Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear has been one of the most effective advocates for public transit on the San Diego Association of Governments board, despite hailing from North County, where elected leaders are overwhelmingly focused on widening highways and opposing the agency executive director’s wider overhaul of the region’s entire transportation system.
On Dec. 4, the SANDAG board elevated Blakespear to the its top spot. Blakespear previously served as vice chair on the SANDAG board for two years. She’ll begin her new role on Jan. 1, a position that lasts two years.
On Tuesday, I asked Blakespear a few questions about her goals as board chair and about the future of transportation and housing in the region. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your goals as SANDAG chair?
CB: I think the role of chair is certainly not for me to pursue my own individual goals for the county’s transportation network. It’s for me to facilitate the board pursuing its goals. And I see that role really clearly. And it’s the same role that I have at the city as the mayor — where there are five of us who are elected and we each have one vote – [which] is that I’m needing to make sure that all the voices are heard and that things are considered fairly and that things are brought forward in a timely manner. And the chair’s responsibility is to make sure that happens, and shepherd that forward. So, I take that seriously and I in no way intend to substitute my own value structure for the entirety of the board.
I know you have said before that you were eyeing this position. Is it something that’s been in talks for a while?
The culture of SANDAG is such that the vice chair becomes the chair unless there’s something else that happens, which is unusual. So, when I became the vice chair for two years, that position is a ramp to [becoming] chair. I think when I said that before, that’s what I’ve been indicating.
The truth is before I was the vice chair, I had not thought much about it. SANDAG is a large agency and there are a lot of elected officials. I was the vice chair for 2019 and 2020 and I became mayor in 2016, so I was on it for 2017 and 2018 in the beginning. The truth is I became the vice chair because the chair asked me to. [Poway] Mayor [Steve] Vaus said, ‘Hey, I think you’d be good at this. And I recommend you put your name in and we could work together as a team.’ And I thought, ‘Whoa, OK, thanks for having confidence in me. I’d be happy to do that, it sounds interesting.’ But it wasn’t like a lifelong dream or something.
How do you feel about the position now?
Different. For two years I’ve been closely watching it from a systems perspective. What kind of decision-making is happening? What is the interaction with the professional staff? How is the agenda set? How was the agenda created in the first place? And I’ve been working together with Steve [Vaus] on nearly everything that’s come forward that we’ve dealt with in the last year. And one of the more difficult things was the controversy around the audit. We also had the regional transportation plan where we program the money and that was just about a year ago in 2019. That was also somewhat controversial at the time.
Again, the SANDAG board has had in the last two years very split politics. And at times there, that bubbles up, so managing the personalities and the different politics as they swirl around is part of the job. And I think Steve [Vaus] did a great job of it, being fair and being always calm himself. And I intend to continue that, just really bring a high level of professionalism. And of course, I mean, one also needs to get one’s own perspective in there when relevant, but you never start with your own. You always ask for others’ opinions first and make sure that there was a forum for that.
But I think there’s a lot of complexity in transportation issues, just like all issues. There’s a lot of complexity in housing and everything we deal with at the city level as well. And so, it takes a while to layer on a certain amount of expertise, to be able to make sense of a lot of the data, because the right question isn’t always clearly in front of you. So, a lot of times you have to do the analytical work to come up with some of the solutions and see it in the bigger picture. I’m always doing that in my head. And I certainly have been working on it for two years.
What is your perspective on transit in the region, and how do you plan on bringing your own perspective to the table?
We need to have better transit in our county. So right now it is clear that for many people transit is not competitive with the car. And that is something that I hope we can change. And I recognize that it changes over time and it starts with things like transit going where you want to go, and it’s going with enough frequency that it’s a choice you’ll make. When you hear some of the reports on transit and the tremendously high percentage of riders who are transit-dependent and don’t have the options to make another choice, you recognize what one of our problems is in the county.
There’s no question that most people drive most places. And so we have to continue to invest in our road network too. It’s a road network that is largely built out. I mean, it was built and laid out in the ’50s and ’60s, and we need to maintain that. We can’t in any way think that that work is done or really will ever be done. But I believe that we need to comply with state laws. There’s no question that the emission reduction requirements need to drive transportation choices.
I’m not in favor of a regional transportation plan that’s filled with gimmicks and somehow manages to maintain the status quo. I think you do need to make bold changes and have a bold vision for the future. And this is a really exciting time to be chair. And it’s an exciting time for the agency because looking forward for the next 50 years we are planning and asking, ‘What is the blueprint? And what kind of imagination can we bring to creating that transportation network that works for more people and is more environmentally friendly, is cleaner and greener and faster?’ I recognize that this conversation is taking place in a really difficult moment because of COVID. So with coronavirus surging, it’s not top of mind, of course, in terms of the urgency of the different conversations we’re having about public policy at the moment, but it’s in the background. And there’s no question that we will have traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels. We will have emissions do that too.
What are you planning to bring from your experiences in Encinitas and as a mayor in North County?
Well, I think in my city there is a desire for transit. We have a train station and people can take the train downtown to work and they can take the train to the airport, though not directly. You pass the airport on the train and then you can get off and then take a bus. I think there is ongoing desire for the train to be more frequent and for it to travel at more times.
