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Poway mayor takes on leadership role in regional government debate

Poway Mayor Mickey Cafagna has emerged as a consensus builder in the ongoing debate over regional government that has pitted North County cities against what they perceive as downtown San Diego interests.

When the fear and distrust of North County officials seemed at its height in the late summer, it was Cafagna who called two meetings of all the mayors in the county to discuss proposals for a powerful new agency that would address large-scale problems like traffic congestion.

Cafagna has remained square in the center of the discussion as it has moved toward a new proposal that is more palatable in North County. The current plan now working its way through the state Legislature would expand the powers of the San Diego Association of Governments, rather than creating an all-new, elected regional body.

As a member of Sandag, Cafagna has helped craft the legislation, which is being carried simultaneously through the state Senate and Assembly.

But there are more negotiations to be worked through and more battles to be fought. For one, the plan for the new regional transportation board is just the first phase of a delicate process that may eventually merge the North County Transit District with the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, Cafagna said.

On the other hand, competing proposals may emerge. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors -- behind the leadership of Chairman Ron Roberts -- is studying the issue. And Cafagna is certain the board will eventually propose the immediate merger of the two transit districts and the creation of a new agency, in spite of North County's intense resistance.

One of the most controversial and important elements of any new regional government will be the power to overrule local jurisdictions on issues of regional significance, he said. For example, the board might decide to approve double tracking of rail lines in Encinitas in spite of local resistance, he said.

"You have to go backwards now to why little cities were incorporated. And Poway's a good example of how we got 18 cities here," Cafagna said. "Many of us were under the county rule and were not happy with the planning for our areas. We decided to incorporate so that we would have control of our own destiny. And the cities believe that local control is the best form of government. It's the closest to the people. It's the best way to control your own area and your own land-use issues. ... So we're kind of opposed, as most small cities are, to anyone taking away from us the ability to make decisions about our community."

A similar dynamic exists between North County and the older, southern half of the county, he said.

"North County believes that it's as big or bigger than South County," Cafagna said. "It believes that it has planned for itself better than the South County -- which is basically the city of San Diego -- has planned for itself. And North County doesn't want to give up the ability to have control of its destiny on a larger scale."

Cafagna, 58, grew up in Detroit, moving to San Diego County with his family when he was a teen-ager. After high school and some community college, he went into a family furniture business in National City.

After more than 15 years there, he'd had enough of working inside a manufacturing building. In the mid 1970s, he got a real estate license and started his own business. It has since grown into Square One Development Corp., which builds and manages commercial properties.

At about the same time that he changed careers, Cafagna moved to Poway. A few years after the city incorporated in 1980, he started to get involved in local politics. In 1992, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Poway City Council. Two years later he took the seat in an election. He won the mayor's post in 1998, and "most likely" will run for reelection in November.

As mayor, he's also a member of several other key regional boards. In addition to Sandag, which consists of representatives from all 18 cities and the county, he's president of the local district of the California League of Cities, chairman of the Regional Solid Waste Association and an alternate on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

As mayor of a suburban town, one of the most important issues Cafagna copes with on a daily basis is growth. So he is particularly interested in the work Sandag is doing now on the regional government proposal and on "smart growth" principles.

The two go hand in hand. If the new regional government is created, it may have the power to shift major developments and transportation projects to make them as efficient as possible. That will fall in line with smart growth principles, such as building high-density housing along transportation corridors and transit lines, he said.

The regional government legislation also may include elements that will lead to a reform of the tax structure. The goal, Cafagna said, will be to shift money from communities that are not right for densification to areas that need additional infrastructure so they can support more dwelling units.

Sandag is already preparing to begin work on a first-of-its kind regional plan that will combine all the general plans of the individual cities with an eye toward identifying the key transportation projects and the right places to add housing.

"We're trying to build consensus around this. A lot of little cities are saying, 'I'm not densifying my city. I'm not adding more units. I'm not going to help accommodate these million people that are supposed to be coming here,'" Cafagna said. "But we're all moving in baby steps. We're all agreeing that 90 percent of smart growth we can all abide by. We can all live with developing our communities along transportation corridors, no suburban sprawl, and densifying where we can density based on our own general plans."

Hopefully, the future regional government will be able to maintain the character of the individual cities, while at the same time accommodating growth, he said.

"The idea here is that we would work as a team," Cafagna said. "We have 18 cities and 18 general plans that are established. The term 'quality of life' means something different to every one of those communities. What's quality of life in downtown San Diego is certainly different than what's quality of life in Poway."

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