This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fullerton Observer (FO): You have received campaign large campaign contributions from property owners groups and persons like California Real Estate PAC, the Apartment Assn. of Orange County, of which you are a board member. As someone who appears to be on the side of landlords, how will you balance that with the needs and struggles of renters?
Nick Dunlap (ND): My background, coming from the real estate investment business, I understand the importance of property rights and some of the threats to property rights. Whether my focus is more on renters or property owners, I think the reality is that as someone who has been a renter and someone who is a property owner and works in that business, I’m sympathetic to both sides, and I think that actually makes me more qualified or capable of being somebody who is in the middle and can actually listen and then work to help.
FO: There have been calls in Fullerton for rent stabilization. I’m sure you’re aware of the Rancho La Paz Mobile Home Park situation. I get the impression that you’re not in favor of rent stabilization measures.
ND: That’s true. You will occasionally hear these anecdotal stories that make the news. In a case like Rancho La Paz, I think the approach that was taken after the property owner kind of scaled things back, and then went back to some of the tenants at the park—he had a pretty balanced or modest approach to things where he said, “I will try to subsidize as many of you as I can.”
FO: But the main reason why he [John Saunders, the owner] really came to the table was because all these seniors were showing up at Council meetings. It seems like without the pressure of some of the seniors, some of whom were very elderly and disabled, wheeling themselves over to City Hall—that doesn’t seem like the ideal way to resolve these things.
ND: I agree. Had they rolled out the final plan at the beginning, I don’t think we would have seen the issues or that outpouring of opposition that we did. If that would have been the initial approach, I think things would have been different.
FO: How can Fullerton balance new housing needs with keeping/protecting Fullerton’s unique parks, open space and historic neighborhoods in both north and south Fullerton?
ND: It is interesting because on one hand, people complain that housing is too expensive and it’s out of reach, but you also have people who complain about new development. The reality is that this is a simple situation of supply and demand that drives pricing. If we want to make housing more affordable, we need to build more housing. The housing market is local, and so the fact that we have State legislation driving some of these things I think is not good for us. I think it’s important for cities and municipalities to be able to control their own housing policy. So I think we need to retain local control over the housing policy. I want to support getting information out to the public as far in advance as possible, so people can really dig in, ask any questions they have, so there can be a better discussion at Council meetings about how we can better work together to do these things.
FO: That public participation process is currently much more difficult because of COVID-19 restrictions in terms of meeting accessibility.
ND: There was a good article recently that summarized what different cities are doing to deal with this. They said some cities actually had conference calls—trying to deal with people trying to call in and make comments. While we’re not that bad, I certainly think that we can do more. If anything, we should be able to use technology to enhance [participation]—it shouldn’t be a takeaway of what services are provided.
FO: Do you support Fullerton’s navigation center? What do you see as the top solutions to Fullerton (and Orange County’s) homeless crisis?
ND: I think the City has actually taken a really good approach to addressing homelessness. The City is working on this, the County is working on this, the State is working on this, and I think in some cases we’re even seeing some private sector solutions through partnerships with the United Way and other non-profits. This is a really big and challenging issue, and it takes everybody working together to solve the problem.
FO: What do you envision for Coyote Hills?
ND: I think the approved plan is likely what will go forward there. We need to keep the pressure on so they deliver the trails. There was a small groundbreaking recently, but we need to make sure they’re held accountable and we get trails up on the west Coyote Hills site. I don’t think there’s anything else to revisit there.
FO: You stated in your campaign that you were opposed to Measure S, the failed sales tax increase. Given Fullerton’s current dire financial straits, what specific proposals do you have to address the City’s revenue shortages?
ND: First and foremost, I think one of the biggest things we can do to get our economy back on track is to re-open our economy. I think we can wear masks, we can practice social distancing, we can allow people to dine at restaurants, go shopping, and conduct business in person with proper protections in place. I was really disappointed to see the second shut-down, because I think the longer this happens, the bigger impact on our economy, and unfortunately on peoples’ lives. It’s disheartening. I was on Facebook yesterday, and a good friend is shutting down her business at the end of the year. You hear these stories across town, and in some cases we’re seeing the windows shuttering. My fear is that this throws our state into a deep recession.
