SAN MARCOS — Nearly 50 San Marcos residents gathered at The Father’s House on Thursday to hear from the candidates in the city’s mayoral and city council races about their views on various critical issues ahead of the November election.
Incumbent Mayor Rebecca Jones is running against District 2 Councilmember Randy Walton for the mayoral seat. Four candidates have stepped up in the race for the council’s District 2 seat — Vallecitos Water District board member Mike Sannella, former Escondido city administrator and two-year San Marcos City Council appointee Jay Petrek, former U.S. Marine Lionel Saulsberry and Abreen Ahmed.
District 1 incumbent Councilmember Maria Nuñez is running unopposed for her seat.
The forum, organized and moderated by the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce, included questions related to housing and local control, small businesses, transportation and SANDAG’s vehicle mileage tax, and candidates’ general goals for the position.
Candidates were sent questions ahead of time, and all candidates, except Ahmed, were present for the forum.
Regarding housing, candidates had different opinions regarding balancing the needs for local control and affordable housing availability. Among the mayoral candidates, Jones took a strong stance against the state’s high-density housing requirements and shared her record of advocating for land use to be determined locally.
“Local control is what will save our community and keep it the way that we want it,” Jones said.
Walton said the lack of affordable housing options is driving young people and middle-class workers out of the area and that all new housing projects need to be looked at through the lens of affordability.
Among the District 2 candidates, Saulsberry said overall housing growth needs to be embraced in areas where there is space, and Petrek said the city should focus on well-planned workforce housing.
Sannella, who also ran for City Council in 2018, agreed with Jones that local control is essential for cities to determine “how we build, how much we build and where we build” housing.
“For me, my focus is really about making sure developments that are built are high quality, that they contribute to our community with new parks and trails and that they fund road and water infrastructure and schools,” Sannella said.
Walton fired shots at his mayoral opponent regarding transportation, claiming Jones has not pursued and has even rejected options for meaningful transportation improvements to relieve traffic.
“During Rebecca’s 16 years on this council, there has been a limitless approval of projects in a resistance to meaningful infrastructure to support the growth,” Walton said. “For example, Rebecca voted against the (SANDAG) 2021 Regional (Transportation) Plan, a plan that provides tremendous benefit to San Marcos, while proposing no alternatives.”
Walton also brought up Jones’ San Marcos Area Residents Transportation Solution (SMARTS) Plan to reduce traffic by restoring school bus service in the San Marcos Unified School District — which she announced with Sannella back during her 2018 campaign but never came to fruition — calling it a “campaign gimmick.”
In her response, Jones described her track record of supporting microtransit initiatives, including an ongoing effort to provide on-demand micro-transit, such as ride-sharing for students at local educational institutions. Jones added the COVID-19 pandemic had slowed many city projects.
The majority of candidates said they were strongly opposed to the idea of SANDAG’s controversial road user fee, which would charge residents around 4 cents per mile to fund transportation projects throughout the county.
Petrek said while such a fee could level the playing field for electric and gas-powered vehicles if it replaced the gas tax, he did not support SANDAG’s specific plan.
Candidates for both mayoral and city council seats boasted various levels of experience supporting small businesses.
Nuñez reminded her fellow candidates of the very specific small business needs in District 1, where many residents earn their income as street vendors, and described her record of voting against a proposed street vendor ordinance that would have set various restrictions on vendors.
Walton described how he fought against the placement of a Walmart on Rancho Santa Fe Road before he was ever on the council, while Jones claimed a long track record of supporting small businesses during her 16 years on the council.
Sannella claimed a reputation as being the person to call at Vallecitos Water District when businesses or residents are experiencing issues, while his District 2 opponent Petrek described his experience overseeing businesses and pursuing business grants in his former role as Escondido’s assistant city manager.
“I have 36 years of local municipal experience, many in leadership positions,” Petrek said. “My involvement in city administration, my education in urban planning, and my experience as an appointed city council member provide me with a unique depth of knowledge that will … benefit San Marcos in many ways.”
Saulsberry said he supported the small business loan-turned-grant program offered by the city during the COVID-19 pandemic and is eager to work with and help local businesses on the council. He added that while he is new to the San Marcos area, moving to the area in 2019, he is not new to leadership, having served as a U.S. Marine.
“It comes with being new to politics and new to San Marcos … the ability to listen, listen to what the community has to say, and learn,” Saulsberry said, describing himself as a servant leader. “I’ve lived here for three years, and with that, I bring a fresh, bright perspective as to what San Marcos has to offer and what San Marcos needs for years to come.”
A video recording of the forum will be available on the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce’s YouTube channel.