Updated at 1:23 p.m. May 18, 2016
Seventy-three minutes into a contentious debate, candidates for 3rd District county supervisor Tuesday night jumped at the chance to agree on something.
Prompted by moderator Charlie Piscitello, the trio shared their ire over an article in that morning’s San Diego Union-Tribune.
“I’m happy we all got thrown under the bus together,” said Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar. “And for me it was a school bus.”
Gaspar — along with incumbent Supervisor Dave Roberts and Escondido Mayor Sam Abed — took turns attacking reporter Joshua Stewart’s story headlined “SUPERVISOR CANDIDATES STRETCH REALITY.”
The 1,200-word piece reported that Gaspar has exaggerated her “educator” claims and said her opponents “also have repeatedly twisted their accomplishments in their quest to win voters.”
Republican Gaspar told an audience of 90 at Petco’s corporate headquarters in Rancho Bernardo that the article only “scratched the surface” of her work with schools.
She said her 10-year-old son, Carson — who attended the North San Diego Business Chamber-hosted event — could “attest to the fact that I spend so much time at the local schools — and not just my child’s school.”
She said City Hall could confirm the number of school groups visiting for mock council meetings and tours. Caspar said she talks to third-graders throughout the Encinitas Union School District about what local government does and also teaches under a Junior Achievement program.
“Certainly the article doesn’t do anything to really showcase the level of involvement, engagement that I have,” said Gaspar, aiming to be the challenger facing Roberts in a November runoff.
Abed didn’t respond directly to Stewart’s argument that “Escondido never had a deficit as Abed claimed.”
Instead, the county GOP-endorsed mayor took a page from Donald Trump’s playbook.
“The media is dishonest, generally speaking,” Abed said. “I don’t care what Josh Stewart writes. I balance my budget without using reserves.”
Roberts, a Democrat battling for re-election in a district where Republicans hold a 3.1 percentage point registration advantage, didn’t respond to Stewart’s assessment that fellow supervisors had demoted him.
“Roberts … was on track for the top job until his office was rocked by a scandal last spring,” Stewart wrote, citing the lurid accusations that led to a $310,000 county settlement paid three former Roberts aides.
Not mentioning the episode, Roberts began by summarizing the story for the audience, since “I know that many of you don’t read the U-T.”
“It said I was not telling the truth that I’ve been in leadership for three years,” said the former Solana Beach mayor. “Well, I have been in leadership for three years, and it takes the vote of your colleagues to get into leadership for three years. I’ve been the chair pro tem twice, and I’ve been vice chair once.”
As the article alluded, Roberts said: “I did not ask to be chair this year because I’m the incoming chair of the California State Association of [Counties] — a great honor not only for myself but for the county of San Diego.”
He also was elected to the national board of county supervisors.
Stewart quoted Gaspar from an April 26 debate as saying: “I looked up at the kids’ wall today as I was teaching the third-grade civics program and there’s a whole poster about how character counts.”
Tuesday night, at their fourth debate, Gaspar said: “I’m happy that I was volunteering with a kindergarten classroom this morning because there’s a big banner that hangs over the students when they do the pledge every day. And the banner says: Character counts.”
In closing remarks three weeks before the June 7 primary, Gaspar didn’t explicitly mention the Roberts office scandal, where a “hostile work environment” had been alleged.
But Gaspar said: “Where have we gone in society that character no longer counts in politics, and it’s somehow acceptable that elected officials no longer follow the rules? … We need people elected to office that you’re extremely proud of — that are leaders that are role models in the communities that they serve. More importantly, that they’re not in office … for personal gain.”
Also obliquely, Roberts struck back, saying: “I think if you look at either of my competitors’ financial disclosure forms, you’ll see who’s funding their two campaigns — and you’ll see what this is all about.”
Gaspar went after Abed, who displayed charts showing Escondido revenue growth — taking credit for his city’s economic comeback.
“No mayor is so brilliant that in six months’ time they can just turn everything magically around,” she said. “And as a business owner, I take personal offense [on behalf] of hard-working businesses that really did turn Escondido around during difficult times.”
But Gaspar took grief over her contention that Encinitas would make strides against homelessness by ripping off “the Band-Aid” and putting “boots on the ground” in the form of a $100,000 investment to get veterans off the streets and hiring a “highly trained skilled social worker who’s working as a housing navigator.”
