By Colleen O'Connor
I never met the woman. Never voted for her. Never even written her an email. But, I admire her.
Sherri Lightner is the epitome of the old San Diego “spirit.”
A throwback to the more amiable time of genuine “non-partisan” politics on the City Council.
A time before incumbents trampolined to their next office before barely finishing their first term. A time before the Democratic and Republican National Committees helped fund City Council and Mayoral races. And a time before district-only elections prevented the entire Council from caring about the entire City.
Prior to those changes, council members practiced more Queensberry rules, and less Kamikaze-like wedge-issue voting. It was a slightly more civilized time.
Lightner, more than anyone else, represents that once-upon-a-time history that cherished the uniqueness of neighborhoods, open spaces, parklands and peoples.
But, as those “old stock” neighborhoods and multi-generational San Diego families began vanishing, amid the crush of unrecognizable mega-developments (that rearrange hills and valleys like pieces of furniture), it was Lightner who voted (and still does) to protect the city’s past.
Perhaps such discreet intelligence stems from her education as an engineer, or being a Democrat married to a Republican, or being a long-time resident. Or she was born with it. I don’t know.
But, term limits prohibited her from seeking a third-term. Hence, only months remain before a replacement is sworn in.
It is the city’s loss. As the standout, lone vote on the most contentious of issues—where the council abdicated its responsibility to “fix a problem” and instead just “appealed,” “studied,” or “investigated it” but never resolved the question–Lightner made her mark.
The engineer in her studied, considered, worked and came up with reasonable, intelligent suggested changes.
She often lost 7-1. But, that didn’t make her wrong. It made her invaluable.
That is why I will miss her. If she couldn’t find common ground, she suggested higher ground.
The most recent examples of her stature, and the council’s diminished state, revolve around two contentious issues of the council’s own making. First, an unnecessary and costly appeal of the court decision on the La Jolla Children’s Pool.
Instead of accepting reality, owning the mistake, and following the court’s decision, this council (as many before them) voted to punt and spend enormous amounts of precious money, time and talent avoiding the obvious. Some of these appeals last for decades. The Mt. Soledad Cross (the city lost); the Roque De La Fuente case (the city lost); numerous land-use cases forced to referendum (and the city lost). Not to mention the Charger’s/Qualcomm stadium issues.
Second, the council’s nonsense choice on the San Diego High/parkland issue.
The council wants (yet, again) to amend the City Charter — with a bludgeon — and open a loophole big enough, to not only endanger city-designated parkland underneath and surrounding San Diego High, but to further cramp Balboa Park.
Again, it was Lightner who stated the obvious. She “strongly opposed” the suggested charter amendment because it would “create a loophole that would jeopardize the protection of parkland from development.”
Adding a little history:
“(The) San Diego Unified School District entered into a lease with the city in 1974 which recognized that the school is illegally operating on city park property. The intent of that lease was to give the San Diego Unified School District 50 years to come up with a new location for the school.”
The school district wasted those 50 years.
Lightner’s suggestion: A new lease extension for the high school that keeps the school and protects existing parkland.
She was outvoted 7-1.
The charter does not need changing. The council does.
Perhaps Mayor Faulconer might utilize Lightner’s talents by appointing her a “Special Counsel” for the city—to negotiate the gnarly future ahead.
Colleen O’Connor is a retired college history professor.
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