FO: You talk about re-opening the economy, but that’s not up to the City. City Council doesn’t decide that.
ND: That’s true. Well, it’s something we can push for.
FO: How else can the City deal with its revenue problems?
ND: Looking at tax revenue from a revenue perspective, the economic development is going to help take care of that. There are a number of projects in the City’s pipeline that are coming through. The Kimberly Clark project will have a significant impact. Our focus is often on revenue, but we don’t look at expenses. That’s where I think we can really make some adjustments and changes, whether that’s looking at outsourcing some personnel functions across departments. This also may require us looking at regionalizing some things—talking to people in Placentia, La Habra, or Brea, or Buena Park, and figuring out how we could potentially band together to provide better services and also obtain better pricing as a result of that for some of these services that we’re providing.
FO: With regard to the budget, it seems there are two elephants in the room—police and fire. Those are the biggest budget expenditures. You talk about everything being on the table. Does that include the police and fire?
ND: We have to look at everything. That’s not a personal attack on any employee or employee class, or employee unit, it’s just a simple truth. We have to do what we can to make sure that our city is financially solvent and can continue to function. That’s not only the City Council doing its due diligence to make sure that we’re taking the steps toward balancing the budget, that’s also doing the hard work, like getting bids for different services provided to the City.
FO: Is there political pressure to cut some things and not others?
ND: I’m sure there will be. I think I’d be naive to believe there wouldn’t be. A lot of times people make cuts where they feel there’s the least amount of pressure or they’re going to have limited pushback. The reality is if we continue to operate this way it is not sustainable. And I think failure to jump in and make important changes, or make substantive changes, is going to lead the city on a path to financial ruin or bankruptcy.
FO: Would you support a Citizen’s Police oversight commission? Why or why not?
ND: I think a Citizens’ Police Oversight Commission can actually help the police do a better job. It’s an outside body that would be able to provide some insight and feedback. Clearly, the police are the professionals. They would be involved in that process as well, but I actually think it’s something that the police might welcome. Chief Dunn is doing a good job, and the police department today is not what it was 10 years ago during the Kelly Thomas tragedy. There are some important steps that have been taken to get the department back on track and if we can support that through police oversight, that would be great.
FO: Given the challenges of COVID-19, how will you communicate and connect with your constituents?
ND: We will eventually get back to normalcy and so we will do what was my intention, which is having weekly office hours and coffee at set times where people can meet with me. And then also doing walk-and-talks where we’re meeting in a neighborhood and actually going for a walk and hearing about concerns that are important to the neighborhood. Until we get back to a place where we can do that, I’m available via telephone and email.
FO: What are your top priorities on Council? Do you intend to introduce new items? What are they?
ND: Certainly the City’s finances—getting them back on track is number one. Roads, streets, and infrastructure is number 2, and maintaining public safety is number 3. As far as proposing new things, a lot of that will be determined by how long the pandemic endures. But if we get into a situation where there are more business closures and people are going out of business and looking to get back in business, there might be some things that we can do as a City entrepreneurially to work with landlords and the incoming business tenants, to expedite processes, whether they are permit inspections or planning processes.
FO: You voted for yourself to be Mayor Pro Tem during your first Council meeting, a vote that broke with newly-established protocols, under which councilmember Ahmad Zahra was next in line. Why did you vote this way?
ND: As you pointed out, that was a newly-established policy, not a law, and it was a policy that I don’t necessarily agree with as someone who wanted to run for office and get involved. This has nothing to do with Ahmad. He and I get along and are going to be able to work together on the Council, and same for Jesus, Fred, and Bruce. I have important business and leadership skills that can help us here. After Fred had nominated me and Bruce seconded, I kind of took that as a sign that, “you’ll do good in this role, and you can get involved and help.” So that’s why I supported myself in that. It’s important to note that the City has real serious issues, so I saw that as a way for me to get more involved and to help.