Roberts alleged that Gaspar had originally wanted to give $100,000 to an “interfaith” group “to move the homeless to Escondido,” which said no. And he said: “So now 25 percent of the money is going to Escondido, 75 percent to her local nonprofit.”
However, he said he was glad to hear Encinitas “is finally stepping up to the plate and putting in a few dollars to fund navigators, because it is critical. But that’s not the answer to this overall problem. It’s behavioral health. It’s alcohol and drug addiction [programs]. We’ve got to get real about this overall. Navigators are not the answer.”
“You can build all the detox facilities you want,” she said. “This is about housing people … and giving them the help they need. We can’t do it without the county.”
The candidates weren’t the only ones coming under criticism in the cavernous “community park” room at Petco. So did debate organizers.
Jody Radder of Rancho Bernardo was upset that audience members didn’t have a chance to ask questions during the 80-minute forum.
Radder, 80, said she’s a member of the League of Women Voters, which sponsors many candidate forums and “wouldn’t think” of staging a debate without audience questions.
(Moderator Piscitello, a Petco executive and member of the business chamber board, had said at the outset that “a number of people got together and talked about what issues would be important” as questions. Those people apparently included officials of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, also involved in the debate.)
But the U-T article stirred the greater anger, and Abed appeared the most stung.
“You know, Josh Stewart can write whatever he wants,” Abed said. “I’m taking my message to the voters. I’m knocking on doors. I’m very proud of my achievement in Escondido. Nobody is going to take this away from me. Not my opponent, not the newspaper. The voters will decide.”
On Wednesday, the government and education editor at the Union-Tribune answered a Times of San Diego request for comment on the candidates’ beefs.
Michael Smolens, offering an initial reply on Stewart’s behalf, called his reporter’s story accurate.
“Gaspar is a volunteer at schools, which is admirable, but that does not make one an ‘educator’ as she lists herself,” Smolens said. “There are many volunteers who do not get that title. We may have mentioned how much she volunteers had she or her campaign responded to our inquiries.”
Roberts also was wrong about the story, Smolens said.
“We did not say he wasn’t part of the leadership,” said the U-T veteran. “[Roberts] asked not to take his turn as chair and wanted to be vice chair, but the board made him the lower pro tem. These are easily fact-checked.”
Stewart is expected to provide a more detailed response to Abed, but Smolens said: “Some fact-checking should show that I believe city manager discussion/documents revealed the use of the reserve.”
Later Wednesday, reporter Stewart provided this statement:
Gaspar claimed in interviews and her ballot statement that she’s an educator. Her campaign manager Jason Roe said she’s an educator because she participates in City Stuff, a program sponsored by Carlsbad. According to Carlsbad, this is a six-hour curriculum.
Granted, Gaspar, as does Roberts (and countless other moms and dads and people who care about children and are generous with their time), volunteer in schools. But to claim that you’re an educator because you volunteer in schools isn’t accurate.
It brought to mind the famous quote usually attributed to Pastor Billy Sunday: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
Roberts said he works well with his colleagues and they put him into important leadership positions. As I reported in September, Roberts asked to not be named chair (the #1 job) but to remain vice chair (the #2).
This request was made when his office was fighting the scandal last year, yet he gave no explanation as to why he wanted the junior position. In January, he was made chair pro tem (#3), a position one step below the one he requested.
Roberts has, on several occasions since January, said that he requested to stay vice chairman of the BOS because of his time-consuming work with the California State Association of Counties and as a representative on the National Association of Counties, positions that are time-consuming but worth the cost of serving as chairman because he can advocate for the county on a bigger stage.
However, Roberts made his request to stay vice chair in September, but was not named CSAC’s first VP until November, and as a rep to NACo until February.
Abed has conflated a budget deficit with a budget gap. These are two very different and distinct things that are not interchangeable. A budget gap is a situation where revenues are lower than expenses that, barring any amendments or revisions to income or spending, will lead to a deficit.
A deficit is illegal in Escondido and other general law cites in California. What happened in Escondido is that they had a projected budget gap during the budget writing process, and as required by law, they closed the gap. It wasn’t a turnaround as Abed casts this process, but the city doing what it was legally bound to do.