Post-election politics alive and well in two North County cities

For some, the election season didn’t come to an end Nov. 6 when most people thought — or wished — it had. In North County’s two largest cities, political activism, in one form or another, seems to reign eternal.

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed has already begun calling supporters to arms for his re-election campaign 22 months from now. The 2014 campaign will undoubtedly pit Abed against Councilmember and Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz for the mayor’s chair. Diaz won re-election in November along with fellow Councilmember Mike Morasco, the top vote getter among seven candidates for the two open seats.

Next year’s election will be a referendum on the fiscal and economic policies and accomplishments of a conservative council super majority led by Abed, arguably the most tenacious politico in all the region. Two other council seats will be open — those of veteran incumbent Ed Gallo and council member appointee John Masson, named last month to serve out newly minted Assemblywoman Marie Waldron’s two remaining years. Both council members will campaign to keep their seats, but will face competition from at least one or two candidates left over from the 2012 race.

How candidates for future council seats will be elected in Escondido remains in question, though. The city is in advanced discussions to settle a lawsuit filed a year ago on behalf of five Latino residents who allege Escondido’s at-large citywide elections violate the California Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latinos. Part and parcel of any settlement will include dividing the city into council districts, each of which would elect its member to the council.

The theory is that one or more council districts with concentrated Latino populations would be more apt to recruit and elect Latinos to office. That idea for districts assumes there are viable candidates of any ethnic or racial group within each of those smaller voter blocs in a city the size of Escondido who will have the time, resources and desire to run a multi-month campaign for public office. It takes a commitment of time and shoe leather in voter blocs of any size to establish name recognition, trust and a compelling campaign platform to earn votes.

Across the state Route 78 corridor, post-election political maneuverings have taken a different and somewhat suspect twist. The three-man majority of Oceanside’s city council, long regarded as the messiest political sandbox among North County cities, has toppled Mayor Jim Wood from his perch as the city’s primary representative to the SANDAG regional planning agency. Mayors are typically the lead members from their cities on the powerful agency that funds transportation and other infrastructure projects.

Such action seems in contrast to a goodly number of Oceanside voters who said, in effect, he should be on the agency’s board. The cop-turned-mayor easily won re-election to a third term two months ago, cobbling together a 54 percent majority to soundly trounce Councilman Jerry Kern and former Mayor Terry Johnson in a three-way race where just a strong plurality would have been heralded as a voter mandate. Wood’s tenure and low-key but likable personality trumped Kern’s lengthy endorsement list of neighboring mayors, state lawmakers and other regional influencers and doomed any chance that Johnson would cut into Wood’s base.

The rationale for booting Wood off the SANDAG board is that he had failed to lobby regional funds for several local infrastructure amenities and had even opposed funding road projects seen as important to the city’s quality of life. Case in point, they say, is his failing to obtain funds to complete a missing section of Melrose Drive that would link state Routes 78 and 76 at Rancho de Oro Drive. They also complained Wood has not pressed fellow agency board members to allow Oceanside council members to serve SANDAG planning and transportation subcommittees and other panels.

Assume correctly that the county’s third-largest city has been under-represented when it comes to obtaining badly needed infrastructure grants and additional participation in SANDAG subcommittees and that the deficiencies can no longer be ignored. The more rational — and apolitical — approach would have been for the council to give formal direction to their SANDAG representative in open session to pursue funding for specific infrastructure projects and additional committee representation. The onus would then be on Wood to comply with valid orders and his refusal to do so could then justify more serious consequences.

As it is, the premature move to oust the mayor from SANDAG’s board is a political mutiny on the part of the council threesome who, having failed to dethrone Wood at the polls, appear to want to strip away a mayoral perk via legislative fiat. Sadly, it isn’t the first time an Oceanside mayor has had his political wings clipped in some fashion by his detractors, but Wood isn’t taking it sitting down. He’s vowed legal action to overturn the council’s majority vote.

Prevail or not, he doubtless will face future political ambushes over the next four years, the likes of which have characterized Oceanside’s politics for as long as anyone can remember.

In fairness, however, snatching away the mayor’s keys to the SANDAG boardroom was not the only agenda item having major impact at the Jan. 2 meeting. The sharply divided council approved a massive development plan to convert the 465-acre, city-owned El Corazon sand mine site in central Oceanside into a vast civic development that will include a commercial center, sports facilities and a park. And they did it unanimously, 5-0.

Go figure.

Daniels, principal consultant of Dick Daniels Public Relations, has been a public relations practitioner for 35 years and was an Escondido city councilman from 2006 to 2010.

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