City attorney candidates face off in sometimes heated debate at Ocean Beach Town Council meeting

Challenger Cory Briggs and incumbent Mara Elliott are running for San Diego city attorney.

The two candidates for San Diego city attorney in the upcoming November election — incumbent Mara Elliott and challenger Cory Briggs — squared off in a lively virtual debate during the August Ocean Beach Town Council meeting last week.

The candidates explained their stands on specific issues but just as often took jabs at each other, with Briggs frequently contending that Elliott lacks a spine to deliver enforcement on issues important to the community, while Elliott countered that Briggs’ professed concern for the community lacks credibility because he has repeatedly sued the city as a private lawyer.

Questions presented to the candidates were derived from community input addressing five topics ranging from short-term vacation rentals to environmental protection.

On the hot-button issue of short-term rentals, the candidates were asked how the enterprises — in which property owners rent out their homes for stays of 30 days or less — can be shut down in residential zones since they are already deemed impermissible in the city’s municipal code.

For about five years, the debate over STVRs has pitted the rights of property owners against residents who have seen their neighborhoods disrupted by tourists, leading to complaints about noise, trash and parking problems.

Other critics say vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway create financial incentives for renting out properties for short-term stays instead of long-term residential use, thus reducing the housing supply and driving up prices.

San Diego City Council member Jennifer Campbell encountered resistance at the Ocean Beach Town Council’s July meeting as she tried to rally community support for her push for an ordinance to regulate short-term vacation rentals.

Touting her office’s recent prosecution of a “party” short-term rental in Bankers Hill, Elliott argued that further regulations are required to clearly define STVRs so enforcement can be implemented broadly instead of piecemeal.

“Bring a civil action that can take up to two years on each of the 14,000 to 16,000 STVRs (in the city)?” she said. “That’s no way to handle this problem. ... We must have regulations because it gives us the ability to enforce immediately so that people don’t have to wait for that.”

Briggs countered Elliott’s argument that identifying STVRs is problematic by noting that the city regularly collects taxes from established venues. He promised that, if elected, he would go after the “big fish.”

“We know what STVRs are,” Briggs said. “We know how they differ from somebody renting out a room to a college student or a friend. ... We know exactly who it is. It’s a question of whether you have a spine, not whether you need a new regulation on the books.”

In light of the state’s 2018 passage of the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (SB 946), which prohibits municipalities from banning street vendors, the candidates were asked to provide their recommendations for a city ordinance to regulate the activity and unclog the bottleneck of beach vendors at Ocean Beach’s Veterans Plaza and elsewhere.

Briggs contended that existing public health rules on food handling and unobstructed public access to beaches in compliance with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act could be enforced while awaiting a comprehensive city ordinance.

Noting recent gym closures based on COVID-19 safety measures, Briggs said: “There’s nothing to stop her office from enforcing the same rules down on the beach. ... This isn’t the sort of thing where we all need to get together and have a therapy session and talk it out. Enforce the rules that are on the books right now.”

Elliott said the process for drafting a thorough city ordinance with community input, which could include limited street vending permits, was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. She said stopgap measures until a law is enacted are beyond the city attorney’s legal authority and must come from the mayor and City Council.

“The piecemeal approach, which is exactly what we’re using with STVRs, is a total and complete failure,” Elliott said. “Are we really going to insert ourselves so we can headline-grab? That’s not a lack of spine. That’s a brain. ... We follow the law. We don’t take our clients on this long, convoluted road that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Tempers flared during a question about the candidates’ views on a city ballot measure in November that would replace the current Community Review Board on Police Practices with a commission empowered to conduct investigations and subpoena witnesses and documents in cases of civilian deaths by police.

When Briggs accused Elliott of bringing forward a competing proposal to the City Council to put on the ballot instead, the city attorney bristled at the claim while explaining that she was suggesting changes to strengthen the current Community Review Board.

“You’re either not telling the truth or you don’t get it,” Elliott told Briggs.

Briggs supported the ballot measure, and although Elliott abstained from commenting about it because her office writes the pro and con arguments for the official ballot, she strongly promoted civilian oversight of the police in general.

The discussion also got heated over another issue.

“As the first woman to lead this office and a Latina and mom, I’ll tell you, every woman politician hears this — ‘We don’t trust her. We don’t have confidence in her.’ That is just one of the oldest playbooks, and I’m tired of the misogyny that has come about through this campaign,” Elliott said.

“I don’t care about any aspect of you as a candidate except your performance as the city attorney,” Briggs responded. “The public’s entitled to know what you do well, and you’ll tell them. The public’s entitled to know what you did poorly, and I will tell them. This has nothing to do with misogyny.”

On other topics, both candidates supported bolstering successful programs to end homelessness as alternatives to criminal prosecution of wrongdoing resulting from living on the streets. Both candidates also backed strong legal actions against polluters.


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