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By C. Jayden Smith

Candidates vying for one of three available City Council seats this November revealed how they would help businesses and promote tourism in San Clemente, while continuing to go over the goals they hope to accomplish while in office on Thursday night, Sept. 29.

Community members packed in the VIP room of the Outlets at San Clemente to hear the council hopefuls share their opinions on a host of subjects during the second forum of the election season that the Chamber of Commerce’s Business for a Better San Clemente committee led.

The Chamber’s pollical action committee (PAC) hosted the forum as part of its search for candidates to endorse in the election, which will be decided on Nov. 8.

Aaron Washington, Victor Cabral, Donna Vidrine, Thor Johnson, Shane Hirschman, Councilmember Steven Knoblock, Martina McBurney-Wheeler, Mark Enmeier, and Zhen Wu were present. Dennis Kamp was absent from the forum because of a family obligation.

Chanel Fetty, another candidate in the election, was not present. Ashley Williams, whose name will still appear on the ballot, confirmed to San Clemente Times on Thursday that she has withdrawn from the race.

During the forum, candidates were asked several questions, such as why they would be the best to work alongside the local business community; what their core values are; how they would balance their council work with their personal life; and what major accomplishment they would like to achieve if elected to the dais.

Responding to working with the local businesses, the candidates—some of whom noted that they have owned or operated small businesses themselves—said they recognized the importance of free enterprise and keeping businesses running in town.

McBurney-Wheeler, a campus supervisor at San Clemente High, highlighted the private sector’s importance to San Clemente by pointing to the sales tax revenue the city receives, which constitutes 17% of General Fund revenue in Fiscal Year 2022-2023.

The candidates agreed that the city needed to keep constant communication with its businesses, as the sector could play a significant role in determining what’s best for the city.

Washington, a deputy program manager who previously campaigned for local office in 2020, suggested lowering rents when necessary to keep stores in town. Hirschman, a content creation manager, said he favored adding businesses with cultural value, while Cabral, an attorney and businessman, emphasized ensuring safety for businesses and visitors downtown. 

The candidates were also asked to weigh in with their vision for travel and tourism in San Clemente, and to provide their opinion on what percentage, if any, should the city’s revenue collected from the Transient Occupancy Tax be allocated to promoting the town’s tourism industry.

McBurney-Wheeler said the city needed to first ensure public safety, adequate and safe lodging options, and sand replenishment efforts to retain beaches, which would lead to people feeling encouraged to spend time in town.

Wu, a former planning commissioner who also ran in 2020, claimed that only a small percentage of the city’s total revenue comes from tourism, and said there is room to grow revenue-wise without compromising the city’s character.

“We should be able to work with the Chamber of Commerce and tourism industry to run a campaign, possibly nationally, to promote tourism in San Clemente,” Wu said. “But, the industry has to be willing to come up and be a part of the program.”

According to the FY 2023 budget, the city projects TOT revenue—including taxes from vacation rentals—to amount to just north of $3 million. The city’s General Fund revenue this fiscal year is anticipated to reach nearly $76.6 million.

Enmeier, a San Clemente High history teacher, circled back to investing in the city’s infrastructure and beaches, using the adage “if we build it, they will come” to say visitors will want to come to a beautiful and functional town.

Cabral was concerned with public safety and using available land for both downtown workers and visitors to find parking.

Johnson, another 2020 council hopeful and local entrepreneur, said he would not support converting motels into homeless shelters, and that he would want to promote connecting residents to local businesses through year-round trolley services.

Asked what their opinion was on the city’s “regulatory process,” such as sign restrictions, parking requirements, hours of operation limits and noise limits being “too tough on business,” and whether they had any recommendations, the candidates supported allowing more signage that would be informative to potential customers and favored cutting bureaucratic red tape.

Knoblock, the incumbent who won his seat in a Special Election in 2020, said the city has been unfriendly to local businesses instead of being helpful.

Hirschman and Johnson also favored adding storefronts and events that would benefit the city but also balancing that notion with preserving environmental and historical standards.

In response to the question on their core values, Wu, a first-generation immigrant, described himself as a fiscally conservative family man who cares deeply for education and values diversity.

Vidrine, a nurse and business owner who ran in the Special Election against Knoblock and Wu, said those close to her would describe her as ethical, caring and intelligent. 

Family and faith were Cabral’s core values, but his favored principles included financial accountability, free market commerce, limited government, and educational opportunity.

Enmeier said his values included integrity and humility, and Johnson added that his family and friends would say he is a civil servant and a person who inspires others to live life to the fullest. 

Photos: Shawn Raymundo

Here’s how the candidates responded to the chamber’s other questions:

On dedicating time to city council work and balancing council obligations with personal life:

“I consider the City Council, for me, to be a full-time, unpaid position, so I’m committed to spending the time it takes to be an effective city councilmember,” Vidrine said. 

Wu cited his six years of experience on the Planning Commission and Design Review Subcommittee as evidence of his ability to dedicate time to the city, adding he planned to spend 20 hours weekly on matters relating to council business.

“I can work relatively efficiently and I read extensively,” he said. “I still have a small business I need to take care of, but I can put the hours into that task (of council work) and I feel that it would be appropriate and adequate.”

Washington pointed to his flexible work schedule and current schedule of spending numerous hours campaigning weekly in addition to personal matters as to why he will be able to handle both council and personal business well. 

