Friday, August 14, 2020

Whitney Benzian Reflects on City Council Experience

Whitney Benzian family
Councilman Whitney Benzian and his wife, January, as well as their children Emma (12), George (4) and Anne (10).

Whitney Benzian will not be running for reelection on the Coronado City Council, describing the difficult decision he has been thinking about for a year.

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Practiced at public policy and land use — as well as a real estate broker, husband and father of three — Benzian has served four years on the council since being elected in 2016.

“I’ve spent 99% of my life here,” said the Sarah Lawrence College and Pepperdine University graduate who also worked closely with a state senator when the senator was running for and elected to city council in San Diego.

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Benzian said he likes history and international affairs but feels one can affect change more quickly on the local level, adding how the bread and butter of local politics is land use and zoning and that’s day-to-day quality of life for people.

He talks about his oldest daughter Emma nearing age 13, and how before he knows it she’ll be out of the house. He said he would rather spend more time focused on his family during these years.

“It was a hard decision not to run,” he explained. “The real reason was just time. My kids are getting older. These years, they go by so darn fast, like the cliché.”

The councilman mentioned it wasn’t a defining factor but the fall school closures pushed him over the edge; he’ll have three kids in his house trying to distance-learn paired with his and his wife’s full-time careers, he noted.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in the last four years. It’s time for some fresh blood, I think. Some diversity … You need to have diversity of opinion.”

He illustrated how his business has four women and three men with different socioeconomic backgrounds, and he’s seen firsthand the benefits of diversity of opinion and perspectives.

“I know this place backwards and forwards,” he said of Coronado. “I was super grateful to be elected by the people in my hometown. That’s super special. It’s been a great ride.”

Benzian cited the Tijuana River sewage pollution issue funding and the state’s relinquishment of Orange Avenue as two of his term’s biggest accomplishments.

An environmental activist, he said he didn’t just see the intermittent beach closures as an issue but a threat to the environment. He explained how some people thought it wasn’t our problem or a big deal, and Coronado didn’t join the Imperial Beach class action lawsuit — but they decided to take a more diplomatic approach.

Local leaders flew to Washington D.C. to lobby, he said, the issue gaining $300 million and thus 75% of the necessary funding, and it’s still protected during the pandemic.

He recalled travelling to the nation’s capital: “From wet suits to business suits,” he remembered saying and laughed, “we’re in the White House.”

When discussing the Orange Avenue relinquishment from the state to Coronado — along with $22 million to Coronado to aid that effort — he described how Coronado is taking ownership of Orange and the Silver Strand as well as Third and Fourth Streets.

He said he thinks there are some amazing things the city can do with the ownership, from flower boxes and more al fresco dining to slowing traffic down a bit more. He added that that was his first meeting, the vote to pursue negotiations to look into the advantages and liabilities of that project.

“It took four years just to do the agreement,” he said.

Benzian is also proud of the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers to aid the environment and quality of life on the island where homes are close together. The vote was 3-5 and it almost didn’t happen, he said, adding how it was probably the most controversial decision he was part of.

“My goal when voting is always to do the most good. You can’t please everybody,” he said. “That’s why it’s divided. There’s always a pro and a con. You just try to get it right. If you don’t, you can usually change it in some way or tweak it around the edges.

“The thing that always pained me was having to support the demolition of a home perhaps,” he said, “balancing the charm of a town versus economic incentive.”

When asked about balancing tourism and business with resident quality of life, he said it wasn’t a hard line to walk for him. Benzian said the city budget shows how property taxes, sales tax and hotels generate the funds for Coronado’s manicured lawns, road paving and top-notch services such as the renowned public golf course and recreation center camps. He also said how he knows the businesses on Orange personally and that visitors enable them to work and live here.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” he said, noting Coronado isn’t a secret anymore. “I’m willing to make that sacrifice. I like when people come into town. It adds some temporary diversity and change.

Benzian said he didn’t know what to expect on city council.

“I would say I didn’t understand how well run our city is. And how fortunate we are to live here and for our city to have the resources it has.”

He shared a phrase he learned in graduate school: “Cities exist because states allow them to.”

“We have to be vigilant about maintaining local control of our town,” he advised, touching on the topic of Coronado being forced to build 1,000 new housing units. “The state has ultimate control over our city. State legislators can impose rules on us. So we’ve gotta be tough and not allow that to happen.”

He said that’s why the ownership of Orange is a silver lining, as the city is already surrounded by larger cities, the port and Navy bases. It’s a win.

“At the end of the day we live in Coronado and we’re so blessed and privileged to be here. And that’s the way I look at it every single day.”

Benzian said he definitely wants to do more public service in the distant future.

“I don’t think I’m done. I think I’ll come back to it because I love it.”

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Aly Lawson
Aly Lawson
Aly has a BA in mass communication, emphasizing journalism and public relations, and a MBA in marketing. She has worked as a reporter and marketer in various industries and overseas. She also won a best community business story award from the Nevada Press Association in 2017. Originally from Washington, this is her second time living in Coronado, where her husband is stationed as a Navy helicopter pilot. They have two small children and the whole family adores Coronado. Have a story for The Coronado Times to cover? Send news tips or story ideas to: manager@coronadotimes.com
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