The New Council Prez

The New Council Prez

City Council President Ben Hueso faces a litany of challenges in his new role. He inherited a massive budget conundrum and will preside over a newly formed city council. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Friday, Jan. 2, 2009 | There’s a new City Council in San Diego, and a new leader at its helm who will deal with a host of issues, including the city’s multimillion dollar budget gap.

Ben Hueso, who was selected as council president by his peers in a 6-2 vote in December, will be the second person to hold that post.

A former city redevelopment staffer and business owner, Hueso was elected to the City Council in early 2006 to represent District 8, which includes the neighborhoods of Logan Heights and Barrio Logan and runs south to San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley. Hueso also serves on the California Coastal Commission.

He recently spoke with us about his new duties, the challenges ahead and his political future.

In taking the role of council president, are there any lessons you’re taking from Scott Peters, in terms of things you want to continue to do or things you’re looking to do differently?

Scott Peters was somebody that worked with council members to agendize items. He was very fair in that process. He also was very good about running a smooth meeting and meeting the needs of the constituents and finding a way to move the business of the city forward, even if it often meant compromise, and I think those were very good qualities to have when you’re running a big city and you need to move business forward.

You mentioned agendizing items and the fair process. I know that Councilwoman Donna Frye has said that she didn’t feel that some of her items were agendized and that was one of the reasons for the reforms that she and Councilmember (Carl) DeMaio are proposing. It seems like you felt that Scott Peters was fair —

The reason I disagree with her is I’m familiar with those issues she asked to be agendized, which could not have been agendized. The city attorney agreed that they could not be agendized because they were closed-session items. Others were items in which the city attorney was conflicted. Most of those were lawsuit items, and we can’t bring those to open session.

I think that was more of political posturing than an actual case of not agendizing an item. So there were two instances that she brought up and in both cases it would have been very irresponsible to hear those items on the council for legal reasons, not because we disagreed or anything.

What do you think in general about those changes to the council rules that she and Mr. DeMaio have proposed, especially the item to change the way items are docketed?

I want to make sure that whatever rules we adopt, they don’t weaken the council, that we don’t defer our responsibility to another individual or another body. I’m concerned that that can happen. Anywhere the council has leverage against the Mayor’s Office, given that the mayor has so many resources at his side, I think we’re entitled to that leverage, to exercise it in a way that is beneficial to the council’s process.

I’d like to go back to something I asked earlier about Scott Peters and you mentioned the things you thought he did well. I’m curious if there’s anything you’re planning to do differently in terms of your role as council president.

I mentioned earlier that I have a business background, I have a planning background, I have an economic development background. He had a legal background and he was very, very successful at guiding us through a very difficult time in our city legally in which our legal counsel was saying, ‘No, you are not my client. The people of San Diego are my client. I can file lawsuits as I please and I don’t have to provide you with timely legal advice.’ … So Scott Peters stepped in as an attorney, as a very good attorney, and helped create kind of a calming situation and helped provide some direction as to how to proceed in that situation. …

I think I’m going to bring my business experience and my economic development experience to tackle — to provide leadership in those areas citywide, and it comes at a time when those are issues that are very important to our city.

What is in your legislative agenda for the next year and even beyond that? What are some of your policy goals?

We’re going to have to make some big budget decisions and we have to stop making yearly budget decisions. We’re going to have to start making some strategic long-term budget decisions. They have to be part of a long-term plan. Given the fact that we have two years to work on that where we won’t see any significant turnover in the Mayor’s Office or on the council … that will give us an opportunity to set longer goals beyond two years and we can find a way to start talking about that this year. We have to do that if we’re going to survive as a city.

We have the Housing Commission working on some housing assistance programs. We have the Redevelopment Agency working on restructuring and finding a way to be a little more transparent in their dealings but in addition to that we’re going to ask the Redevelopment Agency to step up in a big way in helping us stimulate the economy here in San Diego.

And we also have — as a coastal commissioner and council president, I have a greater opportunity to work with all the coastal jurisdictions, whether it be Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City, Coronado, Del Mar, Carlsbad and especially the Port Commission to talk about enhancing our coastal areas. We have an opportunity to do things for the environment, we have an opportunity to do things for water quality and for specific developments that may help the economy that may help provide more access to the waterfront, and improve our waterfront to the benefit of everyone. So I plan to work in a lot of areas simultaneously to see how we can solve a lot of those problems that are facing our city.

Are there any specific proposals you’re planning to introduce in the next couple months?

Hopefully we’ll get through these rules issues that the council wants to look at in terms of procedural, we’ll do that in January. We’ll also look at our housing programs, so while we’re going through this budget process, we will be working on new legislation in those areas, but specifically I don’t have anything on the table as we speak as to how to address these, I mean, any specific legislation.

Are you looking at all beyond the council presidency? Is running for state office in the future something you’d consider or something you’re interested in?

I’ve always told people that I ran for this office to address the issues of this city and especially issues of environmental justice, especially issues of investment imbalance throughout our city. Those things are really important to me. Land use, the environment, economic development is very, very important to me.

I really don’t look at whether — they say well, a state position is like a promotion, it’s higher profile, and you should do that, and you should look for higher office, and you should move up and I really don’t look at things that way. I see a different position as a different focus and I see all political offices as being equal. Anywhere I would go would be a lateral move and not necessarily a promotion, but I’d want to do something that really fulfills my goals and I think currently what I’m doing here in the council, I feel like I’m having a lot of success here. I feel like we’re able to do a lot of very good things for our city, for our coastline, especially for my district.

When I first got elected, they said you know think about 10 priorities. And I thought that would be a disservice to my district, given the fact that they’ve been overlooked in so many areas, and I can say very proudly that I have at least 80 goals for my district and we’re moving a lot of those goals forward, and I have just been overwhelmed with satisfaction that we have been able to do so much for my district and if I’m successful here, I think this is where I should stay and focus on finishing up a very comprehensive program.

What about when your term expires and it’s no longer an option? Is that something you’d look at?

We’ll see where I am in three months and then ask me where do you want to be in another three months. I do this really for public service, not for my own political career. I do care about my family and my kids and we’re finding a way to survive in politics every day, so honestly it’s really hard for me to say. Am I running for reelection? Am I going to go on to another seat? I really couldn’t tell you that today. It’s really hard.

And before getting elected, I’ve been one of the harshest critics of politicians. When I heard that, I’d always think, ‘Ahhh, they’re just dodging the question.’ But politics is really a tough business. You really don’t know where you’re going to be from one week to the next, from one month to the next, so it’s really hard to give a very accurate answer as to where you think you’re going to be in six years or two years. It’s very hard to do.

— Interview by RANI GUPTA

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