“It’s not a problem,” he said. “I know how to multitask. A lot of my job is making decisions, and I can do that … I’m going to be invested.”

Hirschman emphasized the ability to find balance in life, despite candidates taking on a position that requires significant levels of interaction within the community.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown us that you can do a lot of work remotely, and I’m sure I can balance things out,” he said.

Along with Washington, Hirschman said that engaging with residents to get feedback on his performance would also be important to him.

Johnson said he would be able to dedicate 60 hours weekly to the city and its residents, stemming from the effort he put into building his own business to a steady point.

“Basically, all my leadership skills that I’ve developed over the past 10 years building my medical business are what I look forward to bringing to San Clemente residents and business owners,” he said.”

On the one major accomplishment candidates would like to achieve:

Vidrine said she would prioritize environmental stewardship and sustainability, and Johnson said he would most want people to remember his time on the council as a period of economic prosperity, in part because of his help.

McBurney-Wheeler said she would passionately strive to contract the city with new legal services by working with the city manager to send out a request for proposal (RFP) in the process.

“We want to bring those (legal) costs down, and the city could avoid a lot of this if they would follow some policy and stop breaking the law,” she claimed.

Fixing the streets, addressing homelessness, and extending trolley systems to improve San Clemente’s quality of life was what Enmeier wanted to impact.

“One of my major goals for the city is to infuse the city with millions and millions of dollars in grants from the federal government and the state government,” Enmeier said.

Wu’s ultimate goal was to preserve San Clemente’s small-town character for future generations.

On pledging to focus on San Clemente issues:

Washington said he would focus on local issues the city can control, as that was as far as he wanted to go.

Cabral said he would commit to local matters such as the parks, golf course, and beaches, but added that his national-level experiences would help the city.

“We can talk about resources coming in from the federal government, I’ve done that—for states, for businesses,” Cabral said. “I know how to do it, and I can do it for San Clemente, too.”

Knoblock said it was important to recognize that there are divisive issues facing California and the nation, and cited his efforts to get the council to approve a resolution imploring the state legislature to involve itself more in the election security process. He added that it was not divisive to stand up for what he believes is right.

“Clearly, issues are addressed at the state federal level,” he said. “We’re not ignoring local issues. We’re still talking about the streets, about public safety, about clean water, we’re doing all of that.”

Enmeier said he wanted the city to come together and focus on matters important to residents, and to leave national and state politics alone.

McBurney-Wheeler added that the city could make more progress and have more civility by not dealing with distractions.

On an issue within their platforms they have successfully addressed:

Knoblock spoke about his involvement in the city’s continued reduction of its unfunded pension liability and his suggestion to contribute more to the reduction process by allocating available funds within the city budget. He added that he has been a strong advocate for the Doheny Ocean Desalination project’s advancement.

McBurney-Wheeler mentioned her community activism that led to Amazon pulling its proposal to build a distribution center in town by bringing the matter to residents’ attention.

“We met with residents in the communities that would be affected,” she said. “We had meetings, we delivered signs, we did all of that to scare them off, because we’re not going to have that in San Clemente.”

Washington said he had decades of experience in the U.S. Navy with converting seawater into freshwater for the Navy’s use, which he could use along with his tour of Carlsbad’s desalination plant to bring the Doheny project for fruition to benefit San Clemente.

“My goal is to use my knowledge, my expertise to make sure we don’t get taken,” he said. “We have to be smart about how we enter (a potential agreement) and make sure that we’re not going to be held hostage when the cost of membranes go up.”

Cabral talked about attending a meeting in Talega on Sept. 21 that centered around recent burglaries within the neighborhood, and said he wanted to address resident safety by earning federal and state monies for law enforcement purposes.

Vidrine said she is passionate about providing affordable and supportive housing to the disabled, unhoused, and veteran populations of San Clemente, which is why she wanted to address the matter as part of the council.

“I have been the chair of the San Clemente Homeless Collaborative,” she said. “We have met pretty much monthly, and we educate ourselves and engage the community in changing the voice for compassionate but effective solutions for looping our homeless off the streets and into housing with services.”

During the forum, certain questions were posed only to a handful of the candidates. Near the end of the evening, the chamber gave each candidate the opportunity to respond to a question that they were not called on to answer earlier.

Washington commented on the topic of tourism and the transient occupancy tax, the latter of which few answered, saying that since the city receives a significant amount of revenue from property taxes, businesses should be protected from providing more tax dollars to San Clemente.

Vidrine said her easygoing nature would be conducive to difficult conversations within the council; Wu said his Planning Commission experience lent itself towards residents wanting to streamline the permitting process; and Knoblock said that the city should ease its spending and its tax burden on residents.

“I call it government-by-proxy, when we have to hire a consultant to literally make every decision for us,” Knoblock said. “We have department heads that are knowledgeable, and we need to give them the authority to make decisions, recommend decisions, and not be afraid to make a mistake.”

Cabral touched on using state resources to find a regional solution for homelessness in town, such as medical care and other services; Enmeier spoke to using respect and humility to have difficult conversations; and McBurney-Wheeler mentioned her activity in the city by referencing her consistent appearances at council meetings.

Johnson also said he had spoken out against potential developments that would affect San Clemente, and Hirschman said he would be approachable and focus on keeping beaches “pristine.”

To watch the full livestream of Thursday’s forum, visit the San Clemente Times’ Facebook page.

C. Jayden Smith

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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