Sunday, May 10, 2009 | It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox.

Last Tuesday, a citywide 1 percent sales tax increase she had supported was trounced at the polls, killing perhaps Cox’s best chance of pulling Chula Vista away from the brink of bankruptcy and giving her nothing to show for backing a measure that has clearly helped push her once-solid Republican base against her.

The same day, Port Commissioner Mike Najera went public with the news that Cox had demanded his resignation from the commission. Najera refused to budge and his fellow commissioners supported him, demanding an explanation from Cox — who didn’t produce one. The affair was a public blow to the mayor’s political credibility that only became more embarrassing when Najera revealed he had recently held a fundraiser for her political nemesis, Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Castaneda. Najera suggested political revenge — an accusation Cox has had levied at her before.

These latest setbacks for the mayor might not have been so significant if they didn’t come on the back of a catalogue of failures that have hit Chula Vista since Cox’s election in 2006.

On her watch, the city’s flagship waterfront redevelopment plan has been scuppered, talks with the Chargers have largely gone nowhere, and the city has come perilously close to financial meltdown. While Cox and her supporters say she shouldn’t have to shoulder all the blame for these losses, political insiders and Cox’s fellow politicians said her often-brusque personality has served as a catalyst for the city’s failures.

The rookie mayor, whose political experience prior to her election was limited to serving on the Chula Vista Elementary School District Board of Trustees, has also found herself alienated on the city’s five-member City Council, two of whose members are widely considered to be priming themselves for a run against her in 2010 (she said she will run for reelection). One of her colleagues, Councilman John McCann, has used Cox’s failures with the Chargers and the sales tax increase to curry favor with local Republicans, who have not been shy in expressing their support for him.

And Cox has had to contend with the accusations of political vengeance. Castaneda, who ran against Cox in 2006, has accused her of conspiring with her husband, County Supervisor Greg Cox, and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, to have him investigated for corruption three times. Cox dismisses the claims as ridiculous, but the latest mishaps, including Najera’s dig, have added fuel to the fire of Cox’s detractors.

“She’s the leader. She’s the mayor. Leadership is taking responsibility for what happens, and if nothing happens, she needs to take responsibility for that,” Najera said.

Cox inherited a tangled legacy of issues when she was elected in 2006: Chula Vista was just waking up with a hangover from years of binge spending; a massively complex deal to develop the city’s waterfront was entering its final and most challenging phase, and the city was just being discussed as a possible new home for the local professional football team.

Cox claimed no one could have foreseen the scale of the financial problems facing Chula Vista when she was running for election. Previous administrations had steadily eaten into the city’s fiscal reserves, leaving it almost completely exposed to the financial calamities that have struck the region and the country in the last three years, she said.

Combined with plummeting revenues from an imploding housing market and expensive debt-servicing commitments from major capital projects the city had embarked upon in the glory years of the real estate boom, Chula Vista’s lack of a fiscal safety net left her with few budgetary options from the moment she was elected, Cox said.

“I don’t think anybody could have imagined the depth to which the budget cuts would have had to have been made,” she said. “To look at 1,251 employees and watch them

go to 991 inside two-and-a-half years, to take a general fund budget that’s $172 million and have it drop right before your eyes to $143 million … you can’t even try and make everybody happy all of the time.”

Trying to Raise Money But Falling Afoul of Republicans

After sitting in the council chambers every week hearing tales of woe from her constituents, Cox finally decided to do what must have been unthinkable when she was riding to the top of the polls in 2006 fuelled by money and support from groups like the conservative Lincoln Club: She voted to put a 1 percent tax increase to the city’s voters.

“I took heat, because Republicans don’t believe in new taxes,” Cox said. “But, you know, this is local government. I faced these people every Tuesday evening. Every Tuesday evening, they said ‘Please don’t cut my project,’ and the next voice would be ‘Please help me, let me know what I can do to be part of the solution.’”

The tax increase failed miserably at the polls, its demise no doubt provoked by the state’s decision to impose a similar one cent sales tax statewide shortly before Chula Vista’s proposal went to the city’s voters. Local Republicans don’t seem too interested in the details of why it failed, or in Cox’s perceived nuance between local government and some other form of government. For Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, a tax increase is a tax increase, and Cox shouldn’t have backed it.

“Incumbent Republicans generally will be endorsed when they run for reelection, but obviously people are very disappointed with Mayor Cox for supporting the tax increase, Krvaric said. “Taxes are the biggest stick in the eye, from a partisan perspective.”

