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Union-Tribune General Election Candidate Questionnaire

The San Diego Union-Tribune has posted my answers to a 14-question survey the editorial board sent to candidates several weeks ago, and these questions formed the basis of the discussion at the Union-Tribune District 6 candidate forum at the Serra Mesa—Kearny Mesa Library on Oct. 18th.

Since these articles are often placed behind a paywall on the Union-Tribune website, I’ve included the piece here so everyone can read it. You can link to the article at the Union-Tribune website here.

By the San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board
Oct. 4, 2022 4:34 PM PT

There are two candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot for San Diego City Council District 6: Democratic county planning commissioner Tommy Hough and Democratic non-profit executive director Kent Lee. Here are Hough’s answers to a 14-question survey the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board e-mailed candidates.

Q:  Why do you want this job? What in your background makes you a good fit for this job?

A:  I’m tired of seeing our District 6 neighborhoods left behind by the city, and our concerns over basics like parks and roads being dismissed by an increasingly hubristic City Hall that seems to have lost patience for working with neighborhoods and more focused on implementing unrelated initiatives. In Mira Mesa and Kearny Mesa, we need our 50-year old streets rebuilt and restored. Instead, the city is proposing an aerial tramway and a 71 percent increase in Mira Mesa’s population when we already have the worst congestion north of Interstate 8, a lack of effective transit and the worst roads in the city.

We need real transit options like the trolley and more effective, less time-consuming bus routes. As one of San Diego’s key economic centers, particularly with Sorrento Valley, Sorrento Mesa, UTC, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the Convoy District all within our boundaries, District 6 puts a great deal into the city’s pot — but we don’t often see a corresponding return. We need to put Neighborhoods First to prevent colossal blunders like the Gold Coast Drive bicycle lane, which did nothing to increase safety, wasn’t using up-to-date traffic data and was a surprise to even the most engaged community members. I’ve long been an advocate for rebuilding Gold Coast Drive and restoring the Mira Mesa Epicentre, and as an environmentalist, I’m committed to preserving our open space, canyons and wetlands.

I will continue to lead on neighborhood issues and speak up for our communities, and as a San Diego County planning commissioner, I bring the wisdom and experience to make responsible citywide decisions. I’m comfortable with stepping on the brakes when a proposal seems misguided or needs additional oxygen, and I’m ready to serve as a leader so our City Council can function as an effective — and needed — counterweight in a strong mayor form of city government.

Q:  How will you ensure the legally binding goals of the city’s Climate Action Plan are met? How will you ensure practicality, equity and effectiveness in a transition to a greener society?

A:  We have to start asking questions more relevant to the outcomes we need as part of the Climate Action Plan, beginning with greater electrification and rooftop solar. Why are our local governments, schools and universities, environmental organizations, labor unions and commercial outlets not working together to facilitate, produce and install solar panels on every rooftop? Why are we not working together to ensure we’re lowering the costs of solar panels, or subsidizing a percentage of them, in order to reach our climate goals? We may need to pursue a requirement or some incentivization for rooftop solar atop structures with a large degree of available rooftop space, and we also need a greater number of electric buses in our regional transit fleets, a real investment in low-emission or emission-free transit, and an incentivization for greater public transit use by providing free ride zones. We should also increase the volume of native shrubs and drought-tolerant trees along streets and in boulevards to calm traffic, maintain cooler temperatures and use less water.

Q:  Do you support the new SANDAG mobility plan to improve transit to the airport and around the region? Would you support a sales tax increase or a mileage fee to pay for it?

A:  I can’t support the mileage fee that’s been put forward by SANDAG staff. A wide margin of cars on the road are gasoline-powered, and for years we’ve paid for road maintenance and improvements with a tax on gasoline in our state. Adding a mileage fee creates an unnecessary burden on working and middle-income families struggling to make ends meet, and for contractors for whom driving to destinations is part of their job. I agree we must transition to electric vehicles and reduce miles driven and I support the state mandate to phase out the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles in California. I’m supportive of “smart growth” initiatives that increase housing density, build housing along transit corridors, curb sprawl development, shorten or even eliminate the drive times between home and work, and increase mass transit options. I’ve fought for these goals for years as an environmental advocate, and more recently as a San Diego County planning commissioner. SANDAG’s study of our regional transit and housing, and its push to “reimagine” how we live and grow in San Diego has helped push this debate forward, and one of the most important components is how to pay for a multibillion-dollar makeover of San Diego’s infrastructure.

I would consider how San Diego’s share of federal infrastructure spending will factor into our planning. What can and what will we fund with these monies? I’ve yet to see a definitive list. I would similarly look to the state and how recent budget surpluses will be spent, and consider what we can add locally. Sales taxes disproportionately fall on lower-income neighbors, and while voters rejected a sales tax increase for transportation the last time it was on the ballot, I would consider asking voters again if a thoughtful and thoroughly vetted plan were developed and put forward.

Q:  What steps would you take to address the city’s housing crisis? What’s your view of using empty commercial buildings or vacant malls for housing?

