John Duncan is one of Coronado’s two new city council members recently sworn in and is a fresh face to the position. I had a chance to speak with Duncan about stepping into his new role and what’s ahead.
“I’d run in 2020, during COVID which was a strange time to run as you couldn’t go door to door and things like that. I think the closest I came to having an in-person experience was a Chamber of Commerce forum with no audience,” Duncan recalled of his first experience running. “The next election after that, I really wanted to have the full experience of running, and of course there are the issues I’m involved in and care about as I’ve been following the Council for more than a decade.”
Duncan also felt his family was in a good place with his three children in college or preparing for college so that he could dedicate the necessary time to running and being on city council. “It seemed like a good transition time for me to commit more full time to public service.”
Of taking on a role as a representative of the City, Duncan commented, “It’s a huge honor. The way I look at it, the humbling part of it is that in Coronado there are these sort of legendary people everywhere that have accomplished so much that are quiet [about their accomplishments], but they really inspired me to run and their confidence in me is definitely humbling.”
“I look at it as big shoes to fill; following examples others have set,” he continued, adding that those examples come from everywhere around Coronado and not just the Council. “There are so many people that do things – Rotary and other organizations and foundations and people like Dave Landon who have been in ten different roles, people who are always willing to do huge things for our town,” he explained.
Duncan noted that more often than not, he hasn’t been asked to get specific tasks done on the Council, but rather told, “We know you’ll live up to our expectations,” something Duncan takes to heart as the ultimate verdict to aspire to stepping into the role.
One thing Duncan said he’s fully prepared for is learning. “I’m not naïve enough to think I know everything,” he mentioned. “Even though I’ve been following [city council and the issues] closely and I think I’m analytical, I’m an attorney, I’ve been on a lot of boards, but I think there are things to learn and one of the things I’m really curious about learning is what goes on in the closed sessions.”
The city council generally has closed sessions before each open, public session, where more legal discussions and things of that nature are had. “I’m interested in learning more,” Duncan commented. “I already met with the city manager and the city attorney in preparation, and I’m really looking forward to getting going.
“With the issues, I have a little bit of a different approach,” he continued. “I would like a regular and continual focus on the big issues, as opposed to once in a while we discuss it and vote on it.” Duncan mentioned the sewage issues as a particular example he hopes to keep sustained effort on during his time as a council member, including work with the outside federal, state, and regional agencies as well as partner cities.
“For some of these issues there’s not an easy answer, especially for the housing allocation issue,” Duncan noted. “But I’d like to work hard [on it], even if it’s two steps forward, one step back, banging our heads against the wall sometimes. It’s something that somebody has to work on.
“If we end up with no plan, certain things happen and we start to lose more of our zoning control and/or we potentially lose some funding,” he explained further. “SANDAG was delegated the authority to give us our housing allocation from the State, that’s why we’re dealing with SANDAG on it and it’s just such a rock and a hard place. We have almost no place to zone for [new housing], with the Port, the Navy, and [SANDAG] not counting the Navy base housing.”
As the selected primary alternate to represent Coronado at the SANDAG meetings, Duncan expects to attend SANDAG meetings and be involved in the various subcommittees surrounding it where he’ll continue to learn more about the issues and advocate for the City.
“I’ve also been appointed to be the first member of the board for the Metro Wastewater Joint Powers Agreement. It sounds like the most boring thing in the world, but actually, when you look into it, it’s actually an important agency,” Duncan mentioned as well, adding that’s he’s talked to predecessors Marvin Heinze and Susan Keith on the topic.
Part of Duncan’s past experience has seen him work with the FBI as well as intern with district attorneys and a criminal court judge, which has led to another topic Duncan wants to keep discussion on - public safety. “It’s one thing we don’t really talk about much because we’re in pretty good shape, but I do think a regular focus on public safety issues is important,” he told me.
No matter what the issue, Duncan said, “For me, it’s continuing, in a way, of being with people in town, continually, even though the campaign is over. So continuing to be in public, to stay present and hear what people are concerned about and what they want; to me that’s a big part of [being a council member].”
Through his past experience practicing law and contributing to a variety of committees and organizations both in and outside of Coronado, Duncan understands the nature of the role he’ll be stepping into. “I’ve learned from some other people in town who’ve come before me, it’s [about] looking to work well with others, not take things personally, and try to achieve the best results possible even if sometimes it may not be the first desired, complete solution that you were looking for,” he described.
“Really it’s kind of the ability, at times, to compromise, or at least understand that you’re working towards the best decision you can get that the most people will support, and do it in a way that is cordial.”
Duncan also expects to put his problem solving skills to good use while he’s representing the City, and is looking forward to working with his fellow council members, many of whom he’s had a chance to begin a rapport with. “I look forward to getting to know Carrie; I don’t really know her. We campaigned at the same time and I haven’t really had the chance to sit down [with her].”
As an active member of the community, I asked Duncan about service and what inspires him to be a public servant for the town. “A lot of my family – my children, my wife, and others – have done a lot more public service than I did early in my career, but I’ve always admired it and enjoyed it,” he began. “I was a coach, which was a minor service to the community, and I liked it a lot and found it was a way I liked to spend my time. From there it’s been a gradual transition as I’ve grown to a different place in my career where I have the freedom to choose what I want to do.
“A part of it is selfish because I like it; I’m not suffering for the community,” he continued with a laugh. “No, I enjoy it.” Duncan is a member of the Rotary Club of Coronado, which he mentioned in particular as a great organization because of their mentality of service without a focus on credit and the camaraderie of the group.
Duncan has seen that same sense of selflessness in his family, who also serve as a great source of inspiration to him. “My wife has been president and also general counsel to many nonprofits. Her mom founded the St. Vincent de Paul medical facility and UCSD residency program there. She’s certified in psychiatry and family medicine and she started a dual certification program there because most people who come in there, many of them have psychiatric issues as well as physical health issues,” he noted. “It’s inspiring.”
Though Duncan said a shift to a larger focus on public service has happened more in stages in his own life in more recent years, that it’s something he truly believes in. “This is what I want to do,” he stated, adding that Coronado is an amazing and unique place to be able to be engaged with. “I’ve been involved with restoring historic homes and I really love that every block and every house is different. Really everything in Coronado is a very fine balance.”
Duncan was sworn onto the City Council on December 20, 2022, and is prepared to do his best to listen to people, work with the community and his fellow council members, and make good decision to maintain that balance and solve problems. “I’m big on communication… I do plan on doing periodic town halls in person to talk to people because I think that’s important,” Duncan mentioned.
Duncan encourages anyone who would like to get in touch with him with City-related inquiries, issues, ideas, and the like to reach out to him, and his new Council contact information can be found on the City’s website at https://www.coronado.ca.us/232/Mayor-City-Council. “If somebody wants to talk that has a problem, reach out to me and we can discuss it.”
VOL. 113, NO. 1 - Jan. 4, 2023