You’d think elections in a town that covers about four square miles and is home to 27,400 people would be a pretty simple affair. But the races in Imperial Beach are anything but that. While candidates strive to run positive campaigns, behind the scenes there’s a lot of grumbling and being nice is getting tougher.
Outside money is coming in; city council candidates Paloma Aguirre and Darnisha Hunter are both getting money from people who don’t live or work in IB; as is incumbent mayor Serge Dedina – for whom Aguirre works.
City council candidate Aguirre is an employee of Wildcoast, the binational coastal advocacy group founded by Dedina. On her candidate declarations, Aguirre checked the box for between $10,000 and $100,000 in Wildcoast income.
The group ‘s tax forms show that Dedina is paid about $111,000 a year of the more than $1.5 million it raised in 2016 – the last year for which a tax form is available from the state attorney general. Salaries for the other employees are not disclosed, though the forms ask for salaries for the 10 highest paid staffers.
According to past years’ tax forms, the group has raised between $2.1 million and $3 million from donors including the Hewlett Packard and Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, as well as securing city, county and state grants to work on ambitious projects including working on the Otay Valley Regional Park, and working with volunteers to monitor the state’s Marine Protected Areas. Wildcoast dispatched as much as $1.5 million a year in past years to CostaSalvaje, its Mexican arm.
As Wildcoast’s coastal and marine director, Aguirre aggressively sought the sources of sewage and pollution that makes its way up the U.S. coast and into the estuary canyons. Aguirre worked for Cory Booker in Washington D.C. – and posted images on Facebook that are now being used to attack her for her protest sign: Fuck Trump.
Opponents say they’re offended by her open disregard for the president. They’re concerned about Aguirre’s ability to disagree with her boss on city issues in the volunteer position.
“The (other) concern I have is that she is an employee of Wildcoast and she does get paid quite a bit of money,” IB resident Jerry Quinn said at the Oct. 3 city council meeting. “Is that a conflict of interest and is she going to be just another vote for you? Subconsciously, is she just going to vote your way because you pay her money?”
Quinn put words to concerns about the city’s direction if Aguirre joins Dedina and City Councilman and Surfrider Foundation’s former chairman Mark West on the five-vote governing body. “Right now you do not have the controlling votes and bringing Palomar(his words) in will give you the controlling vote of the city.”
In response, Aguirre said in an email that if she is elected, her position will be changed so that she reports directly to the group’s 13-person board, not to Dedina.
Requests for comment from Dedina were forwarded to Wildcoast communications director Fay Crevoshay, who directed the questions to city officials.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission says that there aren’t any rules that address the specific issue of an employer and employee on the same elected body.
“If there’s a question about if she is going to think for herself on every issue, that’s a question voters should be able to have a conversation about,” spokesman Jay Wierenga said.
She is not the only candidate being challenged on potential conflicts. In August, Aguirre and Dedina were quoted in Voice of San Diego and Union Tribune stories raising questions about city council candidate Darnisha Hunter and an event she held for families of active duty military – IB is home to Naval Outlying Field aka Ream Field and North Island Naval Air Station families and veterans – with a new influx of Navy families expected when the Special Warfare Compound opens on the Strand.
Hunter and her supporters were aghast at the questions raised about the ethics of a city of San Diego employee – she works for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer – holding a military families event in IB.
Hunter lives in eastern IB and is campaigning on a platform that focuses on public safety and providing services to residents. Both Hunter and Aguirre are newcomers to IB. Hunter bought a home there in 2016 and Aguirre rented an apartment earlier this year. Wildcoast has been in IB from its inception.
Hunter and Aguirre are two of five candidates vying for two open seats on the city council. Incumbent Ed Spriggs is running, along with challengers Dane Crosby and Mo Comacho. Dedina is staring down opponent Valerie Acevez for the mayor’s seat. All positions are held by volunteers.
State Sen. Toni Atkins and U.S. Congressman Juan Vargas donated $1,000 and $2,500 respectively to Aguirre. Rumors abound that their support was steered away from Spriggs to make sure Aguirre wins, and Spriggs won’t deny that’s true. He, meanwhile, won a $200 donation from County Supervisor Greg Cox, who recently came under attack by Aguirre, who wanted Cox to divert Coastal Commission money from a campground project to the group’s fight against Tijuana River sewage.
While some say that Dedina and councilmember Mark West are too focused on environmental issues, other candidates have professional interests that overlap with civic duties. Mayoral candidate Valerie Acevez heads the city chamber of commerce, for example.
Opponents have suggested that Acevez’s group has gotten money from the city, something she disputes. The city business improvement district taxes local businesses and the chamber does administer the business district funds – and is paid for the work. But Acevez received none of the money, she says.
Wildcoast and Dedina, on his initiative, have taken care to stay away from city contracts and interests, city officials say. But opponents point to the lawsuit filed by the city against federal agencies over sewage entering the country from Mexico as a city expense that Dedina benefits from.
Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego have joined the IB lawsuit and Chula Vista officials confirm the city has paid about $8,000 toward costs of the suit.