Mary Salas

Last month at the grand opening of the Smart City Education Center in the city’s civic center library.

Mary Salas
City of Chula Vista, CA


Chula Vista (pop. 267,000, 10 miles south of San Diego) was financially pressed to hire enough qualified public safety officers, given that the general fund was not growing as much as the population. But it didn’t want to compromise standards because, the mayor says, better trained officers achieve greater trust with residents.


The city decided the answer was both finding more money and improving technology to increase officers’ efficiency. Over the last two years it surveyed its assets, and realized that due to deferred maintenance during the years of national fiscal crisis, a lot of catch-up was necessary.

Based on a previous experience (see Lessons below), Mary felt the city could raise revenue (ie, taxes) if it developed public understanding of the problems faced, so she created a citizen’s action committee with 42 members and a core of around 20, which conducted 18 meetings over two years.

A very data-driven exercise, it produced a report card on failing assets, then surveyed residents about their willingness to adopt a new half cent sales tax and views on how to spend the money. An initiative for such a 10-year tax passed last November with 68% support, which will raise $11 to $15 million a year.

The city set priorities that included updating computer-aided dispatch so the police know where cars were at all times and can send the closest one first, plus new body cams not just to assist victims of police overreach but to protect police as well from false claims.

The city also is procuring new police vehicles to replace some that “had been kept together with rubber bands,” as well as several fire trucks. Mary says she didn’t just want to spend on “things,” but on improvements that will actually make operations more efficient.

Lessons Learned

Engaging the community in a transparent process from the ground-up is key to building community support. People are much likelier to accept your views if you candidly share with them what your challenges and choices are, even if they are not pretty. For example, even the San Diego Taxpayer Association, legendarily opposed to tax increases, agreed to putting a tax proposal on the ballot for voters to decide. Similarly, seniors who might also have opposed taxes came around to support them once they were brought into the process.

Mary says the city had learned the lesson of citizen participation from a 2012 effort to clear out an old industrial area in the South Bay and master-plan new smart city development. In that case, another citizens advisory committee composed of a broad swath of interests (environmental, business, wildlife, equal justice) had engaged in over 100 meetings and eventually became sufficiently united so as to impress even the California Coastal Commission, famous for its high hurdles to approvals.

Mary’s Background

Grew up in Chula Vista, which her grandparents immigrated to from Mexico in 1919. Got involved in educational issues in Latino community, then political campaigns; member of civil service and planning commissions; ran for political office, successfully elected to city council in 1996, served for term-limited 8 years; went on local water board, elected to State Assembly in 2006.

In 2012, returned to city council, and two years later was elected mayor. Says her real passion is for city government, where she feels you can make the most difference.

Startling Fact

A couple weekends ago, bottled 48 jars of fig jam (two types: black mission, brown Turkish). Nice change of pace from more often baking apple pies.

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