In what was her final State of the City address, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox on Feb. 25 discussed the educational climate in the city, provided an update of the city’s financial future and showed her support for Chula Vista’s fire chief, who recently received a vote of no confidence by the firefighters’ union.
At the forefront of her speech, Cox cited a need to fix the embattled Sweetwater Union High School District, a district she said that “continues to affect Chula Vista’s reputation and our students’ future.”
The former educator said community members would often ask for assistance to step in helping cleanup the district, but she cited because of jurisdiction she decided to abstain from getting involved.
However, she said now it is time for her to take action.
“But, I am done watching poor governance get worse, and I am compelled to confront Sweetwater’s current problems through my ability to convene community members in constructive conversation,” she said. “The majority of Sweetwater’s students are Chula Vistans. Most of its school and its administration offices are here, so it’s clear the district is an asset that reflects on perceptions of our city.”
She said that the Sweetwater District must put education first and end its bullying on the dais, so it can focus on restoring its “tarnished reputation.”
The mayor admitted addressing Sweetwater’s issues would not be an easy task.
She said when the district is re-formed in November she will pressure the district to seek a full audit as a new beginning and make public the district’s true financial condition.
Sweetwater board member John McCann said in a text message that the Sweetwater District has been making progress in cleaning up its act.
“As the district’s newest elected board member I have been fighting for ethics and transparency,” McCann’s text read.
“We have made significant strides in cleaning up the district since I took office. The voters deserve the right to choose who will fill the vacant seat on the board and thankfully they will have that chance in November.”
Cox said the potential of having new faces on the dais could bring change to the largest secondary school district in California.
“With a new board comes the hope of fair and effective governance. With a new superintendent comes hope of a new beginning. We’ve turned things around at city hall in the face of dire circumstances. The same can be done at Sweetwater,” the mayor said.
Cox continued the education theme when she spoke about Councilwoman Mary Salas’ proposal to unify the elementary and high schools in the area.
While Cox said she doesn’t completely disagree with the unification idea, she said it doesn’t seem like a good fit to merge the academic success of the Chula Vista Elementary School District with Sweetwater’s bad track record.
In response to Cox’s critique about school unification, Salas said she and Cox have different visions for fixing the school system.
“I think that she has a difference of opinion on school reformation, but the both of us want to see something changed dramatically in our schools,” Salas said.
Salas, who is a mayoral candidate in the upcoming election, said she welcomed Cox’s comments about unification because it brings community dialogue on the issue.
Switching the focus to the city’s financial future, Cox said Chula Vista has remained “resilient” during the financial crisis that has seen the loss of jobs for city staff, a cut in city services and the consolidation of departments.
She said Chula Vista continues to make progress on the financial end, but that there is still a ways to go in improving the city’s finances.
Recently, she said, City Council had learned that there was more work to be done to replenish the city’s reserve funds, after the finance department discovered that the reserve funds were lower than had been reported in 2006.
She said last year her goal was to boost the reserve funds to 11 percent, the recent finding are a setback, she said.
She said if the city is cautious, it can get to nine or 10 percent in reserves before the end of the year.
Ultimately, Cox said, it is up to the voters to secure the financial future for the city.
“But it’s up to you the voters, to elect a Mayor and council who put the city’s financial health first and not make promises that can’t be kept,” she said.
Jason Paguio, the Vice Chair of the Cultural Arts Commission for the city of Chula Vista, and a city council candidate, said Cox was the right person to guide the city during the economic downfall.
“She was a very successful mayor, “ Paguio said. “She was the right mayor at the right time.”
Cox then highlighted the financial achievements of the city by settling contracts with three of its non-safety public bargaining units last year, which gave wage increases to union members for the first time in six years.
She said the fire union is making negotiations “unnecessarily personal” when the union issued a vote of no confidence for Fire Chief Dave Hanneman.
Cox said the Vote of No Confidence is a bargaining tactic by the union and that she fully supports Hanneman.
“Tonight, I reaffirm my confidence in Fire Chief Hanneman and hope negotiations can move beyond this episode and toward a mutually productive conclusion based on facts, not opinions, and the work that needs to be done better to serve our residents,” Cox said.
John Hess, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2180, said the vote of no confidience has nothing to do with labor negotiations.
“Unfortunately, the Fire Fighters Association believes that this shows how out of touch the mayor is on these issues,” Hess said.
“Despite the Vote of No Confidence,the Fire Fighters Association have continued to keep the lines of communication open with the city, including asking for mediation at last week’s council meeting.”
Hess added that the city’s own negotiating team knows the fire union is not “blurring the lines between the Vote of No Confidience and labor negotiations.
He said the union has not walked away from the bargaining table.
Hess also said that he feels the issue with the union and fire fighters should not have been addressed in her speech.
“The mayor can do what she wants, however, I don’t believe a State of the City is where this should have been put,” he said.
Voters elected Cox as Chula Vista’s 39th Mayor in 2006.