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Friday, March 13, 2009 | A longtime community activist and engineer, Sherri Lightner is an unlikely politician. And when she made her bid last year for San Diego City Council, she was viewed as a long-shot.

But she won. And after just a few months in office, Lightner has already been on the dissenting end of some high-profile decisions.

She was the only council member to support Councilwoman Donna Frye for council president, other than Frye herself. Then she backed an unsuccessful attempt to make it easier for council members to place an item on the council’s agenda without the OK of the council president.

Lightner was the only council member to vote against a measure to advocate for legislation to amend the state trust governing the Children’s Pool in La Jolla to allow a colony of harbor seals to stay — a divisive issue among Lightner’s constituents in District 1.

The other seven council members said the legislation was a way to end dueling lawsuits that were racking up huge legal bills and to preserve a popular attraction for tourists and residents who like to see the seals.

Lightner viewed the issue as critical to whether the public can ensure the city will properly take care of a gift, since Ellen Browning Scripps paid for the concrete breakwater so there would be a place for children to swim.

The new councilwoman recently sat down to talk with us about this hot-button topic and other things that have characterized her first months in office.

You recently voted in the minority with Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye to make it easier for a council member to place an item on the docket by lowering the number of signatures required from four to three. I’m wondering why you voted for that.

One of the concerns I have is when you have to solicit four to sign the memorandum, that really is a controlling vote on council. And if you go over that four, you may have jeopardized collective concurrence. And I do know that it was commented on, I believe on the Voice, when there was a memorandum with four signatures on it.

So it’s for the Brown Act provisions that you think it’s better for three people?

I think actually it should only take the request of a (single) council member.

Why?

That’s typically the way most organizations would work. If we are all on equal footing with representing our respective districts and have responsibilities to our districts — if we have an item that is important to us — it should be possible to docket that item without having to garner other support.

Why did you vote against the measure to support legislation to change the trust [governing the Children’s Pool]?

The most basic reason is I thought it was an end-run around the existing court order. And I think it will subject the city to further litigation. I don’t think it’s a cost savings at all, which is the way it was brought forward.

I also objected to the sense that [the council resolution] came from closed session and yet it was not supposedly any settlement of any item that was discussed in closed session. My sense was if this was something the City Council wanted to do, it should have come through a public hearing process first, then come to the council.

Do you still support a shared use for the Children’s Pool, with seals and people sharing that space?

Yes.

Do you think there’s a way to go about that?

We need to first abide by the court order and see what happens. One of the things that really concerned me about this decision-making is we’ve been promised for several years that the environmental impact report would come out. The environmental impact report will look at all situations.

It will be very interesting to see what the recommendations are that come out of that report. A lot of the objections that are raised in testimony by different individuals as to coastal stability, sand accumulation, whether it works, how often you have to do it, all these sorts of things would have been addressed by that. And the alternatives considered would have included not doing anything. It would have been nice to have that information and take that back to the court. I don’t understand why it’s taking so long.

I think the environmental impacts also need to consider the impacts of having so many people on that site over the course of time. It has been a concern for the community that this is a very localized tourist attraction with buses, extensive car traffic — those sorts of things would have been addressed by the environmental impact report as well. I’m concerned we will never find out the results of that impact report.

I know there’s other litigation pending. It would be nice to know the outcomes of those court cases as well.

During the first council meeting, when they picked council president—

That was the second one. [laughs]

The first one that actually everyone was able to be there. You made reference to hearing veiled threats in terms of your committee appointments when picking a council president. Who did those come from?

They came from people who had the power to deliver. And that’s all I’ll say.

Have you felt a lot of pressure as a councilmember?

On?

From different interest groups?

I’d say the only pressure I’ve felt is self-directed to try and deliver the best services I can to the community. As far as being pressured on certain decisions, no I haven’t felt pressured on any decisions relative to matters other than the initial matter before council.

You were very involved in city affairs on the other end of the dais as a community activist for a number of years. Is it very different being where you are now?

I haven’t seen too much difference yet. It may change with time. I do know some of the things that go on a little better and may understand why things seem to happen the way they do…

I actually think I had more resources as a community activist than as a councilmember because as a council member, I am not permitted to direct [city] staff, whereas as an activist I could ask questions of staff and ask them to do things for me.

— Interview by RANI GUPTA

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