Q&A with retiring Temecula City Councilman Mike Naggar

0
1034
Temecula City Councilman Mike Naggar. Valley News/city of Temecula courtesy photo

Earlier this year, Temecula Councilman Mike Naggar announced he would not seek reelection in November.

Naggar has held his seat on the council the longest out of any of the four current members, having been first elected in 1999. Prior to that, he sat on Temecula’s Planning Commission.

In light of his retirement, Valley News spoke with Naggar via telephone on Aug. 10 to discuss his many years serving Temecula.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 

Your retirement came as a surprise for many. Why are you stepping aside now?

Well, primarily, it’s because my son is starting high school and he needs his dad around. And you know, more than most, he needs his dad because he’s autistic. He’s somewhat high functioning in certain areas and in other areas he needs someone around to teach him and to be there for those teachable moments. So there’s that, and then, you know what, I’ve put together a good body of work and I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do. And in that regard, five terms is adequate. Five terms is more than I ever expected, and I’m very satisfied with it. It’s a culmination of a good career.

 

What are some of the highlights of your time in office? What are some of the things you’re most proud of that you’ve done in the last 20 years?

There were so many things, and yet when I think some of the things that stand out — certainly we’ve garnered national attention with all of our inclusive programs for special needs. And that popped up and started in about 2010, so I was already over two terms in at the time. But that really stands out, we were able to get a shadow population out of the darkness and actually show other cities how it’s done, so I’m really proud of that.

What a lot of people don’t realize is, when I first ran for city council, I ran on a platform of (saying) developers weren’t doing enough to build sustainable communities, and people really forget that because we were in the middle of a building boom. But I ran on a platform of suing the county because the county was allowing developments outside of city limits with no trails, no libraries, no road improvements, no parks, nothing, and they were all — all of these people buying the inexpensive homes were coming into Temecula and using all of our facilities. So I ran on suing the count. Nobody ever thought we would do that but we did. And we challenged them about five times and we either settled or prevailed in all of them. The last one, the big one, we sued them on the general plan, we won and we negotiated a settlement … that settlement formed what’s known as the I-215 Policy Area, which pretty much said no development moves forward until there’s financing mechanisms in place for future interchanges, which have now all started construction. So the I-215 Policy Area covered the Newport Road interchange, it covered Clinton Keith interchange and it covered Scott Road interchange. So I’m very proud of that because at the time Menifee wasn’t a city and all of these roads were to relieve traffic from Temecula and Winchester. 

 

How have you managed to juggle being a councilmember and having a day job, as well as having a family, for all of these years?

Once you start learning, you manage to fold it into your daily life, and into your family life. So on average, and this is just an average, I spend anywhere from — I’d say 15 hours a week is probably the average, sometimes it’s 20. But it’s all predicated on what kind of council member you want to be, and I think that’s what has made Temecula stand out. You’ve had councilmembers who wanted to be more than just people who showed up and voted. You had people who brought good agendas and things they wanted to accomplish. So you can spend the time needed, and that takes time, or you can be the type of councilmember who shows up for two hours every other week for a meeting and votes and goes home. It’s a matter of who you want to be. There are also, particularly when you begin and you’re learning, there’s a myriad, dozens of events you’re invited to, some you need to be at, others, you can’t go to everything. But you learn to take your family along with you so that it becomes a family outing. The parades and the Rod Run and the banquets and the awards dinners, you always make sure you bring your family with you, it’s a night out. And that’s how you keep your family intact.

 

What are some of the biggest challenges you would say you have faced as a councilmember? Liberty Quarry springs to mind, but what others?

Liberty Quarry was certainly one of the big challenges, that was probably the big challenge. But you know one of the other challenges, people don’t really talk about it much today was back in the (early 2000s) … we were at the forefront of what I like to call the growth wars. At that point in the whole region, many people were saying ‘keep Temecula rural, don’t have any more growth, shut the door,’ and during that time, there were referendums against projects. Wolf Creek was challenged, so was Harveston. Each one of these were about 2,000 units each. So growth and development became a really hot button issue and became very challenging to hear everybody out, get the proper mitigation from the developers and of course communicate that to the public. That was challenging as well.

You know, what else is challenging and not talked about as much, was learning how to work as a team and learning what was important to my colleagues. And I’d say that also operated from them to me. Everybody brought something special to the table and everybody had a good agenda. But how do you mesh that so that we all accomplish our goals? It made us a very good team. And so the challenge was you always need two other votes to get something done, and so you learn how to politic and you learn what’s important to your colleagues, and if you learn that real well, you learn how to be a team. So I’ll give you a ‘for instance’: I worked with Chuck (Washington) a number of years and Jeff Comerchero the most, and I learned what was important to Jeff Comerchero or what was important to Chuck, so when I brought something forward I always made sure I approached it from an angle that was important to them as well, and the result of that was a team that was second to none. Just second to none in the things we’ve accomplished over 20 years … we’ll never duplicate those times. I have to tell you, we’re done, Temecula’s built out, and that period of time was so productive for the entire city, moving so foundationally — it was a snapshot in time, you had wonderful people working together in all sectors. It would be hard-pressed to be duplicated.

