Introduction: I had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Mac at the first-year anniversary of his taking over from the former and perceived unbeatable two-time incumbent Sam Abed. We had a candid and open conversation.
Q: So, let’s begin with an open question, describe in general terms your first year?
A: Well, aside from being very busy, it’s been a real honor to work and engage with so many residents of the city over the past year, as well as a very dedicated city staff. When I won, a lot of folks were surprised, and since we did have an unusually high turnout, a lot of people wanted to know what the new guy had in store for the city. Well, I ran because I thought the narrative of the city needed changing and that we were on a downward spiral. And changing that perception was the focus of my effort. But I also knew that I needed to reach out to those who didn’t vote for me. So, this first year I attended a lot of events and spoke to a lot of people about what this city has to offer and where we could go as a community. It was a good idea. I think I conveyed that I am a centrist who has the best interests of the city at heart, and that I was genuinely interested in what people had to say and their ideas for the city. I often asked that we leave Washington politics in Washington and Sacramento politics in Sacramento, and let’s work together for the betterment of the city, and that resonated.
Q: Well, what have you done to change the narrative of the city?
A: When I was in the Marine Corps, the expression was that the commander was responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do. But everyone knew that no one single individual gets credit for all the good work. It’s really a team effort. The same is true being mayor. I’ve worked on a number of issues that had and have lots of people working together to make things come to fruition. It’s actually been energizing to see how many members of the community stand up and support this city with their volunteerism.
Changing the narrative takes time. I worked closely with the city staff who by the way are unsung heroes, and the people who roll up their sleeves and get the job done. We have worked on a two-prong approach. One is business development since a strong tax base solves a lot of a city’s challenges, and the other is creating a business-friendly atmosphere by showcasing all the good the city has to offer.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
A: Well as you know, previously, our public narrative was about immigration and that narrative was divisive. We now talk about all the wonderful things one can do in Escondido. It follows a theme something like “Did you know in Escondido you can … ?” And from that theme new ideas and events spring forth. A few examples — recently we had our first Veterans Day parade; we have folks working on an agricultural museum; we had an opera company come to town and put on “Romeo and Juliet School kids could watch the rehearsals for free; there are folks working on a Chili Cookoff at Grape Day park. There are lots of irons in the fire.
On the business side, I’ve proposed to take us back to our agricultural roots and we are now in conversation with UCSD and UC Riverside on connecting with Escondido since we are the gateway to the $4.4 billion Ag industry and backcountry of North County. We also are talking with the Farm Bureau and our two local tribes Rincon and San Pasqual.
No one thing solves the problem or changes the narrative, but collectively they contribute to a narrative that Escondido is a great place to live, work and play.
Q: Do you have a frustration with the job that you would like to share?
A: Nothing moves as fast as you would like.
Q: Do you have an accomplishment that you would like to share?
A: Let me pile on to the last question and talk about the East Valley Library. As you may recall, the previous council decided to close that library and allow our local educators to use the building. Practically on day 1, I spoke with the city manager about doing a partnership with Palomar Community College and restoring those services to that part of the city. The college library is the next block over from the previous one, so it’s practically the same location. I’m pleased to report that an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) was approved by Palomar College and we will vote on it in January. I think it is win-win in that the residents get their library back and our local students don’t have to move. But I wish things moved a little faster.
Q: Any others?
A: There are a lot of things going on but one worth mentioning is the now six committees we have addressing issues of the city. Those committees are: Arts and Culture, Recreation and Youth Sports, Homelessness and Housing, Climate Action and Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture, and finally Health and Healthy Living. The purpose of those committees were and are to give transparency and voice to the issues but also allow feedback from the city to the city leadership. I spoke about this concept during the campaign but the entire council was interested in doing essentially the same thing so it was a relatively easy task to initiate. In fairness, the city staff already work these issues but the committees offer a better form of dialogue and partnership. The appropriate city staff is connected with the theme of the committee and supports it with Web tools that enhance connectivity. But like I said before, it takes time.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
A: The three things that keep me up at night are the budget, transportation, and housing. None of them have simple answers and all have potential unintended consequences. Many folks don’t understand the complexity of the issues and will espouse simple solutions that sound good, but don’t really provide the answer.
Q: Please expand.
