista City Council since 1998, shared her thoughts on her retirement and a range of issues facing the city, including homelessness, transit, and the rising marijuana industry.
When it comes to homelessness, Ritter said while she’s proud of the city’s efforts in recent years to tackle the issue, she also acknowledges the need to do more to address underlying issues of drug addiction and mental illness that she says are the root causes of homelessness.
“Homelessness has gotten worse, and it’s worse now than it was years ago in Vista,” Ritter said. While recognizing the need to expand access to affordable housing, the mayor says that she’s become more convinced over time that the solution to keeping people off the streets has to go beyond just housing.
“I don’t know if providing housing for everyone is the answer because that’s not going to tackle the underlying problems,” Ritter said. “there are those who are homeless because they’ve been hit with bad times or those who choose to live that way but a lot of these people are on drugs and there’s those who are mentally ill, and we’re not doing enough as a society for those people.”
Ritter says that the city will continue to support joint efforts with CalTrans to clean up homeless encampments throughout Vista that she believes pose a threat to public health and safety while emphasizing that the cleanups don’t represent a long-term solution to the issue.
“With the encampment cleanups, the problem is that you clean them up and they move them along and then they just move back again, so I don’t know if that’s really the answer, and I don’t know the answer when it comes to the homeless,” Ritter said. “With these encampments, there’s no cleanliness and safety is at stake, you know we have to keep our creeks clean and all of this doesn’t help that…I don’t know the answer but I just know that in order to keep the community safe and clean for everyone you can’t have encampments everywhere.”
Ritter also reemphasized her opposition to safe parking/camping programs in Vista, which the city is currently exploring after a recent city council vote.
Ritter has expressed concern that such a program could make Vista “the homeless capital of North County,” and stood by her remarks when pressed on the subject. She also opined that such programs tend to encourage the homeless to stay on the streets instead of seeking more long-term care.
“I’m just not willing to go that far with [safe parking]…,” Ritter said. “I don’t want to see people pitching tents, I don’t want what they have in Los Angeles, I mean you look at the streets there and it’s just not my picture with people camped out under all of the overpasses…the sad thing is some people do choose to live like this, that’s a choice so I don’t think we as a city have to responsible for that, we can’t help everyone.”
The mayor heavily touted progress that the city has made in the past two years in terms of expanding access to affordable housing, especially for seniors. In 2020, the city opened up The Grove on Civic Center Drive, an 81-unit complex offering housing to low-income seniors.
Ritter added that a similar 61-unit project, Paseo Artist Village, is currently in the works on Paseo Santa Fe that will provide affordable housing for seniors, artists, veterans, and other local residents earning 30-59% of the area median income, or AMI.
The project is being developed by the city in partnership with the nonprofit Community Housing Works, and will likely be completed in the next several months, Ritter said.
Ritter also emphasized the significance of the city’s recent HomeShare Resource program, which she said has been a critical boost for low-income seniors who are among the most vulnerable when it comes to the risk of homelessness.
Perhaps most significantly though, Ritter said the city’s hiring of two new social workers — one contracted via the county — will provide a vital boost to the city’s efforts on homelessness, as these workers are able to go directly into encampments and offer a range of services to unhoused persons, including medical and nutritional supplies, affordable housing options and rehabilitative services for those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness.
“We now have two social workers to help reduce homelessness…our outreach works directly with people who are in need of housing and we have different options for people who have lost homes that we can provide access to…so we have a lot of options in Vista, it’s just up to people to take advantage,” Ritter said.
As she’s done in the past, Ritter heavily criticized SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan, arguing that the plan imposes unnecessarily heavy taxes upon residents while doing little to improve transit in North County.
Like other North County leaders, including San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, Ritter said the plan’s mileage tax — which would charge road users per mile for driving — is unjust and disproportionately impacts middle-class residents who have no choice but to commute to work.
SANDAG officials have said that the mileage tax will be removed in a future update to the plan, but Jones and Ritter both believe the provision has not been fully removed from the plan. Ritter was also critical of the plan’s proposal to create managed lanes that would essentially act as toll roads for users.
“I don’t really see any improvements that Vista will see from this plan…they’re not widening the 78, they’re adding managed lanes so that people will have to pay in both of those lanes…I see them looking at the transition from the 78 to [Interstate] 5, those things would be an improvement of Vista residents traveling that way…I’m still looking for an advantage for our people from this plan,” Ritter said.
When it came to the cannabis industry, Ritter admitted she had not been in favor of Measure Z, the voter-approved initiative that passed in 2018 allowing the operation of up to 11 licensed marijuana sales shops for the first time in city history.
“I was against it when ran for mayor. I was concerned about the potential increase in crime and the impact on high school kids and younger kids,” Ritter said.
In the last nearly four years, however, Ritter acknowledged the introduction of approved cannabis dispensaries into the city hasn’t resulted in any major negative effects on the youth or overall crime levels.
