Lemon Grove election could shake up infighting council

The upcoming Lemon Grove council election will be partly a referendum on whether residents trust current leaders and their judgment, or whether they want new voices backed by vocal critics of the East County town.

Two seats are up for grabs on the five-member board, which oversees an $18 million budget. At least one will go to a newcomer as longtime council member Jerry Jones has decided not to run again.

Residents will choose two favorites from five candidates. All registered voters are expected to receive a mail-in ballot around October 10 and Election Day is November 8.

Council members serve four-year terms and are paid approximately $9,600 per year, plus a few other benefits.

Candidates include Blanca Lopez-Brown, the director of a child care center, council member Jennifer Mendoza, who is running for re-election, and Alysson Snow, a lawyer and law professor who has raised more money than any other candidate .

Several current board members support the latter two financially.

In contrast, small business owner Jessyka Heredia and real estate agent Stephanie Klein were endorsed by council member Liana LeBaron.

LeBaron has often been at the center of controversy, frequently disrupting council meetings and verbally attacking his colleagues over how they vote to spend city funds. She also publicly suggested, without evidence, that the city had committed fraud and was arrested after her husband said he assaulted her.

LeBaron denied the violence and bullying and said she was the real victim of the harassment.

At the same time, the first-term council member regularly promotes area businesses and personally addresses residents’ concerns, earning a base of support that helped her fend off an official censure earlier this year.

The two candidates she backs, Heredia and Klein, distanced themselves from LeBaron’s methods and said they were unaware of evidence of fraud, though each said they shared concerns about the budget.

“People wonder where their money is going because they look around town and they don’t see the things that are being done that are most important,” Heredia said.

In interviews with all five candidates, most cited the dilapidated state of many of the city’s roads as a top priority. Many also cited homelessness as a concern as well as a need for more economic development, and each weighed in on the potential need for a sales tax.

Jennifer Mendoza

Jennifer Mendoza is the sole holder of the race.

A former planning commissioner first elected in 2014, Mendoza said the council needed someone with her institutional knowledge.

“I love what I do and I think my experience adds value to the city,” she said.

The 67-year-old cited her successful efforts to ban alcohol in city parks and punish businesses selling tobacco to minors as one of her biggest accomplishments. As for regrets, she said she should have supported a plan to bring more development to the city center.

Looking ahead, Mendoza said the city should consider increasing liquor licensing regulations and banning single-use liquor bottles, which she says could reduce public drunkenness. She also raised the possibility of turning land off Broadway, in a commercial area near a county health and human services office, into a safe parking space for the homeless.

Mendoza said she was open to a sales tax, but wanted any proposal to come with an end date and a plan for how to spend the money. She also acknowledged “huge, huge room for improvement” for how the city communicates with residents.

Mendoza is a retired paralegal and the main income she reported was her spouse’s salary through the United Food and Commercial Workers union. She also owns a rental property.

She raised nearly $7,000 in September, most of which has been spent, according to her financial disclosure form. His donors include several lawyers, Mayor Racquel Vasquez, former council member David Arambula and candidate Alysson Snow.

Stephanie Klein

Stephanie Klein knows how to talk with angry people.

While working for Millennium Health LLC, Klein fielded calls from clients unhappy with their medical bills, according to her resume. She said she’s gotten used to answering complex questions while building rapport with (and calming) clients, which could come in handy as a board member.

“We all need someone we can call and get an answer,” Klein said.

Klein, 41, is now a real estate agent who regularly volunteers in the community, and she said the council needed a new perspective on an “old way of thinking”. Residents want leaders to spend more time supporting and promoting events in the city, she said.

Klein does not believe that a sales tax is necessary. Instead, Lemon Grove needed to better invest the money already received and speed up the permitting process, she said.

The four challengers were asked what their weaknesses were, and Klein was the only one with a specific answer: the first contestant said she didn’t fully understand how local government works, but was eager to learn.

Klein reported income as an independent contractor with Roots Real Estate, as well as some stock. She raised more than $7,300 last month, with about $2,600 remaining, according to Financial Reporting.

Jessyka Heredia

If you watched a Lemon Grove council meeting from home, you can thank Jessyka Heredia.

The 48-year-old started livestreaming town hall meetings with her phone earlier this year, and those videos are the only way to watch council members at work from a distance. (The city posts audio recordings online the next day.)

“There was a need in my city for new leadership” and “I felt a passion and a call,” she said of her candidacy.

Heredia owns Hair Suite It Is, a hair salon in El Cajon, and is also a regular volunteer. She said her role as a business owner has prepared her to partner with other businesses and nonprofits to support economic development.

The city needed to improve trust with residents before another sales tax proposal was introduced, she said.

Heredia has raised more than $7,300, with just under half still in hand as of September, according to its latest financial disclosure. Some of her campaign’s biggest giveaways have come from Heredia itself, while others have come from frequent critics of the city, such as former council candidate Teresa Rosiak.

Alysson Snow

Snow’s legal work has received national attention.

As an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Snow, 48, helped fight a type of energy loan that can hurt low-income homeowners. She was interviewed by VICE and the Legal Aid Society was featured on John Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight”.

“Every member of city council recognizes that we still have a long way to go in building our community to what it needs to be,” she said. Leaders needed to partner with volunteers, churches and other organizations, especially with the threat of a recession, she said.

Snow speaks Spanish and is now a law professor at the University of San Diego.

She said the council needs to do a better job of communicating with the community, especially if officials want to reintroduce a sales tax. Any proposal had to come with more details on how the money would be spent, she said.

Snow reported income from Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit law firm, and Snow Productions, her husband’s construction company.

Snow raised more than $7,800, the highest amount of the race, according to public records. She has received support from current board members Mendoza and George Gastil, who is not eligible for re-election, as well as other attorneys. He had about $1,300 left last month.

Blanca Lopez-Brown

Blanca Lopez-Brown brings her background in parenting and childcare.

A former Lemon Grove school board member, Lopez-Brown said her leadership there helped create a workplace where leaders could civilly disagree.

“We’re so divided right now,” but council members “have the same desires for our community,” the 60-year-old said.

Lopez-Brown said more should be done to raise revenue to hire more sheriff’s deputies. The city needed to woo new businesses and share the costs of new projects with other organizations, similar to the coalition that once helped the school board build a new library, she said.

Lopez-Brown added that she would need more time to study the budget before knowing if a sales tax was necessary.

The contestant has lived in the Lemon Grove area since 2000 and purchased a home in the city in 2019, she said. She ran for a seat on the San Diego City Council in 2013, and later led an effort to exempt some small businesses from minimum wage increases. Both efforts were unsuccessful.

Lopez-Brown reported earnings from the Lemon Grove Childcare Center, which she directs.

She raised more than $4,400 and recently had about $500 left, records show. Lopez-Brown gave his own campaign about half of his total.

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