A: Ok, let’s discuss the budget first. We have an 18 year gap due to an unpaid bill to Sacramento. Just about everyone has this challenge in the county so we are not alone. But we are stuck solving the problem. For us, it is roughly 10-15% of our budget that we can actually change. Of that budget about 65% is public safety and there just isn’t a lot of fat we can trim from that area. So that leaves about 35% left to find 10-15% cuts depending on the year. You don’t need to be an economist to know that cutting 10-15% of city services would be disastrous for the city. It would put us in a downward spiral. The good news is that we conducted a poll suggesting a one cent sales tax increase and it had very favorable results. Obviously, the voters need to decide but if it passed, we would have enough money to pay the bill and also have some left over for other public safety and works projects that would continue to enhance the city.
Transportation is the next big issue. The simple answer is we need a more robust public transportation system. Who is going to argue with that, no one. But how we get there and what we do in the interim is the issue. SANDAG has finally taken on this herculean task, but no one knows if it is going to work and how much it is going to cost. And most importantly, if the taxpayers are willing to pay for it. In the interim, we have GHG standards mandated by the state which the county as a region are not meeting. Some of it is because we have giant parking lots every rush hour with cars practically at idle putting more GHG into the air. So, the solution is more lanes but we also know from those who study these problems, long term extra lanes actually cause an increase in traffic. So, what do we do. Let the car problem build up for 30 plus years awaiting the completion of the Public Transit system that alleviates car traffic, or look for some interim solutions. I am of the opinion that we accept the harsh reality that there are “necessary evil” solutions like additional lanes on the 78 until an effective Public Transportation System can be built. Knowing that system could take generations to build there are still some who would hold a firm line on increasing lanes. While I admire their passion and commitment. I think it’s impractical.
Housing is the third big issue. Everyone wants a home and they want it affordable. The price of housing has gone up due to regulation, so the good news is that we have better quality homes being built, the bad news is they are not cheap. And SANDAG predicts that 1 million more people will move into the county over the next 30 years. Some argue we should do infill, i.e., denser downtown areas with condos and apartments versus new housing developments. Others state we only have developed less than 24% of the county and so we should still allow new developments on green space which is typically characterized as Urban Sprawl by their opponents. What we know is that if we don’t build, people move north to Riverside county and the I-15 becomes even more clogged. Everyone wants smart growth but how that is defined is the question. So, what do you do? Well there is no clean solution. Every project is evaluated on its own merits, and no project is overwhelmingly approved or disapproved. Most of them are compromises.
Q: Can you give us an update on the Cannabis question?
A: The city voted by a slight majority to approve the use of Cannabis in the state. The previous council voted to not allow the sale of Cannabis in the city. I promised I would look into it during the campaign and I have. In fact, I’ve been to a lot of meetings on the subject. What we have not found is a good model to consider. One hears lots of promises, but when you peel back the onion, no city has the right set of ordinances that inspires confidence that we have the controls, to avoid bad consequences, collect the taxes we are supposed to, etc. So right now, we are still doing our research.
Q: Another community topic of discussion is Harvest Hills nee Safari Highlands. Do you have any updates on that project?
A: I’ve received a lot of input on that project. There are a lot of folks who want me to commit one way or the other. Well I can’t. The courts determined that the council is a quasi-judicial setting. Meaning we make a decision on a project much like a judge does in a court case. So, we can’t be a judge that makes a ruling before the trial. It is not only inappropriate; it opens the city up to legal action. But we can say some things about a project, which we do, and people read between the lines trying to determine what we think. I can say for example that I have serious concerns about something, but I can’t say I oppose that project no matter what. Recently, I paid a compliment to the developer for trying to make it more environmentally friendly. And as you can imagine, people thought I suddenly supported the project. But, I still have significant concerns about wildfire, urban sprawl, and development paying its way. At the end of the day the developer needs to make its case before the council and we will decide if we think it’s the right project for the city.
Q: Recently you withdrew your support of Olga Diaz for County Supervisor, would you mind commenting on that decision.
A: As you may be aware, Olga and I have known each other for 10 years and so it wasn’t an easy or cavalier decision. I believe my charge as an elected official is to endorse within the party framework, the candidate, I think will do the best job. When I considered all the elements, I believe it takes to be successful at governance, I thought there are better choices in the field. Consequently, I withdrew my endorsement of her.
Q: Are there any other issues you would like to discuss?