 

As you say, Temecula is built out. The growth and development was the city’s major focus during your tenure on the City Council, and now that period is over. What do you think is in store for the future in Temecula?

I think what we continue to do is focus on public safety. From day one, the council, the first City Council, made public safety the priority, and.that includes police and fire. And every council subsequently has made that the priority. When your community is safe, families want to live here, and when families want to live here, it just picks up the economy and businesses want to be here, and jobs want to be here.

And you know, one of the challenges was transitioning from a bedroom community … back in the day, everybody commuted. And now, we’re less of that.

So public safety today is number one, not only with police but with fire. So we established a general plan, in the general plan our goal was to be able to have a police officer or an ambulance or fire fighting unit within five minutes after you call. Of course, depending on the emergency, a police emergency, if it’s imminent, they’ll be there in less than five minutes. The fire department for certain will be at your house in less than five minutes. And that is part of what makes us who we are. We spent a lot of money (on public safety), but the people reap that and when they reap it, and they would have it no other way.

We (also) have to get that French Valley Parkway off the ground and get that built. And primarily I just really think we start to look a little bit more socially, and what I mean by that is we’ve been very good at inclusiveness for the special needs community. Now, I think we have to start looking at our senior community. If there are areas where people feel disenfranchised by race, and I don’t care what race it is, be it Black, be it Chinese, be it Filipino, we need to work on that disenfranchisement. And now we’re at a place as a city where we can do that, because we’re pretty much built out.

 

Since you mentioned police, and since it’s a very relevant topic both in national politics and with the city of Menifee forming its own police department — has there ever been talk of Temecula forming its own police department? 

From day one, the first city council chose to contract with (the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department), and when we do that, we get to pick and choose a smorgasbord of services that we want. We have the POP team, which is problem-oriented policing. We have the SET team, which is the special enforcement team. We have … the burglary enforcement team. And these are all things that we created and we pay for from the sheriff. We then get the helicopter, we get the SWAT team, we get all of these things. And we get it by virtue of what we pay for, but we don’t pay for most of the equipment, like cars. We don’t pay for any liability What ends up happening is we get what we pay for, we get as many officers as we want, what we think we need, and we also have control over what officers work in our community … we find it to be very economic, especially when it comes to liability, and when it comes to equipment. The starting of our own police department would make Temecula have to pay for all of those things. We’ve studied it for a number of years and found contracting with the Riverside sheriff really works for us.

We spend a lot of money, close to $38 million on public safety, and while it looks like a lot and it is a lot, you have to weigh it against the services that we get, and you can’t look at that in a vacuum. So particularly right now in the social environment that we’re in, where defunding the police is kind of the issue de jure across the nation in certain sectors, you have to look at what we get in Temecula for what we pay. We don’t overpay. We pay for what we want.

 

On that same topic of policing, with the national protests as well as the ones in Temecula — you said publicly at a council meeting that in meeting with and listening Black Lives Matter protest organizers that you were able to reach an understanding. Can you talk about what your thinking was at first and what it was after speaking to protest organizers?

Before I do I just want to give you a little bit of background, because I think it’s important. I grew up in southeast Los Angeles right on the border of Los Angeles and Inglewood. 99%, probably more than that, of my schoolmates were Black. I grew up in a Black community. It’s important that I mention this, because — I don’t roll this out, because of the old adage, ‘I have Black friends.’ But in this case — I grew up in a Black environment. To this day my three best friends, all retired from LAPD, we’re still in contact, we talk every two weeks, they’re all Black. Me being a minority myself, I think I have a special insight. What did it mean to me? When I hear that Black lives matter, I understand there’s two aspects to this. There’s the socialist Marxist group known as Black Lives Matter, and I mention this because they are outspoken as a socialist Marxist group. But then there is the group of citizens who are trying to say that today, people of the Black race, they feel that they are being treated differently and they say, ‘we know all lives matter, but right now, we just want you to hear us about Black lives.’ And some of the disenfranchisement that I have heard lately, I have known about just by virtue of where I grew up, and about my best friends telling me that they’re treated differently when they go into a store, and they’re treated differently when a member of their family are stopped or interact with police, there’s just a difference. And it’s a hard difference to explain, but I know it exists. And that, we cannot allow. That if I was going to (stay) on the council, we would ensure that, I guess our police officers — and they’re already doing this — the officers at Riverside sheriff, they’re good officers, they’re gonna already be sensitive to that. And I know Chad Bianco is going to make sure the training is there, and as a city we’re going to insist on it.

