The Lemon Grove election could shake up the power struggle-plagued council

Lemon Grove’s upcoming municipal council election will be in part a referendum on whether residents trust current leaders and their judgment, or whether they want new votes backed by vocal East County city critics.

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

The residents choose two favorites from five candidates. All registered voters should receive a ballot in the mail around October 10th and Election Day is November 8th.

Council members serve four-year terms and receive an annual salary of about $9,600, along with some other benefits.

The candidates include Blanca Lopez-Brown, the director of a daycare center, council member Jennifer Mendoza, who is running for re-election, and Alysson Snow, an attorney and law professor who has raised more money than any other candidate.

Several current Council 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 was often the center of controversy, frequently disrupting council meetings and verbally attacking colleagues over how they vote on the use of city funds. She has also publicly suggested the city’s scam without evidence and was arrested after her husband said she assaulted him.

LeBaron has denied violence and bullying, saying she is the real victim of harassment.

At the same time, the first-term councilor regularly promotes businesses in the area and responds personally to local residents’ concerns, earning her a base of support that helped her stave off a formal censure earlier this year.

The two candidates she supports, Heredia and Klein, distanced themselves from LeBaron’s methods and said they were not aware of any evidence of fraud, although each said they shared budget concerns.

“People wonder where their money is going because they look around the city and don’t see what’s most important,” Heredia said.

In interviews with all five candidates, most cited the dilapidated condition of many city streets as a top priority. Several also cited homelessness as a problem, as well as the need for greater economic development, and each considered the potential need for a sales tax.

Jennifer Mendoza

Jennifer Mendoza is the sole incumbent of the race.

Mendoza, a former city planning commissioner who was first elected in 2014, 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 penalize companies that sell tobacco to minors as some of her greatest accomplishments. As far as her regrets go, she said she should have supported a plan to bring more development downtown.

Looking ahead, Mendoza said the city should consider tightening rules on liquor licensing and banning single-serve liquor bottles, both of which she says could reduce public intoxication. She also raised the possibility of converting a lot on Broadway in a commercial area near a county health and human services department into a secure parking lot for the homeless.

Mendoza said she was open to a sales tax, but wanted each proposal to have an end date and a plan for using the money. She also acknowledged “huge, huge potential for improvement” in the way the city communicates with residents.

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

She raised nearly $7,000 through September, most of which was spent, according to her financial disclosure form. Her donors include several attorneys, Mayor Racquel Vasquez, former council member David Arambula and fellow Alysson Snow.

Stephanie Klein

Stephanie Klein knows how to talk to angry people.

According to her resume, while working for Millennium Health LLC, Klein took calls from clients who were upset about their medical bills. She said she’s gotten used to answering complex questions while building (and reassuring) rapport with clients, which could come in handy as a council member.

“We all need someone to call and get an answer from,” Klein said.

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

Klein does not consider a sales tax to be necessary. Instead, Lemon Grove needs to better invest the money already coming in and expedite the permitting process, she said.

All four challengers were asked about their weaknesses, and Klein was the only one with a specific answer: The first-time candidate said she doesn’t have a full understanding of how local government works, but looks forward to learning something.

Klein reported earnings as an independent contractor at Roots Real Estate, as well as some stock. According to financials, she raised more than $7,300 in the last month, with about $2,600 left over.

Jessyka Heredia

If you’ve seen a Lemon Grove council meeting from your home, you can thank Jessyka Heredia.

The 48-year-old began live-streaming public meetings with her phone earlier this year, and these videos are the only way to watch council members at work remotely. (The city put audio recordings online the day after.)

“There was a need for new leadership in my city” and “I felt passionate and called,” 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 prepares her to work with other businesses and nonprofit organizations to strengthen economic development.

The city needs to build resident confidence before introducing another sales tax proposal, she said.

Heredia raised more than $7,300, a little less than half of which was still available as of September, according to its most recent financial disclosure. Some of her campaign’s biggest gifts came from Heredia itself, while others came from frequent critics of the city, such as former council candidate Teresa Rosiak.

Alyson Snow

Snow’s legal work has attracted 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 the city council recognizes that we still have work to do to make our community what it needs to be,” she said. Leaders need to work with volunteers, churches and other organizations, especially with the looming recession, she said.

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

She said the council needs to communicate better with the community, especially if officials want to reintroduce a sales tax. Any proposal must include more detail about how money would be spent, she said

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

Snow raised more than $7,800, the most in the race, public records show. She received support from current councilors Mendoza and George Gastil, who is not standing for re-election, as well as other attorneys. Last month she had about $1,300 left over.

Blanca Lopez-Braun

Blanca Lopez-Brown brings experience in education and child care.

Lopez-Brown, a former member of the Lemon Grove School Board, 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,” said the 60-year-old.

Lopez-Brown said more should be done to increase revenue and hire more deputies. The city must court new businesses and share the cost of new projects with other organizations, much like the coalition that once helped the school board build a new library, she said.

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

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

Lopez-Brown reported income from the Lemon Grove Childcare Center, which she runs.

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

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