The two men came from different backgrounds to represent different cities.
But their advice to successors were similar.
“Always put La Mesa first,” Bill Baber said in a brief conversation last month.
“Always make the right decision,” said Jerry Jones in a phone interview, and don’t let Lemon Grove’s critics “intimidate you.”
Baber and Jones decided not to run for re-election this year on their respective city councils, a notable change in municipalities where their influence stretches back years.
The two served on school boards before Baber was elected to La Mesa’s council in 2014. Jones joined Lemon Grove’s in 2002. They also worked on a range of bodies that sometimes fly below the radar but have significant influence, like San Diego Community Power and the San Diego Association of Governments.
No other East County city council is seeing comparable turnover this year.
Their decisions not to seek additional terms also led to a subtle political shift in the region, as voters replaced two conservative men with women backed by county Democrats.
While parts of East County are overwhelmingly Republican, Lemon Grove and La Mesa are more liberal. Jones and Baber have long been affiliated with the GOP, requiring them to work with colleagues and residents who were sometimes skeptical of their party.
Jones even left the GOP for a time. Baber also reportedly stepped away and has been critical of Donald Trump.
Their voting record was often influenced by their professions: Baber is an attorney and Jones spent decades running an auto repair business.
During a public meeting Nov. 22, Baber said his greatest accomplishments on La Mesa’s council were helping reform how the city negotiates with employees, including police, building a system to regulate cannabis and developing a climate action plan.
Jones said he was proud of working to reduce red tape for local businesses, voting to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into road repair and hiring a motorcycle deputy to beef up traffic enforcement. (A sheriff’s spokesman said that officer should begin by the beginning of December.)
Jones added that he was proud of helping steer the city through the Great Recession without new taxes.
Both men have been involved in recent controversies.
Lemon Grove meetings have grown tense as vocal critics of the city increasingly lob verbal attacks at leaders, and Jones once flipped off residents and later told a colleague who wouldn’t stop interrupting to “shut up.” (He has apologized for the former and is largely unrepentant about the latter.)
Baber was criticized by county Democrats because of his work as treasurer for a political group sending deceptive mailers to La Mesa voters. Baber responded that he shouldn’t be held responsible for advertisements he didn’t create and felt unfairly targeted by a San Diego Union-Tribune article about the issue.
After initially saying he was open to a sit-down interview about his career, Baber backed out because of his frustration over the coverage.
Jones and Baber are being replaced by political newcomers.
Jones’ seat will be taken later this year by Alysson Snow, a law professor at the University of San Diego.
He advised her to build close working relationships with colleagues and resist the temptation to try and run Lemon Grove’s day-to-day operations, which are overseen by the city manager.
Set goals for the year and only deviate from that plan for something “extremely important,” he added.
Baber’s seat will go to Patricia Dillard, a retired businesswoman and member of La Mesa’s Community Police Oversight Board.
Jones and Baber spoke highly of their successors.
“She’s gonna be much greater than I am,” Baber said of Dillard.
Each man still has specific hopes for their city.
Jones wants Lemon Grove to finally pass a sales tax. That could generate millions of dollars a year for roads, new deputies and graffiti removal, among other services, he said.
In La Mesa, Baber hopes new infrastructure could eventually be built to keep trolleys off city streets.
If that happens in the far future, Baber asked colleagues to track him down in whatever nursing home he was living in. “Drag me out, push me in my old man wheelchair and get me to this, because this would be the dream,” he said.
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