A:  The time has come to discuss a vacancy tax, a uniquely San Diego version of rent control, real enforcement of new short-term vacation rental regulations, and perhaps a public-private partnership or public bank that can make low-cost loans to first-time homebuyers for competitive down payments to compete with real estate speculators and owners of multiple homes or vacation rentals. I’ve been an advocate for repurposing structures like empty commercial buildings and vacant malls going back to my first race for District 6 in 2018, and we have a golden opportunity to repurpose or build atop existing structures like office parks, warehouse sites and massive parking lots in District 6 in some areas north of Miramar Road in a proposal I refer to as “neighborhoodizing” Miramar. These areas have the added benefit of having already been built with road networks, stoplights, water and sewage, and while height limits may be capped at four to five stories given nearby air traffic at MCAS Miramar, considerable housing could be constructed within close proximity to some of the city’s highest-paying jobs in growing sectors.

Trolley lines and transit could then be planned for these new neighborhoods, preferably with a Blue Line spur extending east from UTC through the Miramar area (where some rail resources already exist) and into Scripps Ranch, or via a projected Purple Line from the South Bay heading north into Kearny Mesa. As an environmentalist, I often say the greenest building is the one already built, but the opportunities afforded by even a partial neighborhoodization of a region like that north of Miramar Road, coupled with density done right as part of the new Kearny Mesa Community Plan, and the opportunity to explore public-private partnerships in repurposing or adding housing to existing office parks and warehouse sites may lead to tangible new opportunities for housing throughout the city.

Q:  What can realistically be done to address homelessness in the city? How would you try to accomplish it?

A:  Even with help from county, state and federal resources, revenue will always be an overriding issue, but the city does seem to be making small-scale progress in pursuing permanent supportive housing solutions with on-site wraparound services to address psychological, addiction or economic issues that may have prompted our unsheltered neighbors to have wound up on the street, and address the post-traumatic stress disorder they may have accumulated. I would like to see police essentially removed from homelessness matters or interaction unless there is an overriding public safety concern, and instead utilize a greater corps of Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) clinicians in conjunction with county resources to work with homeless neighbors to bring them off the street and into permanent supportive housing spaces.

One way we’re not going to successfully address homelessness is by doing what we’re doing now — that is, spinning our wheels with cruel crackdown-style sweeps that seem intended to terrorize rather than rehabilitate or assist. As a city, we can’t be party to throwing away people’s possessions like a tent (their home) or a bicycle (their transportation), but if we don’t fully commit to utilizing or repurposing appropriate, existing structures for permanent supportive housing needs, we’re only going to chase homeless neighbors from one shopping center or canyon to another. We are at a moment when some intervention may be needed to help bring homeless neighbors into supportive housing, but things will only get worse if the city can’t muster the revenue or resources to house our homeless and provide them with the necessary resources they need to get back on their feet.

Q:  How would you work to ensure better city oversight to avoid real-estate debacles such as 101 Ash Street?

A:  The $86 million Ash Steet deal is a disaster, and I sent a very public letter to the city voicing my opposition to it. The settlement will drain tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds for road and park maintenance in all our city communities to pay off the mistakes of the “Downtown crowd.” In a democracy, oversight is the role of elected officials. But in the 101 Ash Street deal, the mayor and a majority of the council regrettably failed the test. Kudos to the city attorney for making her voice heard on the matter. My prescription for improved oversight is actually quite simple — we must move toward public financing of campaigns so our elected officials are no longer dependent upon special interest contributions to win election and re-election.

Q:  Does San Diego need a new City Hall?

A:  After 57 years, our city could certainly use a new and modernized City Hall, but I’d hardly rate a new City Hall structure a key priority given the volume of more critical, pressing issues that need attention and the limited amount of available revenue. If a genuine safety or technology-driven overhaul is required, I’d prefer to upgrade the existing structure than build an entirely new City Hall. There are simply too many other needs in our city that must be addressed and dealt with now.

Q:  Do you believe that the city auditor should have access to independent legal advice?

A:  Absolutely, yes.

Q:  Recruitment and retention is a big issue for the San Diego Police Department. What more should be done to ensure adequate police staffing levels and prompt response times?

A:  We need more police officers, and we need to pay them better — a lot better, in fact, to be competitive with other departments. We need about 2,200 officers to fully put forward a bare minimum of basic public safety in a city as large as San Diego, but we’re realistically hovering around 1,500 officers. That’s simply not a sustainable number given our city’s size, and it precludes any kind of idealized community policing that enables officers to get out of their cars, walk a beat and get to know their communities, neighborhoods and neighbors at a more granular level. The deluge of officers leaving our city also doesn’t put us in a safe space for when we suffer a major earthquake or another citywide or regional wildfire event like those we experienced in 2003, 2007 and 2014. Already many “priority one” emergencies that require lights and sirens to respond to (fights, domestic violence, car accidents, etc.) have a bare minimum wait time of 30 minutes at peak hours. Officers and police leadership are well aware that’s not acceptable.