“We thought we’d hear a big pushback, but I don’t really hear from the sheriff about crime with these places, I don’t get a lot of calls about the dispensaries, they’re doing pretty well,” Ritter said. “I’m not hearing a lot of complaints, any real pushback…I still have the same worries I did before and I don’t really support it but I’m living with it.”
More significantly, the dispensaries have proven to be a vital and significant source of tax revenues for the city, which raked in a total of $5.1 million in revenues from cannabis during Vista’s last fiscal year, according to Ritter.
“Yes, these taxes have absolutely helped our budget, we capped our general budget at $4 million and I believe we’ve been able to hold onto an additional $1.1 million in funding from this for special projects,” Ritter said.
For instance, through cannabis-funded special projects, Ritter said the city has provided an additional $140,000 for youth scholarship programs, $270,000 for better lighting in city neighborhoods and $20,000 in local park restroom maintenance.
The special project’s funding has also allowed Vista to hire a new sheriff’s deputy (costing $275,000) and two new park rangers (approximately $277,000), the mayor added.
Ritter optimistically noted that crime has gradually declined in the city since 2008. She credited proactive efforts by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department — including an increase in recent years in the number of “targeted patrols” that proactively police areas designated as high-risk for crime — as being key in crime reduction.
Ritter also highlighted the effectiveness of the city’s social programs such as Exodus, Vista’s 24-hour emergency service for individuals experiencing mental health crises, as helping save lives and improve the quality of life for residents.
However, Ritter expressed that Vista continues to experience issues when it comes to gang crimes, as well as a steady level of petty “quality of life” crimes (such as theft, loitering, trespassing, etc).
For these issues, she said that she largely blames state laws that Ritter claims have “tied the hands” of police when it comes to law enforcement. Specifically, Ritter criticized state Proposition 47 and 57, both of which she said have exacerbated crime statewide.
Proposition 47, passed in 2014, changed a significant number of lower-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while Prop 57, passed in 2016, allowed for greater parole consideration for nonviolent felons and authorized reduced sentence credits for inmates under certain conditions.
“I know our state has released a lot of people from prison, a lot of our gang members being released from prison and people that do the petty crimes,” Ritter said. “It just doesn’t make our city safer, and then, of course, we still have gang issues. These are things that we really have no control over, I mean it’s just crazy these state laws, you’ve got to have accountability with the state and the rule of law.”
Ritter, who has served as mayor since 2010, said that she’s known that she wasn’t going to run for a fourth term for quite some time.
“I’m 79 now and it’s just time to go,” Ritter said with a laugh. “It’s time for younger people than me to take over, and hopefully they’ll continue to keep the city in good shape and not change it too much because I think that the people who live here like the way it’s run and they like the way it is.”
Ritter said she’s looking forward to retirement, where she’ll continue her current second job as a realtor, albeit more lightly than before.
“I think it’s time for new people to come in and take over and it’s time for me to do something else, I have stuff going on with my real estate practice, but it’s also time to take some time off and not work as hard anymore,” Ritter said.
Ritter said she’s proud of a whole range of projects that she’s been able to spearhead in both the public and private sectors as mayor.
She pointed to significant growth in the city’s entertainment sector, including the Cinépolis Center in Vista Village, an upscale luxury cinema experience established in 2015, and renovations and improvements to the Moonlight Amphitheater, a staple of Vista’s theater industry for the past 40 years.
Both of these projects were made possible by significant city support and funding, Ritter said.
Ritter said she’s been proud of how small business growth has continued to accelerate in the city under her tenure despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the mayor pointed to the astronomical growth of the city’s breweries, which she said have had a substantial impact on the city’s profile and economic development.
“With downtown, we used to have no breweries, and now for a while, we were the microbrew capital of the United States, sharing that title with Portland…I never did it all but it’s the City Council as a whole, the staff that backs you up, everybody did this, it takes a big team,” Ritter said.
In the public sector, Ritter said that she’s presided over a time of considerable municipal improvements, including the building of additional fire stations, needed renovations to City Hall, and the establishment of the city’s very first homeless shelter Operation Hope, which opened in 2011 and focuses on providing services for families and single women.
Ritter also highlighted the importance of the Santa Fe corridor project, which entailed six years of construction and $30 million in city spending. Completed in December of 2020, the project saw significant upgrades to the corridor’s infrastructure, including two new roundabout traffic circles, new sidewalks, the undergrounding of utility lines, new signage and landscaping, and the establishment of a veterans memorial park.
While she’s proud of her own work in regards to all of these projects, Ritter said she’s been blessed to work with an incredible array of city staff and fellow council members, whom she said has provided a steady founded for continued progress ever since she joined the council in 1998.
“When it comes to the Vista city staff, they all really care about Vista, they go the extra mile…I’ve worked with them for a lot of years and they really care about this city, the staff make a huge difference and that longevity helps…you have a goal in front of you and you keep working towards it and people buy into that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three profiles on inland North County mayors, including VIsta Mayor Judy Ritter, Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones.