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North County Report: Carlsbad Councilwoman Is Out to 'Change the Narrative of North County'

San Diego is hoping North County cities will join its public energy utility, a disturbing investigation into a former Escondido middle school teacher and more in our biweekly roundup of news from North County.

Carlsbad Mayor Pro Tem Priya Bhat-Patel speaking at the San Diego Women’s March on Jan. 19, 2019. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Dozens of women took the stage Saturday in Waterfront Park to demand better representation in a democracy. But only one of the elected officials who spoke at the San Diego Women’s March was from North County — Priya Bhat-Patel, Carlsbad’s new deputy mayor.

It’s hard to imagine her words coming from a North County politician before the Trump era.

“The oppression didn’t start now,” she said, drawing applause. “We’ve had to struggle for years and years. Even growing up here as an American, as a person of color, you were always discriminated against.”

A 31-year-old progressive and the child of Indian immigrants, Bhat-Patel won a seat on the City Council in November. With the help of her Democratic peers, she was then hoisted into the position of mayor pro tem, meaning she’ll run meetings when Mayor Matt Hall is absent and attend official events if he’s unavailable. Hall, a Republican, voted against giving her that job.

Bhat-Patel represents a change in the region, and her identity alone doesn’t explain her victory. Her City Council district includes some of the most conservative parts of Carlsbad. Yet in the last election, Republicans were among her biggest supporters — because they knew one another as neighbors.

Paula Bennett, a registered Republican, told me that her husband worked with Bhat-Patel’s parents and their children had been friends in school. Bennett believed the young candidate had the intelligence and fortitude to tackle some of the city’s biggest issues, so she hosted a fundraiser for her in August.

“We need to have leaders who are respectable, leaders who have integrity and give us hope, leaders who set the tone for a better and peaceful world, leaders who truly reflect who we are as Americans,” she wrote in an email.

Remarkably, Bhat-Patel won a seat on the Carlsbad City Council while finishing a doctorate in public health last year. She taught herself how to run her a campaign, relying in part on student volunteers. She only hired a campaign manager in the final weeks of the election because she was on the verge of exhaustion.

“She worked her ass off,” said Ethan Johnson-Moore, a friend and Democratic operative who stepped in to help. “Of all the campaigns I’ve worked for, I don’t know anybody who came to work, with all the things she had to do, more prepared or more organized.”

Some of Bhat-Patel’s earliest actions in office are in line with the messaging she offered on the campaign trail.

Earlier this month, for instance, she asked officials to consider divesting from companies like Exxon Mobile and instead look for stocks that performed just as well. She stressed that they buy into entities whose values don’t conflict with Carlsbad’s Climate Action Plan.

Two weeks later, citing the conversation in Carlsbad, the new Escondido City Council posed a similar question about the social and environmental impacts of its investments going forward.

While going door to door last year, Bhat-Patel argued that Carlsbad leaders had lost touch and were causing the city to grow without purpose, treating public transit as an afterthought. She now sits on the North County Transit District, which oversees the Coaster rail and other commuter services.

On development, she considers herself a “smart growth” advocate, somewhere between the camps that either say “no” or “yes” to housing projects in their backyard. She and other officials say most of the developable land in Carlsbad is already taken, and so the conversation over the next decade is going to focus on how best to build upward to bring down the cost of living. This is going to cause friction.

Bhat-Patel knows that. Although she wants to maintain the city’s beach charm — which is why her family moved here more than 20 years ago — she also doesn’t want Carlsbad to remain closed off to working-class people.

But she can, she assured voters, see an issue from different sides because she’s a child of immigrants with a background in public health and she grew up in Carlsbad. And she decided to run for office, she told me, because she didn’t see anyone like her at the table.

“I want to change the narrative of North County,” she said. “It’s a more diverse place than people realize, and its elected governments have not always reflected that. There’s room for more women and people of color at the top.”

Fresh Off White House Trip, Gaspar Unsure About Re-Election

At another White House meeting with border officials, Supervisor Kristin Gaspar told President Donald Trump that San Diego teens are being recruited by cartels over the internet and in person. She also cited 12,000 human trafficking victims and survivors in San Diego County and said the average age is 16 years old.

It’s not clear, though, how a border wall would put an end to either problem. Most drug smuggling occurs at ports of entry and academic research suggests that 80 percent of sex trafficking victims are from the United States. Indeed, District Attorney Summer Stephan announced new programs Tuesday to help prevent sex trafficking — by educating teens in San Diego County schools.

Gaspar said she went to D.C. to lobby for more funding for the region. As a mother and elected official, she told one radio host, members of the public “need to know how the ineffectiveness of our federal government is translating into real security concerns for our local community.”

She never used the word “wall” in her roundtable remarks, but that’s clearly what the president heard. Immediately after she got done speaking, Trump said: “This is where I ask the Democrats to come back to Washington and to vote for money for the wall, the barrier — whatever you want to call it is OK with me. They can name it whatever. They can name it ‘Peaches.’”

A wall is also what local Democrats heard. Gaspar and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez exchanged some words on Twitter over her White House visit.

Lisa Halverstadt asked Gaspar if she’s running for re-election, or running for Congress, and Gaspar said she hasn’t made up her mind.

One Public Energy System to Rule Them All

Several North County cities are likely to enter the energy market by joining a new government-run utility created by the city of San Diego.

The city believes it can provide cleaner and cheaper electricity than the region’s long-time energy monopoly, San Diego Gas & Electric. One city, Solana Beach, has already started its own agency to buy and resell power, though that affects only about 7,000 customers.

A new region-wide agency could serve several hundred thousand homes and businesses. The city of San Diego thinks Del Mar, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside and even parts of Orange County may want to join. While Solana Beach was willing to go it alone — and has already run into unexpected financial headwinds — other cities are hoping to pool their resources to share risk and reward. As Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear put it in a recent op-ed for The Coast News, “At this larger scale, there could be greater savings for Encinitas energy customers.”

— Ry Rivard

Escondido Students Complained, But No One Acted

At least a dozen students at Mission Middle School in Escondido who complained about a teacher’s inappropriate behavior were told to adjust their own behavior or appearance. It was only after an accusation of rape surfaced several years later that officials sprang into action.

The teacher denies the allegations. A criminal investigation stalled, and he was never charged with a crime.

This distressing report comes from Will Huntsberry and Kayla Jimenez and is part of a year-long investigation by Voice into alleged sexual misconduct in schools.

Stuff I’m Working On

The transformation of the old Palomar Hospital is seen in Escondido as the key to the future growth of the city. But the plans submitted by the developer have officials scratching their heads. During a housing crisis, with 14 acres of downtown real estate near transit lines and job centers, one of the nation’s largest home-builders is offering just a third of the units allowed on the site.

I also wrote about a forum held in San Marco by members of the California attorney general’s office. After the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal last year, state lawmakers approved one of the most ambitious pro-privacy efforts in the country. Now comes the hard part: writing the regulations.

In Other News

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Priya Bhat-Patel’s age. She is 31.

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