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Local Elections : Quiet Escondido Races Focus on Growth Issue

May 23, 1986|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

ESCONDIDO — City Council elections don't come easier than the one here on June 3.

Two incumbents, two challengers. Not too confusing. No special propositions and obviously not too much political controversy for the city's 37,291 registered voters. Niel Lynch, one of the challengers, calls the campaign "ho-hum" and says the candidate forums "have been kind of boring." Kris Murphy, the other challenger, moved into the city just so he could run for City Council, and filed his papers on the last possible day. With a single change-of-address form, he doubled the number of challengers.

The two incumbents, Ernie Cowan and Doris Thurston, have been on the council for only four years, but it might as well be four decades considering how seemingly entrenched they are in the political community.

Cowan, who owns a photography studio and is a 20-year resident of the city, was the darling of the business community when he was prompted to run for public office in 1982, and he hasn't done anything to jeopardize the romance in the last four years. Thurston has lived in the Escondido area for 31 years--including the last four within the city limits after her neighborhood was annexed--and has been involved in the League of Women Voters, the local Philharmonic Assn. and has been a director for six years of the Palomar-Pomerado Hospital District. Both incumbents thrive on cultivating political connections in the community.

It might seem like the kind of election in which Cowan and Thurston should re-order more letterheads for another four years. But then, this just might be the year when voters decide that the streets have gotten too crowded and the hillsides too dotted with shake and tile roofs, and--right or wrong--blame Cowan and Thurston for the city's growth.

Escondido's population was about 68,710 in January, 1982, and was estimated at 79,600 in January of this year--an increase of 15.8% in four years. Some of that growth was incurred through annexation.

Indeed, the two challengers--and the two incumbents as well--say growth and traffic congestion are the two main issues. (Thurston adds crime to her list, which is always a safe bet.)

The issue, then, is how the city can best manage growth.

Cowan, 41, has voted for several large housing projects on the basis that planned, quality development phased over 20 years serves the city better than helter-skelter building projects by handfuls of smaller developers. Developer-impact fees, instituted since he took office four years ago, will help insure that development pays its own way and won't tax existing residents, Cowan says.

Thurston's concern is that Escondido's General Plan is amended too often to increase densities in particular neighborhoods, especially in favor of apartment complexes. "If we would just stick to the General Plan, we'd be doing fine," he said. On matters of growth, Thurston, 57, has tended to vote the same as Councilman Jerry Harmon, the champion slow-growther on the council.

Lynch, 44, who has lived in Escondido off and on since 1953 and continually since 1980, complains that the city--and the separate school districts--don't seem to be planning very well for inevitable growth, given the overcrowded schools and streets. And he says the city should be enticing research-and-development firms, not shopping centers, because even if they produce less sales tax, such businesses provide better jobs and promote a better quality of life.

Murphy, 24, who lived just outside the city limits from infancy before moving into Escondido to qualify for election, also complains about growth. "The council majority has seemingly never stopped approving whatever developments the developers want," he said. Murphy said there should be fewer apartment and senior citizens complexes in Escondido and more upscale single-family homes.

Both incumbents trumpet specific success stories.

Cowan, the current mayor by virtue of his council election in 1982, speaks most proudly of facilitating the merger of the Escondido and Rincon del Diablo fire departments, thereby improving the level of service of both departments around the periphery of the city.

Thurston touts her success in spearheading a child-abuse prevention program involving the city, local schools and the hospital district. She said the city has an obligation to tend to such human services because "we're a full-service city." The councilwoman also tells of helping mobile home park tenants buy their own parks.

Both Cowan and Thurston take some of the credit in promoting the proposed redevelopment of the commercially stagnant downtown area, and in campaigning for public approval of a new civic center and cultural arts complex next to Grape Day Park.

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