By Joe Tash
ContributorRancho Santa Fe voters will choose between two candidates for the County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 2, four-term incumbent Bill Horn and his challenger, Vista City Councilman Steve Gronke.
The two men were the top finishers in the June primary election, and won the right to face each other in November’s runoff. The winner will serve as supervisor for a district that covers all of North County from Carlsbad north along the coast and inland to Borrego Springs. The district includes the cities of Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos, along with unincorporated communities such as Rancho Santa Fe, Fallbrook and Valley Center.
The Board of Supervisors presides over an annual budget of about $5 billion, and a county government that provides such services as health, land use planning, libraries, law enforcement and parks and recreation. The supervisors’ current annual salary is $143,031, and the five incumbents in the non-partisan office — all Republicans — have served together since 1995.
Following are profiles of the two candidates for the 5th Supervisorial District:
Horn contends the county has a strong financial footing thanks in no small part to the fiscal policies set by himself and his four colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. The county, said Horn, has a good credit rating and has maintained balanced budgets throughout his 16-year tenure.
“I don’t think it is time for us to be experimenting with how to spend our money,” Horn said. “I want to keep the county on a steady basis even through this crisis.”
His opponent, said Horn, designed and crafted a ballot measure that put a half-cent sales tax before Vista voters. “There’s a big difference between us,” Horn said.
The county’s Triple A bond rating and low debt have allowed it to pay cash for construction of a new $290 million operations center in Kearny Mesa and seven new libraries, including one that will soon open in Fallbrook, Horn said.
Horn defends a county board policy that some critics have called a “slush fund” — a $10 million pot of money divided between the five supervisors to be doled out to nonprofit community groups. This year, amid a tight budget and increased scrutiny of the community enhancement program, the board voted to cut the program’s budget to $5 million, or $1 million per supervisor, and also tightened restrictions on how the money can be used.
Horn said he has directed his community enhancement funds over the years to Boys and Girls Clubs, volunteer fire departments and gang prevention programs, among others.
“Community enhancement funds are one of the best ways we have of returning to taxpayers some of the money they put out,” Horn said. “I think it’s one of the best bangs for the taxpayers’ bucks.”
Horn has been no stranger to controversy during his time on the board. Earlier this year, media inquiries revealed that Horn had built a barn on his property in Valley Center, and also done other work without obtaining the required county permits. After the lapses were reported in the media, he obtained the permits.
“I’m sorry and I apologize for letting that get in the way of the good things. I basically have paid the penalty for that,” Horn said. Because of such issues, he did not receive endorsements from major newspapers in the county, but Horn said he’s content to let voters have their say.
“I stand on my record. I’ve got a long record here and I’m proud of it,” he said.
Gronke works as a teacher and has served on the Vista City Council for 10 years. He said he decided to run for the Board of Supervisors because he was approached by people who asked him to run, and it was personally a good time for him since his children are grown and attending college.
The county also is involved in issues such as land-use planning and social services, which he said are “close to my heart.”
One area where the two candidates differ is on the need for a county fire department to deal with emergencies such as the major wildfires of 2003 and 2007. Gronke favors the creation of a department with jurisdiction throughout the entire county, while Horn supports the current system of a county fire authority that coordinates between the state firefighting agency and back-country volunteer fire departments.
Gronke also differed sharply with Horn on the community enhancement funds, which he said have been used by supervisors to bolster support during their re-election campaigns.
People with nonprofit agencies told him privately that they couldn’t support his bid for the supervisor’s seat because they feared losing county funding, Gronke said. He declined to identify the source of those comments, but said the fund had created an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” among nonprofits.
“It’s been so corrupted over the years that its good intentions are lost in the application,” Gronke said of the community enhancement program. “Boys and Girls Clubs need funding, but to create such a monster as the slush fund is not the answer.”
Gronke, a longtime Republican who changed his party affiliation to “decline to state” for the Board of Supervisors race, said he is a fiscal conservative who supports social services for those who need them. One of his goals if elected is to ensure the county provides needed services for seniors, veterans, the disabled and people who have lost their jobs and homes to the recession.
He also said he supports the county’s proposed general plan update, which will set guidelines for backcountry development in the future. The plan is expected to come up soon before the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
Another key area, said Gronke, is ethics: “What I say is what I do, I don’t play games. When you look at Horn’s record, it’s littered with illegal acts and unethical behavior.”