Three Little Words

On December 12, 2000, Lemon Grove City Manager, Bob Richardson decided to step down from his position, telling San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, Norberto Santana, it was largely due to a "Divisive Mayoral Campaign" in March, followed by political bickering on city council ever since. 

Truth be known, the contentious atmosphere between factions on council (Mayor Mary Sessom's vs. Council member Craig Lake's) has been going on since the 1996 mayoral race and never stopped. Some of the key supporters of each side have switched teams back and forth a bit, but for the most part, the score has gone in Sessom's favor. During the last election, she won by a narrow margin, after both sides sustained a particularly bile-filled race.

At first, when issued an ultimatum by the city manager to behave or face his departure, four members of council seemed to panic. And, almost as soon as the UT article hit the stands, Three Little Words: Divisiveness On Council, became an instantly powerful buzz-phrase. The mere utterance of them made council shuffle corners and two of the three members usually supportive of Sessom couldn't distance themselves fast enough from her in immediately-subsequent meetings. After all, they risked losing Richardson if they didn't find a way to get along, and, though a swift information pipeline, it was evident that his finger was firmly pointed at the mayor as Culprit Of Divisiveness.

So, how to get along when you just can't stand each other? It's simple: you don't have to, really; just talk about it all the time. Spin, spin as fast as possible. Replace the three buzz words with new ones: Teamwork, Cooperation, Unity. Start putting the classically-opposing individuals on each other's committees. Talk about something else, like redevelopment, even if the there's no money or atmosphere for it. Better get along, or maybe the new library won't happen. Maybe no more Paint Lemon Grove. Get along or continue to look like fighting children to a public that is losing patience very quickly.

In Mid-December, less than two weeks after Richardson's ultimatum, and before council could put their kinder, friendlier method to use, he made the rounds to each of their homes anyway, and tendered by hand a short-but-sweet resignation, effective this coming April 27. 

So much for playing nice. With nothing at stake, committee assignments were reneged, and everyone went back to their respective corners. Recently, Council Member Mary England summarized it all by saying, "Hey, all bets are off on that one."

TimingIs Everything

*Richardson's resignation announcement happened only a few hours before he sat down with council at a special meeting to say that the city had suddenly lost one of its biggest businesses, College Ford. Their closed gates translate to a loss of approximately $250,000 in tax revenues annually. City finances could face a shortfall of almost four times that amount due to "unexpected" costs and flat sales tax base.

* Ford Motor Company, owner of the property formerly leased by College Ford, has recently assured the city that they will re-lease the property to another dealership soon, but it likely won't be before the pinch of heavy sales tax losses hits.

* Contracts with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and Animal Control are up for renewal (and the usual increases) this budget year.

* SDG&E deregulation has been a part of life in San Diego County for some time, and to call increased utility rates at this late date an "unexpected expense" rings unusual at best.

The Best Revenge (is to look good)

* Richardson's supporters on city staff signed and presented a petition urging council to find a way to keep him. But when he admits in another interview to Santana that the city will most likely have to lay off city workers, his support base gets instantly shaky. Using e-mail as damage control, Richardson sends a note to staffers that he miss-spoke and that finances weren't so bad as to necessitate layoffs, a view that is not necessarily shared by council. A detailed financial forecast and plan has not yet been delivered to them by Richardson.

Dysfunction Without Borders

Lemon Grove is far from the only city deadlocked by political conflict:

* It took 18 rounds of argument-laden voting for the La Mesa City Council to appoint Planning Commissioner Rick Knepper to a two-year vacancy on the council.

* In El Cajon, Mayor Mark Lewis' choice to re-appoint to Gary Kendrick to a second four-year term on the city Planning Commission was rejected by a majority of city council and he refused to make another nomination. By law, only the mayor can make recommendations to city commissions. When Lewis asked the three opposing council members, Todd Keegan, Richard Ramos and Charles Santos, to explain why they voted against Kendrick, none of them spoke up.

"Their silence spoke volumes," said Lewis. "Those three who won the election were feeling their oats. Kendrick made the unpardonable sin of running against three council members and in partnership with (Bob) McClellan." Lewis continued, saying that their objections weren't against his experience or skills, but rather because of Kendrick's well-known support for religious groups and their political backing.

"We've got an unwritten rule here: You keep your nose clean, do your job and you get re-appointed," said Lewis, who added that he refused to appoint anyone else in order to let Kendrick serve out his last two weeks. Ramos made a motion to consider changing the law and removing Kendrick from the commission, which passed by a 3-2 vote. The item is expected to appear on the February 13 council agenda.

Conflict of Interest?

* Lake was appointed executive director of the Mesa Valley Grove Senior nutrition program, a salaried position with the agency. As a council member, Lake would have to vote on matters relating to the agency, as it is subsidized, in part, by the city of Lemon Grove. 

When questioned about a possible conflict of interest by Council member Jill Greer back in January of 2000, Lake said: "I am already in the process of requesting a formal opinion from the FPPC. Until a ruling is made, I will recuse from budget votes. If a ruling comes that in fact a conflict exists, I can request that the Mesa Valley Grove Board of Directors allow me to continue as executive director in a volunteer capacity same as I have served for so many years already."

But as council members began their budget discussions in early May, there was still no word from the FPPC. Mayor Sessom said she wrote the commission asking for the status of its opinion on the matter and was told: "To date, we have not received a written request in regards to this matter." Now, eight months later, the issue remains status quo.