A: I would like to add one more comment about housing, that I think people should understand. There is a mandate from Sacramento to the various regions which in our case is San Diego county, that tells us to build so many houses or units. It is the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) pronounced ReeNa. It is an 8 year cycle and our fair share during the last cycle was about 4,000 units. Those units were divided into various categories ranging from high to low income levels. Escondido only built about 1,000 units and did not make its numbers in any of the categories. A new cycle just started and our goal is now about 9,000 units. The reason it went so high is because a different formula was used which included a transit center. Because we have a transit center we received more units. But those who have been following this article will say, wait a minute, our county public transportation system doesn’t take people where they want to go. And they would be correct but we still have the task. At this point, all we have to do is amend our general plan to accommodate the numbers, but the fear is that Sacramento will allow developers to build without local consent. And that is the point I want to make, and why this is something people should track with their state representatives. Cities don’t have pots of money to build units. Developers come in and offer projects which the city can either approve or disapprove.
Q: In just about every interview I’ve done with new businesses in Escondido over the last couple of years, the owners will comment, “Well, it was pretty difficult dealing with the city.” Yet the city frequently proclaims how business friendly it is. Is there a disconnect here?
A: I’ve heard that comment as well. But I’ve also heard the opposite, i.e., the city was very cooperative. The City Manager and I have discussed this perception on numerous occasions. We try to remember that the City is usually the first contact that most people have with business regulation, and that’s new territory for many business owners. Our staff is committed to good customer relations while also enforcing the law and maintaining high standards. Navigating those two can be a challenge for any business and we both understand that, and try to help. We are committed to giving the best customer service in the shortest amount of time. I’ll add this, however—each and every time that I’ve heard a concern and passed it on to staff, we end up with a happy and understanding citizen when we’re finished.
Q: You have made yourself very available to speak before just about any group that will invite you. What is the most common question you are asked? What is the question that nobody ever asks you that you would like them to?
A1: I don’t know that there is a common question because each group is different, and in some cases, you can almost predict what folks are interested in. One thing I do talk about is the direction of the city both short term and long term. The groups really like that discussion and giving input. I have found that there are a lot of people who don’t always know what is going on and that is not a knock on them. It’s a reflection of everyone’s busy lifestyle. So, when the opportunity does present itself to weigh in, we get good feedback.
A2: Regarding what I would like them to ask. That’s a good question. I’m hopeful that with good dialogue and transparency I won’t have to provide that question to you since the topic will be already covered.
Q: Have you had any major surprises as mayor? Or is the job pretty much as you imagined it would be?
A: I think the one surprise which we discussed earlier, is that things take time. The other is that there were so many residents who wanted to participate and volunteer to improve the city. I feel sometimes all one had to do was open the barn door.
Q: In the New Year the old Palomar Hospital is likely to be demolished. What is your vision for what the resulting housing will do for the old historic business district?
A: This is a very watched project. The best description I heard about what it should look like is that whatever is built, it should be on the postcard. We really need to have a project that will not only be a centerpiece for our City, but provide significant foot traffic for our Grand Avenue and surrounding areas that will complement the current revitalization of the downtown area. It’s a pretty high bar, but that is a very nice piece of property and the location is amazing. So, yes, our expectations are very high and we’re going to keep them high.
Q: As a candidate you were quite critical of the city’s high limit on campaign contributions. Do you intend to do anything about that?
A: I asked for it to be put on the council agenda and it will be discussed at the December 18 meeting. I lean toward a $250 limit for a district election and $800 for Mayor. Much beyond that I think we open the door to special interests. We’ll see how the council votes.
Q: As a candidate you expressed frustration that the city didn’t engage more with its largest employer, Palomar Health. Have you done anything to change that?
A: Yes, our Health and Healthy Living Advisory Group involves a lot of players between Palomar and the City. I maintain good contact with the leadership at Palomar Health, and so does our staff.
Q: What is your opinion of County Prop. A (aka SOS) which would make any development that changes the County Gen. Plan subject to a vote of all the voters of the county, including residents of the city of Escondido?
A: General Plans are like big ships because they are hard to turn and take time. SOS would certainly serve to slow growth and if it passes it won’t be without consequence to the future of the county. As I discussed earlier – traffic, public transportation, housing, GHG emissions are all interrelated. The voters really need to be informed because this could be a game changer. And to repeat myself, there are no simple answers to complex problems. For example, how does one slow grow and construct affordable housing at the same time? How can we encourage creative land use when there are rigid rules regarding what we can do with property? These issues need to be addressed.
Q: Any final comments?
A: I think it is worth restating how much of an honor it is to be the Mayor of this city. This city is rich in tradition and history, it has so much to offer, and it’s a city of faith and values. When I think of all of those traits combined, and how people are counting on you to do it right, you really want to do your best. I think I speak not only for myself but my colleagues on the council and the city staff, that we are committed to making Escondido a great place to work, live, raise a family, and play. Thank you.