Coastal Anxieties Run Deep in Oceanside Mayor’s Race
The race to become Oceanside’s next mayor features a whopping 12 candidates – meaning it’s packed with competing personalities, all of whom bring different perspectives and priorities to the race.
Yet for all its chaos, the election might sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a coastal California city: Voters and candidates are most focused on what can be built where, homelessness and whether police have too much power and too little accountability.
Oceanside has a city manager-city council form of government. The mayor is also a member of the City Council. The race is technically nonpartisan, but the role of mayor has most recently been dominated by Republicans.
Voice of San Diego talked to nine of the 12 candidates running for mayor. A majority of the candidates oppose the North River Farms development project – whose fate is also on the ballot. Many of the candidates said addressing homelessness will be a priority if they are elected. Others are worried about the pandemic’s impact on small businesses and city finances and are headstrong on prioritizing economic recovery.
Candidates Perry Alvarez and David Joseph Turgeon did not respond to interview requests. Councilman Jack Feller declined an interview request.
Oceanside is the largest city in North County and has the highest population of unsheltered homeless individuals. There are an estimated 408 homeless people in Oceanside, according to the region’s 2020 Point in Time count, and no available shelter beds in town. Most of the candidates agree some sort of shelter is crucial – but they vary wildly in what that might look like.
Ruben Major noted that the city can’t impose criminal penalties for sitting or sleeping on public property unless it has an alternative it can offer them.
Major, a former paramedic who now runs an EMT and paramedic training company with his wife, was homeless when he was younger, and said the city should explore tiny homes – structures that are less than 400 square feet and can be more cheaply built than conventional housing.
“We don’t have enough beds, and we need enough beds for them. I’m advocating for tiny homes in order to do that. Then we can become compliant and begin to move them from storefronts and riverfronts,” Major said at a mayoral panel hosted by the North County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in August.
Fabio Marchi, a developer, said additional dwelling units, or granny flats, could solve the problem and he’d make it so Oceanside residents can obtain a permit to build one in just one day.
“We would become a city that we will be able to pick up a lot of people … for example students, single moms or single individuals that are willing to have a house in a small unit,” he said.
Councilman Christopher Rodriguez wants the city to set up an onsite compound or campus with three components: shelter beds, intermediary housing and permanent housing. He believes focusing solely on short-term shelter beds is a “dead-end.”
“So, in essence you start with government dependency, you transition into 100 percent self-dependency and get back out in the real world to contribute and be all that you can be,” he said. “Because we will have a shelter bed component, we could swiftly take action on individuals that have set up illegal encampments on public property and ask them to leave immediately and/or come to the shelter so they can have resources to be provided for the program.”
Councilwoman Esther Sanchez said it’s unacceptable that the only homeless shelter in Oceanside is the Women’s Resource Center for victims of domestic violence. She said the city is in the process of acquiring Oceanside Shores’ old property and discussing creating a shelter with wraparound services, but the 100 potential beds those alternatives would bring still won’t be enough to shelter all of the unsheltered people in Oceanside.
Sanchez wants the city to buy land to build housing for veterans or seniors. But she wants to ensure that housing goes to people in the Oceanside community, she said.
“The idea is not to be attracting homeless from different parts of the country who say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m in Chicago and I hear that you can have a bed in Oceanside,’” she said. “No, that’s not what I want. What I want is to empower people to try to figure out how to get them back on and for those who can’t accept that and how to deal with that in as positive a way as possible.”
Alvin McGee, who runs a catering business, similarly said he’d look into using empty space and buildings to shelter homeless residents.
Fernando Garcia, an Arrowood homeowners association board member, said he would pursue a regional approach alongside Vista and Carlsbad and add social workers and mental health providers to Oceanside’s homeless outreach team.
“You cannot address homelessness with just a chunk of money or just with a one solution fits all,” he said.
Lou Uridel, a gym owner who made news for keeping his business open despite county COVID-19 shutdown orders in May, said he’s been looking into how other cities are alleviating homelessness. He said he’s interested in nonprofit Built For Zero, which coordinates in other cities with the community, Veteran’s Affairs and local government to get people off the streets.
Rob Howard, a nuclear power plant operator and labor leader, said the city should be looking at how it can prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place by looking at the mental health spectrum of the current homeless population and reconsidering zoning and other restrictions prohibiting affordable housing.
The mayor of Oceanside won’t be the only new leader in town; the city will soon tap a new police chief. The search has already worried residents, who believe the original hiring process shut out the community, particularly in light of ongoing tensions with the department.
Voice of San Diego asked the candidates what they would do to bridge the divide. Some candidates simply rejected the idea that tensions exist or that the department must improve. Others echoed some of the points being raised by police reform advocates, particularly that police aren’t necessarily best-equipped to handle mental health and other issues. Candidates also varied wildly on whether they would support an independent watchdog group to monitor the department.
Some candidates, including Howard, McGee and Sanchez, suggested the department could do more to build trust within the community.
Howard, who is Black and a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People North County chapter, said Oceanside should expand its search for a top cop and invest more in so-called community policing, a strategy in which police build close ties with communities to thwart crime.
“What we ought to do is at every turn continue to build trust because even though it was someone in Ferguson or someone in Kentucky or someone in Minnesota that did it; you’re in that fraternity. I don’t want to wait until something happens in Oceanside to start building trust because now it’s broken even more,” he said.
McGee, who is also Black, said the city needs cops, but that Oceanside police can change the way they patrol and reach out to the community. “It’s all about rapport. You have a good rapport with people; that’s the beginning,” he said.
Other candidates, though, lauded the department and seemed to reject the idea that the police could improve.
