It was exceptionally easy for Mark Kersey to score one of the city's most difficult jobs. In May 2011, the 36-year-old filled out a piece of paper, turned it in to the San Diego City Clerk's office and waited.
By June 2012, there were no other applicants and Kersey was "elected" with a 98.87-percent majority to serve as the next City Council member for District 5, which covers the Interstate 15 corridor from Scripps Ranch through Rancho Bernardo, as well as Rancho Encantada and San Pasqual. Although he was Carl DeMaio's chosen (some say anointed) Republican successor, Kersey indicates he won't be running his office in the divisive conservative's image. No more PowerPoint campaigns. No more 311 app. No more silent treatment for CityBeat.
Kersey sat with us for a half-hour interview in his as-yet-undecorated office at the end of his first week.
CityBeat: Bob Filner—friend or foe?
Mark Kersey: I think he's going to be a friend. I met with him yesterday, and he expressed interest in working with us, and, obviously, I have an interest in working with him. I want to see him succeed. If he doesn't succeed, that means the city's not succeeding. So, obviously, we're not going to agree on every issue, but I'm certainly prepared to work with him.
So, it's not the sort of thing where if he looks bad—like Obama's first term—maybe you can replace him in four years with someone else?
No, because that basically would be saying that the next four years would just be skirmishes to set up the next election, and that's not why I ran for office. I think one thing people expect out of local government compared to Washington and Sacramento is that they expect us to actually get things done. Me, as a business guy, I wouldn't be in this situation if I didn't want to get things done.
Back when you were elected in June, a lot of people were thinking that there was going to a Republican, conservative majority. The opposite happened. Has your game plan changed?
Not really. I mean our agenda in terms of what we're looking to do for the city is the same as it was before. The issues that I'm focused on—economic development, creating jobs, infrastructure, rebuilding the city, long-term water supply—these haven't changed. Maybe we have to work a little differently because we've got different people in here than what might've been, but the actual things that we're focused on are not going to change.
What will your constituents notice is different in terms of constituent services in comparison to your predecessor?
In terms of how you handle phone calls and requests and things like that, I'm not really sure that ours will be a ton different. I think [DeMaio] was pretty responsive to the needs of the communities that he represented. But certainly from a stylistic standpoint, he had a certain way of just conducting business. I think everybody in office does, and mine will be different.
Are we going to see you out and about, doing PowerPoint presentations?
Probably not. I don't really like PowerPoints, so probably not.
So what's going to happen with the 311 app?
That's a good question. That was a contract that Carl's office had with a private vendor and, at this point, I don't think we're going to renew it. Certainly, we're interested in having ways of using technology to respond to constituents and needs throughout the city, but that particular one, I don't think we're going to renew that.
It's a bit of a trek to come from your district up north all the way down to City Hall. So, satellite office?
Well, I don't think we really have the budget for that, unfortunately. Our budgets are pretty tight here on the 10th floor. I'm certainly going to be in the communities as often as I can. Obviously, we have staff members who are going to be out in the community, as well. It's possible we can do some office hours somewhere, but we're still kind of fleshing things like that out.
I razzed you a little bit on Twitter the other day when you complained about having to walk down the stairs at City Hall after the elevator broke. There is a real question, though: Are you going to play a leadership role in trying to get a new City Hall?
Well, I'm going to take a leadership role on infrastructure issues, and, to me, City Hall is pretty much another building that requires a lot of maintenance, right? The city has a lot of those. So, when you look at the broader picture of infrastructure, we have so many needs throughout the city—roads, streets, sidewalks, fire stations, storm drains, parks—there's so many things that the city needs to be investing in that we've frankly been neglecting for a long time. And I would say City Hall is on that list, but it's certainly not at the top of that list. There's no way I could go to someone in my district, or any other district, and say a new City Hall is a bigger priority than making sure that they have better roads to drive on, or better sidewalks that aren't cracked or storm drains that don't break and leak everywhere.
Do you want a new City Hall anyway?
Look, long term, yes. This building needs to be replaced, but on the details of when and how that happens, we're not even close to that.
Council President Todd Gloria is talking about a big bond proposal to deal with infrastructure. Is that something that gets you excited, or is that something that you dread a little bit?
