San Luis Obispo needs a forward-thinking mayor. We endorse Heidi Harmon

From left, San Luis Obispo mayoral candidates Keith Gurnee, Don Hedrick and incumbent Heidi Harmon face off at a candidates forum.
From left, San Luis Obispo mayoral candidates Keith Gurnee, Don Hedrick and incumbent Heidi Harmon face off at a candidates forum. nwilson@thetribunenews.com

It all comes down to growth.

That’s been the key issue in San Luis Obispo’s mayor’s race, and the major difference between incumbent Heidi Harmon and her strongest challenger Keith Gurnee, a retired planner and urban designer who served on the City Council in the 1970s.

A third candidate, Donald Hedrick, is a folk artist who runs in nearly every election — more as a crusader than a serious candidate.

We urge voters to stick with Harmon.

She and the other new council members have been doing exactly what they promised to do when they were elected two years ago.

A few examples: They repealed a hated rental inspection program; adopted a Community Choice Energy program; and they’ve taken steps to increase the supply of housing, both by approving projects and easing some zoning restrictions.

Gurnee — who has the support of Save Our Downtown and other preservationist groups — criticizes the current council for being all about “town cramming” rather than town planning.

We respect and agree with Gurnee’s emphasis on preserving the uniqueness and charm of the downtown; we, too, are concerned that too many massive buildings will ruin the charm and character of downtown.

But we part ways with Gurnee when it comes to other areas of the city, where he seems to want to stifle growth. He appears far more interested in wanting to cater to current residents who have opposed some recent projects than in addressing the very real housing shortage that threatens the economic health of San Luis Obispo.

Gurnee speaks about “engaging and listening to neighborhood residents” — and that’s good — but what about engaging and listening to younger families and single professionals who can’t afford to live in San Luis Obispo? Many of them are commuting from as far away as Santa Maria or Paso Robles to their jobs in San Luis Obispo.

Gurnee also advocates fighting the state over the Housing Accountability Act — legislation that requires cities to honor their General Plans by approving housing projects that conform to local zoning laws. He claims the state is condemning every city and small town to “become a Bakersfield.”

That’s a gross overreaction. Gurnee is using scare tactics to win votes from people who don’t want San Luis Obispo to change.

That’s a bad idea.

Do we really want San Luis Obispo to become even more of an expensive enclave then it already is?

We saw what happened prior to the recession; companies left the city because workers couldn’t afford housing here. It became hard to attract doctors and teachers and administrators. San Luis Obispo made headlines for being one of the most expensive cities in the nation.

It’s happening again; one recent survey found that San Luis Obispo is the most expensive place to retire in the nation.

Despite our differences of opinion, we believe Gurnee has the potential to be a competent, knowledgeable, respectful mayor, though we’d urge him to soften those tongue-lashings he’s been known to deliver to political opponents. (Examples abound in his columns for Cal Coast News.)

However, we fear he is out-of-step with the direction the city must take if it’s going to adapt to life in the 21st century.

Change is coming in all areas: shopping, transportation, energy production, employment, education, housing. We need to prepare now, and that requires forward-looking leadership, which Harmon provides.

She has been an activist, nontraditional mayor — a progressive in the vein of Bernie Sanders who is concerned about global issues like climate change and income inequality and diversity.

That’s led to the inevitable conservative backlash. Harmon has been accused of leading the city too far left; one right-wing commentator recently snarked about “the city’s socialist-inspired death spiral.”

It’s also no secret that Harmon has rubbed some residents the wrong way for other reasons. She’s been accused of giving her critics the cold shoulder by refusing to engage in conversation or even greet them, despite her commitment to civility.

Should she be re-elected, we urge Harmon to spend some time mending fences.

That said, we believe Heidi Harmon is the right mayor for San Luis Obispo at this point in time.

She’s a strong leader who focuses on values most San Luis Obispo residents support: tolerance and diversity; clean energy; more transportation choices; affordability.

We strongly urge voters to re-elect Heidi Harmon to a second term as mayor.