Former Assemblyman Rocky Chavez said he doesn’t think there is much divisiveness between the residents of Oceanside compared with his time as a city councilman in the early 2000s. The department implemented community policing in 2006, which helped improve its image, he said. Chavez said he doesn’t believe Oceanside has the same issues as Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was recently killed by police.
“Police are seen as individuals in the community; not just people in cars … we often see police officers out there with the community, and that’s how you stop that,” Chavez said.
Rodriguez said he believes Oceanside police have done a phenomenal job and he’s heard no constituent complaints about the department. He said he fully supports the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, but thinks Oceanside is leading the pack in responding to community concerns.
“Whenever I get phone calls about defunding the police, I ask, ‘Can you tell me an example that I can bring up with the police chief?’ And it’s crickets; there’s nothing. So I think from a global perspective, there’s definitely a need for the police and the community and our elected officials to come together and just have a conversation, but I’m still waiting on tangible issues that our police department is having that some of the community members are bringing up,” he said.
The debate over whether the department should have an independent, citizen-led commission with the power to audit the department and subpoena witnesses and documents played out similarly: Some candidates said at a forum held by the North County NAACP chapter that they’d welcome such a group; others don’t believe it’s necessary.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t support a citizen’s oversight committee because there’s already a police and fire commission at the City Council level. The city’s police and fire chiefs serve as the liaisons to the commission, meaning it’s precisely the opposite of an independent group.
Feller and Chavez both said they don’t believe an independent group, if it were created, should have subpoena power.
Sanchez, however, said the city should establish an independent board. Many complaints do not see the light of day because it’s not easy to file one or they’re shuffled around, she said.
Several candidates acknowledged a concept supported by police reform advocates: that police might not be best-suited to respond to some mental health and other situations that could be better handled by social services providers.
Marchi said he would call for Oceanside to pay police officers more to be retrained and ask for more accountability. He said the department needs to create two levels of police officers: one level where officers carry weapons and deal with violent situations, and one level where officers don’t carry weapons. He said he would also call for more diversity in the police department.
Sanchez said she thinks the city should proactively invest in the success of Black and Brown kids in the community by connecting with North County’s juvenile diversion program. She said some after-school programs are being funded by the city’s general fund, and thinks similar efforts could be funded using the cannabis tax on the November ballot.
“We’re not the county, so we’re going to have to figure out the social services part and the nurse’s part of it,” Sanchez said.
“We need to look at the functions of the police department, and one thing right off the bat: The (Homeless Outreach Team) should be part of the medical services division. The public health and public safety effort should be going over to our fire department … You need to have people that are trained in medical dealing with the situation rather than police jumping in,” he said.
North River Farms and Housing
In November, Oceanside voters will decide the fate of North River Farms, a 585-home, mixed-use development in the rural Morro Hills area. The Oceanside City Council placed the measure on the ballot after residents collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the controversial project. Proponents of the project say it’s needed to increasing housing in the city. But opponents say the development would cause the loss of more than 150 acres of farmland and would increase urban sprawl.
The development is just the latest example of a coastal community wrestling with a need for housing and resident opposition to new building. The debate has kicked off another round of hand-wringing about the city’s overall approach to growth. Council members Rodriguez and Feller voted in favor of the project in November.
Yet opposition to North River Farms runs the gamut.
Uridel said he’s against big developments, but that some are necessary to create tax revenue. He said he’ll likely vote against North River Farms, but could be convinced otherwise if he saw numbers that showed it would boost the city’s revenue.
Garcia said he’s for “smart” development that falls in line with recommendations from the city’s planning and zoning commissions – and he doesn’t think North River Farms clears that bar.
“I’m all about traffic,” he said. He said new developments should only be approved if they come with the necessary infrastructure to support them. He opposes North River Farms because he said he wants to protect farmland and “doesn’t want to mess with Morro Hills anymore” but said he’s open to looking at other places in Oceanside that have the capability to grow as long as it has the roads to handle new traffic.
Major said one of his key focuses is building higher-density housing. He opposes North River Farms because he said sprawl development – building that takes place far from transit and existing infrastructure – is not sustainable.
“I think that’s been our problem is that we’re focused on non-affordable housing right now. Builders will make a lot of money off projects that a person living here and trying to work here really cannot afford,” he said.
McGee said affordable housing is his top priority and he does not support the North River Farms project because the development will be replacing agricultural land.
“In my community there used to be a community garden. Guess what it is now? It’s a condo unit … I’m trying to teach my kids and people that we can do things different and with all this land space being taken up by these real estate investors,” he said. He’s said he believes the city needs rent control, too. A statewide measure on the November ballot would allow cities to enact rent control measures if they choose.
Chavez didn’t speak out against the North River Farms project on its merits, but said the process by which the Council OK’d the development bothered him because Council members didn’t address issues raised by the Planning Commission.
Howard also said he’s voting no on North River Farms project. He said he supports building affordable housing in Oceanside and that the city needs to be building higher-density, mixed-used housing.
“And it’s not just affordable housing. We need housing that is affordable. Middle-class families right now can’t afford buy a $600,000, $700,000 home. But could they buy a $300,000, two-bedroom condominium? … That means we need smaller units, mixed-use and along the transportation corridors because everything we do should all coordinate with our climate approach,” Howard said.
Sanchez said the city needs to buy land and build affordable housing – fast.
“We have to create almost 5,000 units with different levels of affordability, so we’ve just got to do it. … But we are still doing it the very old-fashioned way of letting the developer community decide for us what and where things should happen. And I think we need really need to take our present and future and control our own planning, our own destiny … ‘Where do we want it? What do we want to look like in by 2050, where shall our, our affordable housing be?’” she said.
Rodriguez, who supported the North River Farms project, told Voice of San Diego he voted to send the measure to the ballot so Oceanside residents could weigh in. He said he believes the city needs to better partner with the development community so “developers get a base hit and Oceanside gets a home run.”