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Oceanside voters selected Councilwoman Esther Sanchez as their next mayor, the only woman in the jam-packed race to lead the largest city in North County, election results updated on Friday show. The ascent of Sanchez, a lifelong Oceanside resident who grew up on the east side of town, could mark a big shift for the city, and is further evidence of the county’s realigning politics.
The race focused on concerns familiar to coastal California: what can be built where, homelessness and whether police have too much power and too little accountability. In an August interview, Sanchez told Voice of San Diego that her top priorities are proactively investing in Black and Brown kids in the community, building affordable housing for veterans and seniors, increasing the number of shelter beds for homeless residents and establishing an independent oversight board to investigate complaints against Oceanside police officers.
She’ll tackle policies on affordable housing and homelessness first and will have an open-door policy to discuss differences in opinions illuminated by the race, Sanchez told Voice of San Diego Friday. “I want to really start fresh and take on the issues we need to take on,” she said. “I want to re-establish my relationship with the community.”
The mayor’s seat is officially nonpartisan, but Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss and longtime predecessor Jim Wood were both registered Republicans. Sanchez is a registered Democrat. The switch reflects recent changes in other North County cities, as the Republican Party largely recedes from view in the county’s most influential governments.
Sanchez said in August that the best way to tackle the housing and homelessness crises is for the city to buy land and build affordable housing itself – particularly for veterans and seniors. The city is obligated to make room for 5,000 homes at different levels of affordability, based on state housing policy. Sanchez said she wants the city to decide where and when that housing will be built.
“We are still doing it the very old-fashioned way of letting the developer community decide for us what and where things should happen,” she said in August. “And I think we really need to take our present and future and control our own planning, our own destiny.”
Sanchez voted against the controversial North River Farms project, an agriculture-themed, mixed use development proposed for the rural neighborhood of Morro Hills. The Oceanside City Council ultimately put the project on the ballot after residents collected enough signatures for a referendum. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the project, results so far show.
Oceanside also needs more shelter beds to house the homeless, Sanchez said. She previously told Voice of San Diego that it’s unacceptable the only homeless shelter in Oceanside is the Women’s Resource Center, for victims of domestic violence. The city is trying to acquire Oceanside Shores’ old property to create more shelter beds with wraparound services, but the 100 potential beds those alternatives would bring still won’t be enough to shelter Oceanside’s unsheltered population.
But she wants to ensure those beds go to people in the Oceanside community, she said.
“The idea is not to attract homeless people from different parts of the country who say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m in Chicago and I hear that you can have a bed in Oceanside,’” she said. “No, that’s not what I want. What I want is to empower people to try to figure out how to get them back on and for those who can’t accept that and how to deal with that in as positive a way as possible.”
The vast majority of homeless people in San Diego County, however, became homeless while they were living in San Diego and didn’t travel here before of the weather or services. In the 2019 homeless census known as the Point in Time Count, 78 percent of folks surveyed said they became homeless in San Diego County.
Vanessa Graziano, a homeless advocate in Oceanside, said she hopes Sanchez follows through with her plan to build a day center and that she works with Council members to open a shelter and advance other solutions.
Oceanside should have some sort of homeless community advisory board to focus on the issue, Graziano said.
“There’s still a division on the Council, so hopefully we can work together and that doesn’t hinder solutions. I’d love for the city or the county to help with vouchers. We need to get things done by collaborating.”
Sanchez suggested the Oceanside Police Department could do more to build trust within the community at a forum held by the North San Diego County National Association for the Advancement for Colored People in August. She said the city should establish an independent, citizen-led board to oversee police department complaints. Many complaints do not see the light of day because it’s not easy to file one or they’re shuffled around, she said.
Oceanside’s police chief, Frank McCoy, is ready to retire, and the city was poised to consider only internal candidates to replace him, without seeking community input. That plan could be changing, but community leaders and residents still worry their concerns about the hiring process aren’t being meaningfully addressed.
Sanchez told Voice of San Diego on Friday she supports a national search to replace McCoy, but that some of the best candidates could come internally.
Satia Austin, president of the NAACP’s North County chapter, told Voice of San Diego she plans to hold Sanchez accountable and flagged how Sanchez voted against a police oversight committee along with other Council members in 2016. Her group, along with the Oceanside Justice Coalition and others in Oceanside, are pushing for the creation of an independent oversight committee.
“We’re looking to work with her on something that works for today’s environment and hold them accountable and build trust in the community,” Austin said. “It doesn’t matter if an incident that happened in other cities didn’t happen in Oceanside. All it takes is one officer and one incident. We need to take precautions.”
Sanchez hopes to be Oceanside’s next representative on the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional transportation agency. But the City Council will decide who to appoint to the powerful body, and the Council’s Republican majority could opt not to send the city’s new mayor.
Currently, Councilman Jack Feller, who also ran for mayor, holds that role and had aligned himself with SANDAG board members pushing to emphasize highway expansion over transit investments. Feller is no longer on the City Council, so the city will have a new SANDAG representative. Sanchez said her focus is on improving public transportation, building separated bike lanes and crosswalks, and argued the Council should focus on increasing density in Oceanside to make it a more walkable city.
Her priority as mayor is to get everyone on the same page when it comes to increasing housing density, and making it easier for residents to walk to work, she said.
“I mean, we still have Council members who want to build roads,” she said. “And it’s like ‘Well, aren’t we supposed to be talking about walkable cities?’”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Sanchez was the only Democrat in the race for mayor; she was not.