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Monday, June 5, 2006 | The steady population growth in Chula Vista has been accompanied by a growing political divide, as a city government that once operated lock-step with Mayor Steve Padilla has splintered and trust among the South Bay city’s residents has dwindled under the weight of the mayor’s various public relations problems.

As a result, San Diego County’s second-largest city finds itself enmeshed in an emotional election season that many see as a referendum on the status quo within city government – and on how the burgeoning burg handles its expansive growth and planned redevelopment.

Crowded mayoral and City Council races and a ballot measure that would limit the city’s ability to redevelop the older neighborhoods – a top council priority – have all come courtesy of the backlash that has hit a fevered pitch as Tuesday’s primary election approaches, even though observers here say everything was hunky-dory here just a year ago.

“Something happened to the romance because the turmoil is literally tearing the community apart,” said Susan Watry, a member of Crossroads II, a grassroots group that has served as a thorn in Padilla’s side during this brutal campaign.

Some say a series of controversies seeping out of City Hall made Padilla and council ally Patty Chavez vulnerable over the past year, and that the throngs vying for the mayor and council pounced on that opportunity. Others say the packed candidate pools illustrate nothing more than the healthy conflict that comes with a population of 225,000.

“We’re a small city that’s getting bigger and growing pains come with that. Politics is part of that,” said Jack Blakely, executive director of the city’s downtown business association. “People are expecting everyone to agree and they’re not. It’s the tension you would see with a big city.”

Padilla and Chavez agree, saying the fast-growing city has cultivated a number of diverging viewpoints. But the controversy swirling around the mayor and city government is the genesis for these contentious elections.

“We are a large city and the way we are communicating and thinking is like a small town,” said Chavez, whose appointment last year to the part-time council by Padilla has become an issue in the election.

Indeed, the city is in the midst of a wholesale maturation – with its eyes on the prizes that would take Chula Vista to a whole new level of urban growth: extensive redevelopment, a convention center, condo towers, big-time retail projects and possibly even a professional football stadium.

Voters here are very concerned about how to continue encouraging and accommodating growth. They seem mixed about how to proceed. Some want to shake the sleepy town shtick and become a big city. Others want to maintain a small-town feel.

“We’ve got one foot in a small town and one foot in a big city,” Padilla said.

Track housing in the city’s eastern expanses such as the Eastlake neighborhood, has exploded, bringing with it more residents, new neighborhoods and the accompanying property-tax windfalls. The city’s discretionary budget has been growing at about 10 percent annually.

Now, city officials are looking back to the bayfront, largely industrialized, and the city’s older urban core for the next makeover – making density and redevelopment key issues. In addition, the city has plans for a bayside convention center and hotel project, a four-year university campus, and a Fashion Valley-sized mall. Officials are also beginning a push to potentially lure the Chargers football team to town.

With roughly the same number of people as Orlando, Fla., the city has grown by 50,000 people since 2000. Officials estimate that 75,000 to 150,000 more will pour in over the next two decades.

The growth is exciting, residents say, but they want to make sure it’s handled correctly. Past construction has helped pay in part for a new police station and City Hall, but others complain that the new growth out east hasn’t done anything for the older Westside, where potholes sprout and sidewalks, if they exist, crumble.

Accompanying that growth has been a myriad of demands on the city government, which is overseen by an in-the-know city manager who reports to a mayor and part-time city council. But also coming with that growth has been a number of concerns by established residents who say they are being left behind as leaders pontificate on a “grandiose” future of Chula Vista.

The Mayor’s Popularity Shifts

Padilla faces stiff competition in the primary election from two major opponents – Councilman Steve Castaneda and school board member Cheryl Cox, a household name in the South Bay political world.

As his key accomplishments, the mayor has propped up the construction of a new City Hall and police headquarters and the opening up of city government’s decision-making process through public workshops. At the same time, his opponents charge that he has tried to keep major development decisions behind closed doors.

Castaneda has been on the offensive for much of the campaign, taking digs at Padilla for his handling of development and his personal dealings after publicly supporting the mayor just months earlier. Cox has had the benefit of relying on her experience within the local school district, where she served as a longtime teacher and principal, and her surname, which she shares with husband Greg Cox, a county supervisor and former Chula Vista mayor.

