What does building a bridge have to do with city pensions?

For Ray Ellis, who is seeking to unseat City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, every road in the District 1 election leads back to pensions.

The Regents Road Bridge, for example, has divided University City for decades because of a community debate over easing traffic verses conserving the area around the bridge.

Lightner has clearly defined her opposition to the bridge. But Ellis argues the whole debate is moot because the city doesn’t have the money to build it. He says the city’s first priority should be cutting pension costs and freeing up more money for road repairs. When money becomes available for the bridge, Ellis has told voters, the community could then re-examine the issue.

Rather than distinguish himself on the bridge or other neighborhood debates, Ellis has essentially staked his candidacy on a citywide issue: the cost of employee pensions. It’s the issue on which he seems most comfortable battling Lightner.

He has focused on pension issues during debates, interviews and community forums. He cites pensions to bolster his own credentials, to attack Lightner’s record and to duck more controversial subjects.

When asked to define his position on other issues, Ellis frequently steers the conversation toward pensions. He cites pension numbers, such as the estimated amount of money the city expects to pay next year, more often than other statistics like the number of cops on patrol or library hours.

As he did during the Regents Road Bridge discussion, Ellis often argues that cutting pension costs would free up millions in the budget, and that those savings could pay to repair more roads, build fire stations and keep libraries open longer.

That broad vision is the predominant theme of Ellis’ campaign. What he often avoids talking about — even when asked directly — are pricklier subjects like funding priorities and land use proposals. So far, Lightner has been far more at ease discussing those kinds of issues.

Ellis discusses non-pension issues with less specificity. He has expressed general support for fixing roads, updating community plans and protecting the environment. But he is reluctant to say which funding needs are the greatest or which proposals he would support while on the council.

At a debate last week, our Scott Lewis asked the candidates to identify areas where housing density could increase and help accommodate population growth. Lightner highlighted University City, where she is pushing to increase public transit options.

Ellis, however, didn’t answer the question. Instead, he invoked — you guessed it — pension reform.

“The longer you wait on infrastructure like that, the more expensive it is to deal with,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to catch up as quickly as possible by making the tough decisions on pension reform, making sure we implement managed competition throughout the city to free up valuable taxpayer dollars.”

Ellis also uses pensions to boost his own credentials and hammer Lightner’s time in office. He says he helped save the city millions as head of the city’s pension board, and has pledged to be a stronger advocate for cutting pension costs than Lightner.

In June, San Diego voters approved Proposition B, an initiative aimed at reducing pension costs. Both Lightner and Ellis endorsed the initiative, and both have pledged to implement its proposals.

The candidates’ next debate is Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the La Jolla Recreation Center. The event is free and open to the public. I should be there, so feel free to stop by and say hello.

You can also watch the candidates spar over pensions and other issues in the videos below. The first video is from the Oct. 5 episode of NBC 7 San Diego’s “Politically Speaking.” The second video is from a Sept. 19 debate hosted by the La Jolla Light.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about the District 1 City Council election, local government and creates infographics. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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