Dispute on Environmental Issues Enlivens Mayoral Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Spicing up their debate over environmental issues, San Diego’s two mayoral finalists have turned to images of flushing toilets and church choirs in recent forums as they stake out their respective positions on growth-management policies.

If the connection seems vague, it is only because the candidates have been leaving few rhetorical stones unturned lately as they confront the problem of talking about the same issues at forum after forum, night after night, all the while trying to bring something fresh to the discussion.

As it has been in local elections for decades, the environmental issue is a dominant one in the mayoral runoff between City Councilman Bill Cleator and former Councilwoman Maureen O’Connor.


And, after debating that topic for more than four months, the candidates have learned that a well-turned phrase or humorous anecdote often can be more effective in driving home a point than homilies on growth patterns or nightly homage to Proposition A, the stringent growth-management initiative approved by San Diego voters last fall.

Cleator, for example, uses the flushing toilet story in his campaign appearances to illustrate his proposal for a countywide “growth summit” among the mayors of the 16 cities in San Diego County to develop growth-management policies for the entire region rather than on a city-by-city basis.

“When you flush your toilet in Poway . . . it kind of moves right through the system, right underneath my house in Point Loma and then on to the sea,” Cleator said at a forum this week in Rancho Bernardo.

That one-liner rarely fails to elicit a chuckle from campaign audiences and effectively demonstrates--arguably, better than planning jargon about “spheres of influence” would--Cleator’s argument that the environment within the City of San Diego is affected by what happens outside its borders.

Noting that 60% of the annual influx of new residents in San Diego County settle outside the city, Cleator said, “When you’re planning growth, it doesn’t make any sense to look at San Diego in isolation. Because even if we close up San Diego, if we stop everything, we’re still going to be impacted.

“Those people that move into the outlying areas are still going to use our freeways, they’re going to use the stadium, they’re going to go to the beaches and the parks. It’s like a balloon--if you squeeze it somewhere, it’s going to bulge out someplace else.”

Under Cleator’s proposal, the mayor of San Diego, the mayors of the 15 other cities, and county officials would meet regularly to evaluate regional growth, transportation, water, sewage and other infrastructure needs.

Cleator concedes that officials in, say, Santee, may not be any less inclined to proceed with a planned development simply because San Diego leaders are worried about how the project might affect their own traffic congestion problems.

“But I believe that if we can get the 16 mayors into a room on a regular basis, we’ll get some results,” Cleator said. “We’ve got to start saying, ‘Hey, what you want to do up here is going to cause this to happen down there.’ ”

O’Connor has dismissed Cleator’s proposal as simply a recycled version of a similar plan put forth by county Supervisor Leon Williams, adding that it would also overlap work now being done by the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

“This isn’t a new idea,” O’Connor said. “It’s just another one of these plans we’ve heard about over the years to have everybody sit down and talk about problems. And nothing ever happens except a lot of talk. What you need is leadership to take the words on paper and make them happen.”

O’Connor, who co-authored the city’s Growth Management Plan while she served on the council in the 1970s, often reminds campaign audiences that, prior to the passage of Proposition A, Cleator had a strong pro-development record, one he has sought to moderate throughout the race. To make that point during the Rancho Bernardo debate, O’Connor pulled out her rhetorical equivalent of Cleator’s toilet tale:

“Mr. Cleator, at one point in his life, wasn’t supporting Prop. A and wasn’t supporting some of the environmental issues. But I think he should be congratulated because . . . he has come a long way.

“But it’s like my father said: You can join the church, but before you can lead the choir you have to spend a little time in the church. And I’ve been in the church a little bit longer on environmental issues and concerns. So I would like to ask you to give me the opportunity to lead the choir for the next 2 1/2 years.”

In forums during the past week in Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa and La Jolla, the two candidates also have demonstrated other differences on environmental issues.

Asked to identify the three most pressing environmental issues facing the city, Cleator listed preservation of wetlands, the acquisition and maintenance of open space, and the prevention of offshore oil drilling. O’Connor cited environmental concerns over the proposed trash-to-energy SANDER plant, the protection of open space, and vigorous enforcement of Proposition A, which requires public approval of any development in the city’s “future urbanizing” zone, land set aside for development later this century.

The candidates also have clashed over the question of whether the council’s alterations of community plans have furthered or undermined growth-management goals.

Pointing out that the council has approved 27 community plan amendments in the last six years, O’Connor has argued that most of those changes were made at the request of developers and increased population densities in various mid-city neighborhoods. To prevent what she characterizes as the “piecemeal approach” to growth management, O’Connor has proposed that community plan amendments be considered by the council only once a year.

However, Cleator accused O’Connor of leaving behind a series of unworkable community plans when she stepped down from the council in 1979.

“I don’t want to pick a fight . . . but that’s one of the reasons why we have so many revisions,” Cleator said.

O’Connor responded: “I disagree. If the City Council . . . were to follow the plans that were implemented (in the 1970s), they would be in a lot better shape than they are now with amending all these plans.”

The Coastal Commission is the source of another disagreement between Cleator and O’Connor. O’Connor favors the continuation of the commission, saying that it has served as a “last barrier” that has helped to preserve crucial coastal lands that other governmental entities planned to develop. Cleator, however, has called for turning over the commission’s authority to individual communities.