Two others, retiree Petra Barajas and mortgage lender Ricardo Macias, haven’t generated the attention of the other three candidates, experts say.

Observers say Padilla was quite popular just a year ago. But he’s recently been forced to deal with a number of politically sensitive personal and professional disclosures. Last summer, he publicly said he was gay. Padilla’s also taken a number of hits in the local press for hiring a body guard on the city’s dime; taking repeated pay advances; and collecting a salary along with council members for serving on the redevelopment agency they created but hadn’t yet convened.

Padilla says his conduct was aboveboard. He said his opponents are embellishing the significance of the political gaffes for their own political gain.

“I just smell politics, to be frank,” he said. “[The pay advance story] was given to the newspaper to score points politically by harming my reputation, but that’s OK because I did nothing wrong.”

Chavez, a rookie councilwoman, also faces staunch opposition from four challengers. Council colleague John McCann will coast to reelection, unopposed. The council seats are chosen citywide, not by districts like in bigger cities such as San Diego, and the opposition to Chavez focuses around Padilla’s decision to appoint her to an open seat last year over two well-known applicants.

On the Street

At the Farmer’s Market on Fourth Avenue last week, voters were mixed about the Padilla stories. Most of those interviewed were aware of the bodyguard and pay-advance flaps, with a less number knowing about the controversy over the redevelopment salaries.

“If there’s smoke there’s fire,” said tanker trunk driver Steve Holloway, who said he was undecided in the mayor’s race. “It’s no wonder why downtown is becoming stagnant, it’s because they’re fooling around with all these other things.”

Like Holloway, a few others said they found the stories troubling, and said they wondered if the mismanagement was more widespread. But a majority said they thought the stories were the result of standard electioneering.

“I figured it was just the usual slandering that happens during a campaign,” said human resource worker Cynthia Gonzales. She said doesn’t have anything against the mayor, but was unsure who she’d vote for. “I’d rather they talk about how they’re going to handle all the new development.”

It is this concern over development that is driving the ballot’s other hot-button issue: Proposition C. Experts site voter distrust with City Hall’s handling of redevelopment as the motivation for Proposition C – a radioactive ballot measure that would outlaw the public taking of private property for purposes other than the building of parks and roads.

Observers said the suspicions surrounding eminent domain began to creep up with a developers’ proposal to kick-start some of the residential boom on the Westside with a 14-story, twin-tower condo project downtown, known as Espanada. A coalition of neighborhood groups, including Crossroads II, anticipated that eminent domain would be used to seize an apartment complex in the area and mounted a fierce opposition. The developer withdrew the project after Padilla told him he could no longer support it, given the backlash.

Eminent domain allows public agencies to seize public land if it is deemed to be in the public’s best interest, though such laws are coming under increased scrutiny after allegations of abuse nationwide.

Having eminent domain at its disposal is crucial for the city if it wants to redevelop its older areas, but candidates in the race say they are siding with Prop. C because they understand the backlash and believe it will overwhelmingly prevail. As testament to the proposition’s strength, almost all of those candidates interviewed wanted redevelopment to help the Westside blossom into a real urban core, but they also supported Prop. C.

Political consultant Christopher Crotty said opposing Proposition C would be “political suicide” after Espanada, which was proposed on the heels of a contentious Supreme Court decision allowing municipalities to exercise eminent domain for redevelopment.

“It really put the mayor and the council in a box, because it is such a volatile issue,” said Crotty, who is one of the many who believe the proposition would be nullified by the courts if enacted by voters.

Although Padilla said he never supported Espanada, he has been branded by some in the community as having tried to push the project forward, which has fueled the animosity of his critics further.

Opposition to the project has become a winner for some candidates. Castaneda, in particular, has reaped the benefits of the Westside’s redevelopment backlash, garnering support from a number of the most vocal Proposition C advocates. So has council candidate Rudy Ramirez, who is seen as a champion for redevelopment foes. Cox consistently refers to Padilla’s handling of Espanada as being “heavy-handed.”

Cox and Castaneda have both tried to play to the perception that Padilla can’t be trusted to lead Chula Vista as it undergoes an unprecedented makeover. But the mayor and others say the personal attacks come with the territory of being the mayor of a city on the rise.

“The main theme of this election is not growth and development as it should be, but about whether voters trust in the Mayor’s Office,” he said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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