During a contentious mayoral race in Escondido in 2014, I wrote an article about Olga Diaz. She was the Deputy Mayor of Escondido at the time and she wanted to bring her brand of social justice and action to the City in which she chose to reside and which she has represented for 12 years.
She did not win that race; but she continued to fight for the residents of Escondido and won re-election to her third term in 2018. Now, she has her sights set on the County Supervisor seat and replacing its current occupant, Republican, Kristin Gaspar.
We recently spent two hours together to discuss her decision to run for the County Board of Supervisors, her ideas for representing the districts 600,000+ residents, and how she will manage one of the most diverse districts in the County which is often-times described as “gerrymandered.”
In those two hours, it became very clear to me – and hopefully to you when you’ve finished reading this article – Olga Diaz is the only choice to fill the County Supervisor seat. She continues to be smart, thoughtful, innovative, conservative (perhaps moderate is a better word), and well-prepared for the challenges which will face the next occupant of the seat.
I began at the beginning. (After all, Julie Andrews told us “it’s a very good place to start.”) I asked Olga why she wants to be a County Supervisor.
“When my term is finished in 2020, I will have served on the Escondido City Council for 12 years,” she began. “In that time, I have gained the expertise in local government issues that only comes from experience. I now know more about sewer systems, road repaving, public finance, public safety, housing, general plans, plan amendments, zoning, and density than I thought I ever would.”
“These issues might not be clear and obvious for most people,” she continued, “but as a policy maker, it is important for us to learn about all of these issues and make them accessible to people. The expertise which I have gained from 12 years in local government has value and it’s a value which I can bring to the County Board of Supervisors. I believe I have helped the City of Escondido to navigate through some difficult and complex issues; I believe I can do the same for the people of Escondido at the County level.”
A little about the district
County District Three, which includes Escondido, is oddly shaped. While some people call it “gerrymandered,” the composition of the district was always a point of debate between former Supervisors Bill Horn and Pam Slater-Price. Famously, Slater-Price negotiated with Horn and gave up Rancho Santa Fe to have incorporated Escondido in the district.
Today, the district begins along the coast (from Torrey Pines to the Carlsbad/Leucadia border), shifts directly to the East, picking up Escondido in the north, and heads down Interstate 15 to the Grantville area, staying north of Highway 8.
There are urban areas, coastal areas, rural areas and much more encompassed in the district. I asked Olga how she was planning on coordinating and working with all the diverse areas.
“The District has 600,000 residents, with 326,000 voters. The first thing people say when I show them a map of the district is ‘This is gerrymandered’ and it’s absolutely true; I verified that,” she explained. “With the number of different areas which make up the district, I believe I have the expertise to handle all of those areas.”
“I have large portion of the coast in my District – Torrey Pines area and the cities of Encinitas, Cardiff, Leucadia, and Solana Beach,” she continued. “I was a member of the Coastal Commission and I spent a lot of time traveling up and down the state learning about coastal issues, learning about Local Coastal Programs (LCPs), sea level rise, beach and bluff erosion; all those things which affect the coastal cities.”
“I also have experience in rural areas. Escondido has a large agricultural area and we have a lot of open space,” she explained. “I have learned from experience the threats of wildfire and back country issues. Along with dealing with the urban nature of Escondido, I believe I have a well-rounded level of knowledge and expertise to be able to navigate the different areas of the district.”
“And,” she added, “the district is comprised of 1/3 Democrat voters, 1/3 No Party Preference voters, and 1/3 Republican voters. It is a ‘baby blue’ district and I have a reputation for being a moderate council member in Escondido and I will continue to be moderate at the County. The residents of District Three want and need a moderate voice who will be conservative with their taxpayer dollars. The County has a budget of 6.3 Billion – with a ‘b’ – dollars and while there are areas the County can spend their budget more wisely, there is always a need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
What will you be doing anyway?
The biggest obstacle for most people who run for the County Board of Supervisors is the public’s lack of knowledge of the job. What does the County of San Diego do? The County is, first and foremost, the local agent to implement Federal and State programs. The funding for many of these programs comes directly from these two agencies and, often times, the dollars received are locked into a particular program. The County is also responsible for running the jails, the Sheriff’s Department, staffing Courts, maintaining records (birth certificates, death certificates, land titles, etc.); the 6.3-billion-dollar budget seems justified.
A Supervisor comes into office with their own ideas and their own goals to transform the County into a better place for their constituents. I asked Olga what her goals for the job are and how they may or may not mesh with the Federal and State programs she would be charged with maintaining.
“There are three areas which I want to focus on, although there are 100s of areas which need attention,” she began. “Health and Human Services, in particular addressing homelessness and crisis response, housing, and climate change.”