And one thing that impressed me was when I went out from City Hall, and the group marched, the protest, from the Duck Pond to City Hall, I did not know what to expect. And at the time, there were a lot of riots and damage going on, so I did not know what to expect. But, and I remember, Councilmember Rahn and I prayed before we went out … We walked out and the one thing that caught my attention that really eased the whole tension in that march was, the speaker started out with, ‘we know all lives matter,’ and that was big for me. I am fervently pro-life and I am fervently, and if I stayed on the council, I would work on this human trafficking issue, and I’m probably going to work on it in my private capacity — so all lives matter. Right now, because of George Floyd and what occurred on national TV, people want to have a dialogue about this disenfranchisement, about Black lives. But it’s really important that we communicate that that message is different from the self-proclaimed Marxist organization. They are different.

We want to move the dialogue forward but a couple of things have to occur and I said this at one of the council meetings … number one, we all have to agree that we can speak from a safe place. If everybody is very tense about the words they choose, we will never have the dialogue. Number two is, we can attack all of the laws and the programs that we want, but unless we reach men’s hearts, we’re not gonna change a thing. And that’s the goal, is to reach men’s hearts.

 

Do you think former Mayor Stewart did the right thing by resigning back in June, and do you think the City Council handled the situation correctly by not appointing a new mayor?

You know, that was at the height of tensions and I think if it was to occur now, it might be more forgiving, but at the moment it was the height of tensions. And so it’s hard for me to say whether it’s right or not, I think that’s an individual decision Stew would have had to make. 

I think what we wanted to do at the time, again tensions were high, was send a message that we’re all going to speak and we’re all going to speak together and have the dialogue. Typically the mayor is the spokesman for the city. I know at the time because we all talked about it, each and every one of us had a point of view. For instance, my background, which I really haven’t shared with anybody, but that’s where I come from. But it’s important for me to speak for me, and Zak (Schwank) to speak for Zak. And in that individual speaking, we come together, as opposed to getting one person to speak for us. At that time, that was important.

 

Speaking of your background, what made you want to be in public service?

It’s an excellent question. My father — I’m first generation here in America. My father immigrated from Egypt and he used to tell us a story, and when he did, you could see his eyes water up. He used to be a merchant marine, and on one of his stops, they pulled into New York harbor, and there it was, the Statue of Liberty. And you’ve got to remember, back in the 40s, that was the promised land, to get to America. And he left the ship and never went back. He became an illegal immigrant. To this day, I have the documents of a warrant for his arrest, his court adjudication … he got deported, and they let him enter legally. He applied for citizenship but they made him leave the country and come back in through Canada legally, and he did. Now where does that lead? I was always brought up to love America and the opportunities that America gave. Now, my father had five kids and you know what, he never became a bigwig at anything — he’s passed away now, as is my mother — but he raised five kids, and we all came out somewhat OK, all of us came out pretty decently. And we grew up in that area that I told you, and we were all able to bootstrap ourselves out of there. And loving America, I just realized I just never had a chance to give back. I did not have an education. And this is something I’m very sensitive to — where I came out of, talking about higher learning or going to college was not frequently talked about, so it was not even on my radar screen. Nobody in my family could have even told me how to do it, how do you even apply? It just wasn’t there. So why did I get into service? Because it was my way to give back, my way to serve the country and perhaps make a difference. And then other thing, and this is a biggie — where I lived, I don’t’ think there was a day I didn’t live in fear. And what I mean is, fear of getting beat up, fear of fitting in, fear of being able to do my schoolwork and fear of gangs, and you either gravitated to athletics or you gravitated to gangs or drugs. Luckily, me and my buddies, we gravitated to athletics. But you know, I was bullied a lot, partly just because I was a minority in that area, even though I’m not from the white race … so I was beat up a lot, and there was always that fear. And one of the main reasons why I joined the council was, I can’t stand bullies. I don’t like bullies. I hate bullies. And I knew that getting in a position of influence, I could help people from being bullied, from all walks of life. Bullied by the government, bullied in school, bullied because of lack of healthcare, bullied because you have a special need. Just making people’s lives easier. I don’t want anybody to live in fear.

 

Lastly, do you have any words of advice for whoever succeeds you on the City Council?

First, love Temecula. I mean, really love her. Every councilmember that has served has loved Temecula, and that means put her first. And if you do, she will love you back. She’ll give you more than you ever put in. The second thing is to find a way to work as a team. Come in with an agenda, but persuade people to go along with you and learn how to work as a team. It affects staff and it affects the council and ultimately it trickles down into the community. And the last thing is, Temecula has always done things class A, so it’s not an accident. We’ve always done things the best they can be done, and it’s reflected in our community. And one last thing, I mean there’s several things, but this has kept us all humble, and that is: we only exist to serve the people. That’s our only purpose for City Hall to be around. And never forget that. We return calls within the same day, emails within 24 hours, we’re always nice, we’re always responsive, and that’s our duty … so those four things.

 

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.