In my recent visit to the Northeast Division, some personnel noted that in one particular month six officers left the division — a division that stretches from Miramar north to the San Pasqual Valley. As the eighth-biggest city in the U.S., we can’t serve as the farm team for every other department in Southern California or around the U.S. In addition, we’re not just losing officers to other departments at an unsustainable rate, we’re losing the institutional knowledge good cops develop over a lifetime or career, and we risk having a department that is younger and less experienced, with less veteran officers to provide wisdom and leadership. We also risk having a more tired, even exhausted, department with more officers working greater amounts of overtime and spending even more time in the car.

Q:  What should be done to eliminate disproportionate use of force and traffic stops by SDPD officers in communities of color?

A:  I’m well aware of the challenges in police and community relations, and I’m fully supportive of San Diegans for Justice and the 2020 ballot measure that facilitated the creation of the Commission for Police Practices. I remain sickened by the statistics and myriad video clips from around the country that demonstrate the rate at which people, especially men of color, suffer fatal encounters with police. Once again, the issue is a willingness and ability to improve professionalism among police, to enhance citizen oversight, and to develop teams of mental health professionals and clinicians who can defuse and de-escalate explosive situations before police officers are needed to protect innocent lives.

Q:  San Diego has been criticized for its use of Smart Streetlights and gunshot-detection technology. What is the right amount of surveillance and how do you balance this technology against privacy and equity concerns?

A:  No one wants to live in an Orwellian world of overbearing, intrusive surveillance, but the irony is we already tolerate, and invite in, a considerable level of surveillance through our cellphone use and the reach of existing surveillance on private property. But the reality is Smart Streetlights, like several other recent City Hall endeavors, was done without consulting neighbors or stakeholders or making city residents aware the technology was included at all when the new streetlights began to be installed in 2016. While I want the city to retain a seat at the table with long-term federal terrorism investigations or concerns, I fully support the creation of a new Privacy Advisory Board that will evaluate future surveillance proposals, and I’m wary of Smart Streetlight technology being used to provide evidence or facilitate intimidation of women from other states now forced to access abortion services in California.

Q:  Do you support repealing the People’s Ordinance, which bans city officials from charging fees for trash collection at single-family homes? Why or why not?

A:  I don’t support repealing the People’s Ordinance, and I would vote against it if it came before me on City Council. At a moment when the cost of everything — milk, bread, eggs and certainly gasoline — is through the roof, I would not vote to impose a tax, especially of an unknown amount, on my blue-collar and middle-class neighbors on fixed incomes for a service we’ve already been paying for and receiving for the last 103 years. Trash collection is an essential city service like police and fire, and unlike the $86 million the city utilized to pay the 101 Ash Street settlement against the advice of the city attorney after the D.A. had opened a criminal investigation. Creating a wholly new tax to cover something we’re already paying for out of the general fund when we’re paying the highest electricity rates in the nation and the highest water and sewage rates in the state is wrong.

Q:  Do you support raising the 30-foot height limit in the Midway District to allow for redevelopment on the sports arena site? Why or why not?

A:  The height limit is sacrosanct, and was determined to be so by San Diego voters with the passage of Proposition D in 1972. The California coast is a stunning resource, but it isn’t that way because of benevolence — it’s because of the wise decisions made by previous generations of Californians to preserve the aesthetic and environmental quality of our coast. I will not support walling off San Diegans from more of their oceanfront and bayfront, and it’s especially odd to sacrifice the 30-foot height limit for a proposal as dubious as the Midway District redevelopment. To be clear — I fully support building new housing, and we have especially good options to do so near jobs in District 6. But I’m not willing to subsidize or enable upzoning for more housing that no working San Diego family can actually afford, especially when it comes at the expense of existing affordable housing and leaving our middle-class neighbors who truly need and desire housing behind.

I also question why we need to build a new sports arena when we already have a perfectly effective, and paid for, arena that can be upgraded and restored if we choose to do so. In addition, the Midway District is in the coastal zone because of its high water table and the fact that it’s next to, and within, the larger watershed of Famosa Slough, a tidal body of water that is the conduit by which sea level rise will begin to affect the Midway area over time. Knowing this, why would we choose to invest in a new community at that site, especially if the area will be uninsurable within a few decades even before coastal water levels rise? Let’s instead focus on building truly affordable housing in areas near jobs and potential transit without a high water table, and not encumbered by a height limit we may only begin to appreciate once we no longer have it.

Q:  Why should voters elect you over your opponent?

A:  I’m the grassroots candidate who has gone to over 16,000 doors this cycle and spoken with neighbors again and again about local issues, helped undo the dangerous and performative bicycle lane realignment on the west end of Gold Coast Drive last spring, and been outspoken in my opposition to the now-tabled rezoning of south University City. My opponent is a continuation of the Downtown-centered District 6 councilmembers of the last 14 years who have been more attentive to fulfilling Downtown’s needs rather than those of our neighborhoods. I stand with our District 6 neighborhoods as a leader for our communities, not for Downtown special interests and the black-tie political donor class. It’s why our campaign slogan is “Neighborhoods First.”