Health and Human Services
“Crisis happens for people at 5pm, Monday through Friday; and on the weekends; and on holidays,” Olga began. “We currently do not have 24/7 crisis support teams available in the county.” This does not set well with the Council member, who has experience working with social services and health and human services; she was on staff of Interfaith Community Services, a service provider to people in crisis from a variety of different circumstances.
“Clearly this is an area that needs help and it will take someone to get in there,” Olga explained, “and say, ‘Show me how this works,’ and identify the gaps; fix the fractures within the system. The solution for homelessness and social services is not ‘one size fits all’ and I want to work on this issue.”
The County is solely responsible for providing Health and Human Services, along with Public Health, and the homeless crisis needs addressing. “There are limits to what we can do,” says Olga. “There are no laws which would allow us to take more direct action with homeless individuals, and we need to work with State and Federal lawmakers to put these laws on the books, to allow us to interact and intervene with the more obvious, crisis cases.”
“We’re missing entry-level housing stock. There used to be an entry-level product which would be priced affordably and allow for new, first-time home buyers to enter the market. It seems we’ve lost the ability to manufacture these homes. We don’t need more McMansions; we have a glut of those already,” says Olga. “We need to figure out how to incentivize the entry-level product so developers will be willing to build these types of homes. This will allow young professionals to live closer to their jobs.”
This is a more important factor than one might think. The estimates show the County of San Diego, within the next 20 years, will experience an influx of another one million people. And these number do not account for our children coming of age and wanting to find housing for their new families. The time is now to begin working on this solution while keeping in mind the effects our decisions have on the environment and our quality of life.
“People have become accustomed to looking for pretty new homes in Temecula and Murrieta,” she laments. “They find homes which are new and smell nice and appear to be perfect for the price, but they do not calculate the cost of time spent commuting, the price of gas or maintenance on their vehicles. And, they certainly don’t include the cost to the environment in their calculations.”
To this point, I brought up an old trope pushed around by former City Council member Ed Gallo. He used to say the developers needed to continue to build the McMansion-style homes because there was, in his words, a natural progression of home buyers to keep moving up a level in their homes. And, when they moved, that opened up their home for someone looking to move up to that level.
“The concept of putting in some ‘sweat equity’ has been lost,” she says. “We have homes which are available locally, but they aren’t as pretty and packaged as homes in other places. We need to recapture the spirit of reinvestment in our neighborhoods. We need to focus on restoring and rehabbing older housing stock; to figure out a way to do rehab and infill projects so the houses are desirable here.”
“The county’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) has been sued in court and found to be deficient; I think it’s morally deficient,” begins Olga on the topic of climate change. The latest action on the County’s CAP was in December of 2018, when a judge ordered the entire document to be set aside and redone. The County of San Diego, and particularly the Board of Supervisors, have had trouble adopting climate action plans which seriously address issues of climate change.
“The CAP and the General Plan, are not feasible for the county,” she says. “For example, increased density is placed in Borrego Springs, where it shouldn’t be placed. I want to redo the CAP and the General Plan for the County; I want it to be done and be updated to address renewables and the climate action goals the County should have.”
Along with the CAP, Olga wants the county to get serious about increasing its sources of renewable energy. “Solar is obvious, but we need more energy diversification – we need solar along with hydro and wind,” she says. “I know some people have a problem with wind turbines; I don’t. I don’t think they look all that bad. We need to add wind energy to our energy sourcing, along with hydroelectric power. I use Lake Wohlford, in Escondido, as an example.”
The Lake Wohlford dam was built in 1896, 8 years after the incorporation of the City of Escondido, and at the base of the dam, a 1.7 MegaWatt (MW) hydroelectric generator continues to produce a small amount of power for the City. “We need to look at projects like the generator at Lake Wohlford and expand them to create more electricity for our County,” Olga suggests.
The County of San Diego does have one hydroelectric generator along Interstate 15 in the Mira Mesa area. The 4.5 MW generator helps the San Diego County Water Authority offset a portion of its energy use and the generator is in operation year-round. The County is also looking at unlocking the static energy in its San Vincente Reservoir by adding a hydroelectric generator at the outflow of the damn and then pumping the water back up into the reservoir, using a very small amount of the generated energy. This way, the water will be working to provide energy while it waits to be moved out into the system.
Olga also sees the need for the County to take more steps in reducing our consumption and Green House Gases (GHG). “I’ve been saying this for years: We need to plant more trees. We need trees everywhere,” begins Olga. “There shouldn’t be empty pieces of public land. Trees clean so much CO2 out of the air. Vacant lands should be planted in a sensible way, with native trees, that can help us clean the air.”
And to those who say the maintenance of the trees is a prohibiting factor, Olga says, “OK. We can maintain the trees and we should maintain the trees because the trees are helping to maintain us.”
In our next article, I’ll cover my discussion with Olga about grey water systems, sea level rise, redistricting after the 2020 Census, and helping local jurisdictions get out of their own way.