Chula Vista City Councilman John McCann, the only other Republican on the City Council, was the lone “no” vote on the tax increase. He said “better, swifter action” should have been taken to fix Chula Vista’s budget, and said a tax increase was not the answer to the city’s troubles.

McCann wouldn’t say if he’s planning to run against Cox in 2010.

Krvaric called McCann “fantastic.” The councilman said he was flattered that people are approaching him to run.

The Stadium Search Heads South

McCann has also benefited from Cox’s public spat with the San Diego Chargers. The city councilman has been close to the team since they first started to consider Chula Vista as a home for a new stadium, and he remains the city’s point man on stadium negotiations while the team has made clear it’s done speaking with Cox.

Earlier this year, Cox sent a letter to the Chargers accusing the team of withholding information from the public. Chargers Special Counsel Mark Fabiani at the time called her “a weak mayor in a weak-mayor city.”

Months later, Fabiani said, he’s still in the dark about what exactly prompted Cox to fire off her letter to the team. He said it was clear to the Chargers from the start of her term that Cox considered a stadium deal a distraction from her plans for the city’s waterfront, but he said the only explanation he has for the mayor’s open hostility towards the team is her political naivety and her frustration at not being at the center of the Chargers’ plans.

“I think it was designed by her to lash out and I think it really backfired on her,” Fabiani said.

Cox said she has always been open and honest in her time as mayor. Civil discourse is about being able to disagree with each other, she said. But she acknowledged she has sometimes been accused of being too abrupt.

“There’s no doubt some of that criticism is valid. I only have four years and I inherited such a situation that, in order to pull this together, I’m very direct.”

Problems On the Waterfront

Castaneda said the Chargers letter wasn’t the only time that Cox’s involvement in a city issue has done more harm than good.

The Democratic city councilman, who came third in Chula Vista’s 2006 mayoral primary election, has been a vocal critic of Cox. He said the mayor’s failure to coordinate the city’s waterfront development and the withdrawal of Gaylord Entertainment Co. as a potential developer of the site, is clear evidence that the city needs new leadership.

“Cheryl Cox decided that she wanted to insert herself in the process,” Castaneda said. “None of us on the council were asked for our opinions, none of us were privy to what she was doing or how she was meddling and, essentially, this thing fell apart not just because of the economy, but because of the lack of leadership that has emanated from her office.”

Art Castañares, a political consultant who worked on Cox’s election campaign in 2006, said it’s easy to point fingers at Cox, but said there’s little evidence to show Gaylord dropped out of the $1 billion project because of anything other than the deal’s bottom line.

The waterfront project was a vastly complicated deal whose roots pre-dated Cox’s introduction to Chula Vista City Hall, he said. Gaylord underestimated how difficult the project would be to complete and the number of regulatory hurdles they would have to clear to get the project underway, he said. When the company realized its mistake, it backed out, he said.

“The bane in politics has always been that sometimes you get more credit than you deserve and sometimes you get more blame than you deserve,” Castañares said. “But the mayor on the City Council really is just a glorified city councilmember, and they don’t have any more power than anybody else.”

Castañares pointed out that the success of the project wasn’t just in the hands of the Chula Vista anyway. The project also needed approval from, among other agencies, the city’s Port Commission.

Najera, the port commissioner, said Cox asked him to resign specifically because of his own failure to get a project approved for the waterfront. Cox told him that two-and-a-half years of inaction on his behalf is too long, he said. (Cox wouldn’t confirm or deny Najera’s account of last Monday’s meeting.)

Najera said he threw that contention straight back at Cox. “I said, ‘You’ve been mayor almost as long, should you resign?’ She said ‘that’s been mentioned to me by my fellow council members.’ “

In the Najera affair, Cox has not only given Chula Vistans a window into her lack of political clout, but has also scratched open the barely healed scab of the waterfront deal. Najera’s suggestion that Cox was trying to get back at him for holding a fundraiser for her rival, Castaneda, has also reawakened the memory of Castaneda’s accusations that she launched a political witch hunt against him.

Cox said any notion that she has sought political revenge against Najera or Castaneda is “silly.” She said the last two-and-a-half years have been tricky, but said she has worked from early in the morning until late at night to help Chula Vistans as much as she can in these tough budgetary times.

“It’s a lot easier to govern when the city has resources than when the city doesn’t have resources,” she said. “But I can say that the accomplishments that have been made in the last two-and-a-half years have been made on the backs of people who appreciated us, whether it’s city managers or elected officials or department heads. It’s all a contribution. If we have one common goal, it’s to make Chula Vista the best we can make it.”

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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