Temecula voters recently cast a series of split decisions at the polls.
Voters rejected one incumbent council member as they returned another to office. Meanwhile, the outcome of a proposed sales tax increase continues to hang in the balance.
Mayor Mike Naggar won a fifth term on the City Council, easily outdistancing eight other candidates in the crowded race. Challenger James “Stew” Stewart fended off the rest of the field for the second open seat. In doing so, the longtime business owner ousted appointed incumbent Michael McCracken.
The outcome of the hotly-contested council race emerged soon after the close of the polls Nov. 8. But for a week afterward, the outcome of a bid to dramatically boost the city’s share of its sales tax receipts remains too close to call.
Measure S – intended to pump $23 million a year into the city’s coffers – appeared to be heading for a defeat after all the election precincts were counted. But then the outcome reversed itself after a large batch of uncounted absentee, provisional and damaged ballots was tallied.
The results of a subsequent ballot count were to be announced as this story went to the printers. The weeklong span between Election Day and the official results has made the race the closest to ever play out in the fast-growing city.
Proponents of Measure S outspent their foes by a vast margin. The current council cast a unanimous vote to put the tax measure on the ballot, and all of its current members had endorsed its passage.
Tax measure a toss up
Measure S called for a 1 percent sales tax increase. Proponents said the new revenue stream is needed to preserve the city’s high quality of life. The revenues would cover an anticipated future budget gap and be spent on police, fire, public works, planning and a range of other services.
Foes labeled the measure a “political money grab” and warned that its passage could prompt new businesses to locate outside the city.
The Yes on S Committee raised $12,200 for their outreach effort through Sept. 24, according to the latest financial disclosure documents filed with the city. Foes of the measure said they expected to spend $1,000 or less on their signs and other materials.
Election returns that were released after all the voting precincts were counted showed Measure S had been defeated by a mere 170 votes. But those returns were tempered by a county advisory that a vast number of absentee, provisional and damaged ballots had yet to be tallied.
A wave of new results reversed that outcome and Measure S was seen as passing by 311 votes. That margin represented just a sliver of the nearly 29,500 counted Temecula voters who had marked their ballots one way or another on the measure.
But that outcome might change yet again. At the close of last week’s processing efforts, election officials said another 205,000 absentee, provisional and damaged ballots that were collected from across the county still needed to be processed.
The seesaw state of the Measure S election left some city officials reluctant to speculate on its outcome. Temecula’s voter base represents about 5 percent of the countywide total. As a result, another tally could again tip the scale in such a close election.
Mayor Naggar said in a post-election email that the council would likely regroup in February if Measure S loses. That is when the council will examine revenues and expenditures at the halfway point of the current fiscal year. A longer look ahead would be done when the budgeting process starts about that time for the upcoming fiscal year, he said.
“Regardless of the result, it appears the community is divided on the issue so we will have to navigate both sides,” he said. “Nothing in Temecula is ‘free,’ and everything we spend our money on is what the citizens want.”
Greg Butler, assistant city manager, echoed that perspective in a Saturday afternoon telephone interview. He characterized his outlook as “cautiously optimistic” after voter support had rebounded for Measure S.
One incumbent in, one out
In the council race, Naggar captured 29 percent of the votes cast to further extend his council tenure. James “Stew” Stewart snared 17.2 percent, enough to notch his first win in three bids for the council.
Their closest contenders – Adam Ruiz and Ron Bradley – each netted more than 11 percent of the votes cast. The nine-candidate field was believed to be the largest in Temecula’s nearly 27-year history as a city.
Naggar, a development consultant, led the pack in collecting campaign donations with more than $57,000 raised by the close of the last pre-election reporting period.
The other incumbent, Michael McCracken, was vulnerable because he was appointed to a vacant seat in April 2015. McCracken, a city parks commissioner for seven years, ran his first race for public office.
McCracken finished sixth with nearly 8 percent of the votes cast. His defeat earned him a notch as just the third incumbent – along with Sam Pratt and Karel Lindemans – to have lost an election bid since Temecula became a city in December 1989.
Conversely, Stewart will join an elite field, becoming just the 15th person to serve on Temecula’s council over the city’s history.
Stewart, who owns a string of barber shops, unsuccessfully ran for the council in 2006 and 2008. Then he switched his political focus and won a seat on the Rancho California Water District governing board. He served one term from 2011 to 2015.
Stewart did not accept or receive any campaign donations, according to his disclosure forms. He expected to spend less than $2,000 of his own money on his campaign.
He attributed his victory to his name recognition, his 25 years as a city resident and the close connections he forged over that period. He said the large field of candidates likely aided him by diluting the vote.
Stewart campaigned against Measure S. He had misgivings over certain provisions, including its lack of a sunset clause. He wants the city to drill down on its existing priorities and programs. He said the city should wring some cuts out of its budget before it goes to the voters seeking a tax increase.
“I think there’s more to do,” Stewart said. He predicted that his vast business experience would help the city chart its next steps if the sales tax measure ultimately goes down to defeat.
Stewart also predicted that he may be a lone voice in some key growth-related decisions that the council will make over the next few years.
He has repeatedly cited concerns over traffic congestion and what he perceives as other erosions in the city’s quality of life. Those misgivings, Stewart said, could prompt him to oppose high-density housing projects.
“I really want to stop as much of it as I can,” he said.
Stewart is expected to be sworn in near the close of the council regular meeting on Dec. 13. McCracken would likely be present for the initial items on the agenda, Butler said. Then Stewart would be sworn in and take part in the council action on committee assignments and leadership roles for the upcoming calendar year.
Mayor Naggar believes McCracken faltered because he had scant name recognition and he did not campaign aggressively. McCracken raised nearly $4,900 by the close of the last pre-election reporting period.
Naggar said it is hard to predict whether Stewart will bring a significant change to the council.