I'm very interested in infrastructure, but from my perspective, we're not looking at the financing side of it yet. The reason is because we view it as a three-step process. First, you have to streamline the process by which you actually make infrastructure investments, and the city's already started doing that. The second is you have to identify and prioritize the actual investments that you want to make. Right now, the city does not have a five-year plan for infrastructure investment. Without some kind of concerted strategy, there's no way you can just blindly go out and start paving this road here and that road there, which is basically what the city's done. So, we need a plan that's prioritized based on the needs of the neighborhoods, something that relies on community feedback. We're not going to dictate it from City Hall. We're going to rely on community feedback to figure out what people actually want to see in their neighborhoods. And then we get to the financing part, because the reality is you can't figure out the financing until you know the full scope of the problem and what it's going to cost you to fix it. We know that it's at least $900 million. The reality is it's probably more because some of those studies that helped produce that number are not real current.
Are there any non-starters for you as far as financing goes?
No, I think at this point we're early enough in the process that everything is on the table, and we'll just have to see what the best options are.
DeMaio didn't have to make a lot of controversial land-use decisions, but as the economy recovers, growth is something that's going to come up. How would you balance out the business interests in terms of development in your communities versus what residents would like to see?
I think you're right. As the economy recovers, we will start to see more projects, but, I think, generally speaking, that's a good thing. We want to see economic growth because it creates more jobs. It's more people working, which we all want. Ultimately, it results in more tax revenue for the city organically, which is, again, something I think we all want. In terms of balancing that, I think you have to do it case-by-case. I don't think you can really have a blanket policy of "We're going to always support this, never support that." These projects tend to be so unique that you really have to evaluate them on their own merits, so that's going to be my approach.
What kind of things would you consider, and how would you go about approaching the community?
Certainly, you're going to get feedback from the people who are around whatever you're talking about, so we'll obviously take that into account. You look at the greater needs of the community: Are they lacking a supermarket here, or have too many of whatever over there? You take a holistic view of it, as well, so it's kind of balancing a few of those different ways of looking at it.
A resident from Rancho Bernardo told me the community is very concerned with the 34-acre recreational land deficit they have at the moment. To deal with it, many want the city to buy a 10-acre parcel from the Poway Unified School District. Is that something the city should be doing?
Well, you know, in an ideal world, yes. But the city doesn't have the money to do that right now, and regardless of what the school district wants, what their appraisal says, what everybody else's appraisal says, it doesn't to some extent matter, because the city doesn't have millions of dollars lying around as much as I personally wish that we did. We're going to have to figure out a way to work with the school district. That's actually a project that's in my neighborhood, where I live, and I would like to see it—as I believe most people in the neighborhood would like to see it—remain open space, ideally a park, but at least open space.
What about increasing public safety in your district, getting another fire station maybe or more patrol cars?
I would like to see us invest in more public safety. We've got to be strategic in how we do it. I don't know that we necessarily need a new fire station, but it would be nice. In the CityGate report, there's these kinds of mobile-response units that they had talked about. Considering that 99 percent of the calls that Station 33 in Rancho Bernardo gets are medical in nature, rather than fire, I would be supportive of some more of these roving medical patrol units, as it were, that could rapidly respond as the situation dictates. A new fire station costs roughly 12 million bucks just to build and equip, and then, of course, you have to staff it, and so, there are a lot of areas in town that could probably use more investment. But, again, all these are competing for prioritization, and that goes back into the infrastructure. That's something where we don't have a master plan of how we're going to deal with this, and we need to have one.
We're looking at one, perhaps two open seats on the Port Commission. What are you looking for in candidates?
I think you want people who are open-minded and willing to work with the various stakeholders. You've got the tenants, you've got labor, you've got the actual property owners. You've got different government agencies and corporations that are concerned. So, I think you need people who have the ability to build coalitions, as it were. Ideally, some people would have some kind of private-sector expertise—not everybody has to, but at least a good amount of people who do.
U-T San Diego would like to see the port just gone. Is that a reasonable move?
No. I don't think we're going to get rid of the Port Commission. I believe it's actually state law that established it, so I don't think that we're going to be getting rid of it.
There was a question that you asked frequently on the campaign trail: "Does City Hall really need to be in the business of running golf courses and airports?" Golf courses I understand, but the airports—that's a little bit different. If not the city, who should be running the airports?
Well, we have an Airport Authority, so we could certainly talk to them. I don't know if they would want to or not, but, to me, that would be a natural place to at least start a conversation. I don't know. This is one of those things that we're looking into. There's not necessarily an easy solution, but ultimately I want a city that focuses on doing fewer things really well, rather than a whole lot of things not very well. To me, that's just making government work better for everybody.