My experience is, we’re not a city that could care less about transit; we’re a city that wants the transit to work and function better. And there’s always the desire for things that we haven’t done. They’re difficult to afford, like a shuttle that would go from our coastal area to our inland areas, like the El Camino rail corridor. But when we’ve looked at that, the cost has been really high and it’s not something that we have been able to get off the ground. But I think there’s a desire for transit to work better. And I think I represent that, as the mayor on this board, and that there’s not a zero-sum game. I think people do want it to work for their life.
How do you plan to manage the conversation around the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, that’s coming forward?
SANDAG is the agency that’s charged with taking the number from the state and distributing it to jurisdictions. We did that and went through that process with the appeals in that. And we’ve now been sued by four cities that are unhappy with their RHNA allocation and unhappy with the weighted vote. And so that’s basically in litigation and I can’t really comment about litigation, but it’s difficult. I would rather not have members suing the group. It creates difficulties, but it is what it is. We’ll deal with it and get through it and see if there’s any resolution in the court that’s different from what the board did. And I guess I would be surprised if that really ended up going anywhere, but who knows?
Almost the vast majority of communities are housing-averse. And so when you’re talking about adding housing, especially if it’s coming down from the top from Sacramento, there’s just a tremendous opposition to that and recognizing that housing is a public good, that we all need to do our part, that there’s a way to integrate housing so that it fits within the community and being really sensitive to how people feel and how to have a conversation honestly about all the requirements and where there’s discretion and where there’s not. All of that is the hard work that we all have to do as electeds.
Staffing Issues Halt In-Person Instruction in Escondido
In the latest in the saga of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, Escondido Union School District notified parents on Sunday that campuses and daycares were closing for three weeks starting Tuesday, leaving the families of about 15,000 students who were learning in a hybrid model with just one day to change course.
Despite more stringent orders on closures from the state due to rising case numbers and decreasing ICU capacity, the Escondido superintendent’s decision to close schools didn’t directly correlate to local or state safety orders. The district is allowed to remain open per the state’s orders, but the school board and superintendent decided to close campuses because of a lack of staff, including substitute teachers, operational staff and custodial crew.
Escondido Union School District Superintendent Dr. Luis Rankins-Ibarra told NBC 7 that the decision wasn’t made lightly and he looked for other solutions before declaring a full closure, but that wasn’t feasible because the district doesn’t have nurses on campuses or front office staff.
“It’s Sunday evening … how do you piece together a cleaning crew to make sure their sanitizing helps? At the same time, you need to figure out, ‘How do we have nurse coverage? How do we have all the instructional assistants that are out throughout our district for our most neediest students?’ It was clear and evident: It’s time to hit the pause button,” he told the reporter.
Some parents upset with the sudden shutdown held a rally on Tuesday at the district office protesting the move and demanding families have more of a say in how school reopening and closures move forward.
Escondido Union, like neighboring Vista Unified School District, has in recent weeks experienced a growing number of coronavirus cases among students and staff upon opening campuses in person, leading to closures of individual schools.
Now, both districts have moved completely to online learning until at least next year. The suspension in Escondido started Tuesday and will be in effect until Jan. 11.
What We’re Working On
- Data provided by Oceanside show the Police Department’s leadership ranks are overwhelmingly White and male, underscoring community concerns about the city’s initial plan to hire a new chief without considering outside candidates.
- Up in the remote stretches of inland North County, something very unusual has happened: a tie vote in the Warner Unified school board race, VOSD contributor Randy Dotinga reported.
In Other News
- The site of a shuttered continuation school in Oceanside could become a space for a 50-bed homeless shelter. The Oceanside City Council purchased the Ocean Shores High School property for $1.8 million and are still deciding how they’ll definitely use the site. (Union-Tribune)
- While some businesses have closed down permanently due to economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, one homeless family in Oceanside recently opened a new antique and consignment store. The owners said they plan to donate some of their profits to a North County organization that helps the homeless. (NBC 7, 10 News)
- With the end of year nearing, some City Council members are saying goodbye to their positions while newcomers are being sworn into office. Olga Diaz, a longtime Council member in Escondido and first Latino on the Council, stepped down from her seat after 12 years in office. Meanwhile in Vista, Katie Melendez, a social worker and first generation college graduate, was sworn in Tuesday as the City Council’s representative for District 3. (Disclosure: Diaz is a member of Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.) (Union-Tribune)
- In an unusual case, the Ramona Municipal Water District board of directors has the task of filling the Division 3 board seat on Tuesday after residents in November elected incumbent director Thomas N. Ace, who died in late October. (Union-Tribune)
- In Carlsbad, the city’s Beach Preservation Committee wants more control over the city’s seven-mile coastline. The panel is proposing more monitoring for erosion, trash, illegal fires, graffiti, squirrel infestations and traffic and parking problems. (Union-Tribune)
- Palomar Health’s hospitals in Poway and Escondido have sufficient ICU capacity, at least for now, according to the public health district’s chief medical officer. Omar Khawaja told a reporter on Tuesday that around one-third of Poway’s ICU beds remained available along with about 15 percent of Escondido’s. (Poway News Chieftain)