By B. J. Coleman
One hour of debate is not much for fully differentiating the views of candidates opposing each other for election.
But District 4 San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidates Bonnie Dumanis and Nathan Fletcher hammered their areas of agreement and disagreement over 60 minutes while discussing Downtown issues at a debate on Oct. 11. Fletcher and Dumanis are vying for the District 4 seat, which County Supervisor Ron Roberts is vacating. The event, hosted by the East Village Residents Group and the East Village Association, was held in the Neil Morgan Auditorium alongside the Central Library on Park Boulevard. Lisa Halverstadt of “Voice of San Diego” served as moderator.
District 4 is the most compact of the five districts on county board map, covering central Downtown San Diego, along the central coastal regions and northward. The 4th District has substantial overlap with jurisdiction of the city of San Diego.
Dumanis and Fletcher agreed broadly on which three major issues have greatest impact on Downtown, citing homelessness, mental illness and housing. Asked to name the top concern within this trio, Fletcher and Dumanis agreed that mental illness ranks first. Both agreed that the county has a primary responsibility locally for dealing with mentally ill persons. Of course, these issues all intertwine in regard to the outsized population of homeless persons inhabiting locations around Downtown San Diego. Mitigation of problems caused to Downtown residents by living in close proximity to homeless individuals was an important tangential subject during the debate.
The debaters differed over what to do in approach about the extent of San Diego County financial reserves. Fletcher criticized the county for holding onto reserve-fund dollars instead of drawing that money down during economic downturns. Noting her oversight of a thousand employees and a big budget, Dumanis stated she would emphasize right-sizing county reserves.
The pair sparred over political partisanship and their differing political resumes. Dumanis said she would like to change the county’s partisanship, although she is a registered Republican who would join fellow Republicans, and she believes she is the best one of the two to serve on the county board. Fletcher responded that with four Republicans already sitting on the board, a Democrat like himself is needed to sit on the board for some modest restoration of partisan balance. Dumanis jabbed back that Fletcher has a somewhat peripatetic history of partisanship, having registered with the GOP, as an independent, and now settled in as a Democrat.
Dumanis later followed up on Fletcher’s remarks about his experience as an Assemblyman in Sacramento and the relationships he could build on from there, between the county and the state. Dumanis observed that her political relationships are local within San Diego County, while Fletcher’s political relationships are with state representatives in Sacramento.
Fletcher and Dumanis each made specific, vigorous statements of their opposition to President Donald Trump and the conservative populism he represents. This was another area of their significant agreement on current politics.
In expanding on mental illness as of foremost concern and county responsibility among Downtown issues, the candidates expressed differences based on their career backgrounds. Fletcher spoke as a military veteran about the stigma associated with combat-related psychological conditions in contrast with physical disabilities. When veterans interview for a job, he asked, who is going to get hired — the veteran amputee or the veteran with post-traumatic stress? “We all know,” Fletcher said. Fletcher also compared depression with diabetes, as medical conditions that should be on equal footing but generally are not. He further stated that trauma should be dealt with early, whether early in life for youth or early after adults experience a traumatic event. Incarceration and homelessness can result if an individual’s trauma is not dealt with properly, Fletcher continued.
Dumanis responded about mental illness from her work in law enforcement and prosecution. She focused first on juvenile offenders, as in need of mental health interventions and remedial foster care. “We need a system,” Dumanis said. She noted that shutdown of state facilities for the mentally ill led to significant problems. Law enforcement and jails replaced mental illness intervention facilities, she went on. Her preference is for outsourcing mental health care to hospitals, which can bill state and other funding mechanisms. Dumanis further described how young abuse sufferers often turn into abusers themselves and the need to intervene early in this cycle. She mentioned too that a serious imperative is monitoring mentally ill persons to ensure they stay on the medications that alleviate their psychological dysfunctions.
When the debate topic turned back to the housing crisis, moderator Halverstadt inquired about the candidates’ recommendations for immediate steps to fix this. Dumanis replied with a business-friendly approach of streamlining the process for permitting affordable housing projects, cutting red tape, and also saying that compliance with regulations takes up as much as 40 percent of costs for building projects. Dumanis stated that a larger budgetary contribution should go toward county-involved affordable housing projects.
Fletcher responded with a government-responsibility approach of making sure that projects built are actual housing. He cited the figure of 15 to 20 percent of built affordable condos being foreign investment properties that are left vacant, asking that people check to verify how many lights are on in large buildings. Fletcher said that Vancouver implemented a vacancy fee as a solution to guarantee that affordable housing projects are in real use as housing for residents now rather than uninhabited investments to pay off later. Fletcher continued, speaking of the urgency to drive the local bureaucracy to meet specific goals, through such programs as property-owner loans in exchange for guaranteed five-year affordable housing in granny flats and external units for low income at-risk and formerly homeless persons.
Questions from audience attendees concluded the debate. First up was a query about city-county mishandling of the hepatitis outbreak in Downtown. Fletcher said that the city has done most of the response, and that the county has to do more to help. He said that he would rely on his relationships with people in Sacramento to gain more assistance from state government. “We need to get people together on the same page. These are critical issues we need to move forward. We should all work together,” Fletcher said.
Dumanis rejoined that the county has to change. “There has been tension between the city and the county as long as I can remember,” Dumanis said. She stated that she believes she can bring that necessary change about.
The following topic was about East Village bearing the brunt of homelessness problems in Downtown. Dumanis said that East Village has been doing more than the community’s fair share. “I’ll take the lead on setting up services in all areas of the county,” Dumanis said, making the related point that services homeless persons rely on are all located in Downtown, attracting the homeless to stay in Downtown to be nearby.
Fletcher differed, saying that a first assessment should be made about the size and scope of the problem, to determine where we are and where we need to be. Fletcher recounted the case of Poway resistance to affordable housing especially tailored for military veterans. “This is a regional issue,” Fletcher said. He offered the wryly humorous analogy, that people are blame-shifting by saying to Downtown the equivalent of there’s a leak on your side of the boat. “Have you ever been in a boat?” Fletcher inquired. Fletcher concluded that reversing that view will take leadership and drive to make the necessary change happen.
Dumanis followed up that services can surely be moved, as she has assisted in moving services away from Downtown. Fletcher replied that additional services should be added outside Downtown, as determined to be needed elsewhere.
The last question of the hour-long evening debate was about the $2 million allocated per county supervisor for district programs and projects, and invited remarks about whether this amounts to a “slush fund” for each county board member. Dumanis said that she would choose to increase services, focusing on help to smaller organizations, and possibly relying on a “blind trust” with an advisory panel selecting recipients of the money. Fletcher stated that he would go out into the community and seek organizations that partner love and compassion with economic growth objectives. He further offered that he would encourage the other four supervisors to agree on pooling the money into a $10 million fund for greater impact throughout the county.
—B.J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.