Are you the city's new beer champion?
[Laughs.] I would like to think so, yes. It's not just because I enjoy frequenting these great craft breweries as a customer, although I certainly am happy to support them and do. This is a great industry for San Diego. I mean, we are essentially becoming akin to Napa Valley. As Napa is for wine, we're becoming that for beer, for craft beer in particular. To me, that's a great thing. It brings people in, they're spending money, we've got this growing brew-tech industry that's winning international awards. I mean, Ballast Point winning great awards, Stone winning awards. I know Mayor [Jerry] Sanders was successful in speeding up some of the permitting and things like that to help these companies thrive. I would certainly look to do that, as well.
What's your favorite beer?
Well, it's hard to go wrong with [Ballast Point] Sculpin. I definitely enjoy some Sculpin, but I also like [Ballast Point] Victory at Sea.
In your inauguration speech, you were expressing a keen interest in water supply. Indirect potable reuse—go!
I've been to the city's demonstration plant, took the tour. They wouldn't let me drink any water, but I think IPR, desalination and purple pipe, to me, it's kind of all parts of a three-legged stool. You're not going to rely exclusively on any of these. Ultimately, our needs are too great; not one of these alone can solve all of our problems. So, you come up with this kind of three-pronged strategy, and, of course, the fourth leg of it, as it were, is conservation. The citizens of this city have done a remarkable job in cutting their water usage. You look at my district: We've got a lot of large industrial users, we've got some golf courses and, of course, you have residents. People are concerned about property values. Long term, are businesses going to leave if we don't have a reliable source of water? Are we going to have trouble attracting businesses to come here if they don't believe that they can get the water they need? So, we really need to be working on this. It's a quality of life issue, it's an economic issue and it's something we all have to be focused on.
Are there homeless people in your district?
Yeah, there are some. Obviously, it's not the problem that it is in other districts. But, yeah, when I'm driving around Carmel Mountain Ranch, I'll see people kind of in the medians of the streets.
Poverty isn't an issue we really associate with your district, but the Center on Policy Initiatives has launched a campaign to "Make Poverty a Priority." Is poverty a priority for you?
It certainly is. Homelessness, to me, is a moral issue. I mean, it's also an economic issue because you have to ultimately provide services to people who we can, frankly, be giving better care to, in terms of treatment rather than having them go to the emergency room and everything else, but, yeah, this is a moral issue. I mean, some large percentage, and it depends on who you talk to, because it's hard to know exactly, but some large percentage of San Diego's homeless are military veterans. To me, that's a real failure that we've got people coming back from serving our country abroad, and then we kind of let them fall into that. It's a complex issue. Obviously, some people are dealing with substance-abuse issues, some people are dealing with PTSD. There clearly aren't easy solutions, because if there were, they would've been done by now.
Would you be on board with a living-wage increase or expanding it to other types of workers?
Generally speaking, I would prefer to focus on attracting employers here who are bringing good jobs. We've got a lot of jobs at the high end—software engineers and people like that who have a very specialized skill set. And then we've got tourism, service-sector jobs—that's kind of another big facet. And in the middle, we have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs and other jobs that people could grow into and eventually would get them in a position where they were doing pretty well. So, I would prefer that the city focus on how we're going to bring more employers here who are going to bring some of those middle-class jobs, because I think that's what we're lacking.
Where were you during the vote to oppose Citizens United the other day?
I had a meeting come up.
How would you have voted?
You know, I'm not sure. That's a good question.
Generally speaking, I don't like the City Council weighing in on issues that we have no direct control over. My hope is that we can avoid these kinds of issues that aren't doing a single thing to reform or rebuild the city or do any of the things that people who voted for us expect us to do. If people want to play political games and what not, I suggest they go to Sacramento or Washington.
Awhile back, you told Voice of San Diego that you would post your calendars online. Can I have your first week's calendar?
I don't see why not. [Download it right here!]
Last question: What do you want for Christmas?
[Long pause.] When I think about Christmas, I usually think about it from the standpoint of what am I getting my son, so in terms of what I want, I want the people on this floor and the floor above me [the Mayor's office] to put whatever election things were there, put them in the past and get going for 2013.
If somebody were going to get you CDs or DVDs?
I'm sure there's a few Nirvana CDs I don't have. I have most of the big ones, but I could use some of the lesser ones. DVDs? I could really use Game of Thrones on Blu-ray. That would be great.