Accusation, Implication and Prosecution

* San Diego Council member Valerie Stallings plead guilty to misdemeanors for not reporting multiple gifts from Padres majority owner John Moores.

* Santee City Manager George Tockstein drew a salary for eight years from the California Fire Instructors Workshop Inc., while that company, which he helped create, was doing business with the city. He was censured for unethical behavior by an international body representing city managers.

* A San Diego foreclosure company recently accused Craig Lake of using the authority of his council office to interfere in the sale of a house next to his Lemon Grove home. Lake filed a code enforcement action with the city against the new owner, which was reciprocated in kind by the owner to Lake. During the Feb 6 council meeting, Lake walked down from the dais, handed an envelope to Lemon Grove citizen-activist, Rick Gold, who promptly handed it to the homeowner and said, "Consider yourself served." Unconfirmed reports say the envelope contained a legal pleading.

* Harry Griffen Park, which shares a border between the cities of La Mesa and El Cajon has been used as a political crowbar to delay the sanctioned use of organized sporting activities as well as a protest vote against financial support for a temporary cold-weather homeless shelter (which never opened this year at all.)

Who's In Control?

* Mayor Sessom has long displayed an inability to take charge when some of the rowdier attendees at council meetings interrupt the proceedings with shouting and other time-consuming behavior. In frustration, she has levied the normal three-minute rule for most public speakers, and has threatened forced removal if necessary in attempts to regain control. However, she has also been known to extend considerable lengths of time to certain public speakers, if the subject matter is city-friendly.

When Sessom asked Deputy Ron McCullough, the Sergeant-at-Arms, to remove Rick Gold from the meeting, Lake usurped the Deputy's actions to assist, saying he wanted to hear what Gold had to say. Sessom was obviously frustrated, but did nothing in response.

When McCullough's authority was emasculated by Sessom's inaction, taking into account the increasingly threatening tone of certain speakers, he requested an additional deputy at council meeting for added control. At the meeting of Feb 6, there were four Sheriff's deputies and the Sheriff's Captain present.

"This is a public forum, it's not the World Wrestling Federation that you see on television," said City Councilman Tom Clabby during a subsequent interview with the UT. To some observers, the point is debatable.

Opportunity Knocks Everywhere

* Lake, in his capacity as salaried executive director of Mesa Valley Grove Senior Programs, announced during a senior lunch that if the city of Lemon Grove succeeds in getting MVG to pay its full share of rent plus maintenance costs, the seniors' nutritional lunch program is at risk. Seniors, frightened by the thought of losing what is to some, their only meal of the day, are offered a bus ride to a "rally," where their questions are largely deferred to a future council meeting. They arrived, mostly by bus, wearing buttons and T-shirts emblazoned, "Save Our Seniors' (center)." Financial information requested by council ninety days earlier has just that day arrived from MVG, although the previously debt-ridden agency insists to council that they are now solvent. 

Sessom's gang of three (Sessom, Clabby and Greer) swiftly stole Lake's thunder - in a scripted tone, by agreeing to continue letting MVG pay half-rent and no maintenance costs. Seniors cheer the decision, seemingly not realizing their part in the political drama, nor that the sudden reversal of intent had a deliberate design. The official explanation for the reversal from Mayor Sessom, is that since the changes were not worked into the original budget and there was such a public outcry, council decided against the increases.

* After a televised Lake apologized for his actions after being nailed by a KGTV-Channel 10 news crew for abusing his authority on council to thwart the sale of the property next door to his residence, Sessom used an interview with the UT to announce that at the next council meeting, she intended to strip Lake of his regional appointments. 

Before that meeting, Lake sent an e-mail around to all council members, resigning from the appointments in order to avoid a "kangaroo court." However, when the meeting finally took place on Feb 6, Lake announced he would rescind his resignation. 

Sessom did not take the opportunity to de-rescind Lake's appointments, as she had promised him earlier he could hold the seats until council approved re-appointments. However, she plans to do the deed at the council meeting of Feb 20.

Could Be Wors e

* Last December, The Desert Sun reported an incident that puts San Diego Countian Councils to shame: In Cathedral City, a community of 43,000 on the outskirts of Palm Springs, George Stettler was hosting a private party in celebration of his first night as mayor when an altercation broke out. Council member Sarah DiGrandi said that as she stood on the patio while having a cigarette, fellow Council member Kathy DiRosa slapped her her in the arm so hard that her drink went flying. DiGrandi then told DiRosa to "bend over so I can do the same to you." Then, DiGrandi said, DiRosa slapped her in the face. DiRosa remembered the event differently, saying she approached DiGrandi and slapped her on the back while saying, "Hey, how are you?"

DiGrandi said that she's a firm believer that "you don't get mad; you get even."

Other People Can (get along)

* The Lemon Grove School Board meetings have the same number of people on the dais, but rarely are seen disagreeing. In fact they act in concert so much of the time, even the board members themselves characterize the meetings as boring.

Board President, Janne Lavalle, said the difference in interaction between their group and that of city council, is that the school board makes a point of staying focused on the goal, not the politics. She said the key, is to become informed and reach a consensus before the vote happens.

"Preferably, you'd do that without killing each other," Lavalle said.