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My 35-year career in public education includes five years as a high school English teacher, 30 as a university administrator. I began my second life as an award winning opinion columnist for the San Diego Free Press and the former San Diego daily North County Times.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Why I'm Voting for Tanner and Schumacher for Carlsbad City Council

On September 10, 2015, I received a developer's glossy mailer, urging me not to sign a petition to vote on his City Council-approved plan to build a shopping mall next to the city's Agua Hedionda Lagoon. The five beaming faces of Carlsbad's mayor and city council appeared above the headline: DON'T SIGN THE PETITION. A handy Signature Withdrawal Request card, addressed to City Hall, was attached, in case I'd already signed it. That was the day I decided not one of those elected officials deserved my vote in the next election.

Unfortunately, there are only two open seats on the November 8 ballot. The incumbents needing replacement this year are Keith Blackburn and Lorraine Wood. Check out their campaign websites here: Blackburn; Wood. You'll find the two say nothing about the need to regain the trust of the community.

Wood says she is, "dedicated to supporting the Village and the Village Master Plan because this special place is truly the heart of the community."

After taking credit for supporting it, Blackburn praises the Desalination Project for "assuming responsibility as the Agua Hedionda Lagoon’s steward," despite his attempt to surrender its stewardship to an  L.A. real estate billionaire.

Wood and Blackburn are apparently satisfied with business as usual at City Hall, neither addressing the challenging issues facing the city on its way to build-out.

The four challengers are Ann Tanner, Cori Schumacher, Bill Fowler and Brandon Rowley.

Carlsbadians get to vote for two of the six. Incumbents benefit from at-large elections, with the most name recognition and number of previous supporters. Challengers are likely to split the votes of the disgruntled.

The September surprise in this election is Melanie Burkholder's withdrawal from the race on September 28, too late for her name to be removed from the ballot. She's the only candidate to list her party affiliation as "Republican" on the form she filed for this non-partisan office.

Blackburn and Wood report $100 payments from their campaigns for membership in the San Diego County GOP. Wood added an additional $360 for Carlsbad Republican Women Federated. Its satellite club, "Happy Hour Politics," was launched by Burkholder in 2014.

Conspiracy theorists might say Burkholder's candidacy was intended to benefit the two incumbents from the start, by drawing votes away from the four other challengers.

On October 12, two weeks after she had already dropped out of the race, the Oside News carried an Op-Ed Editorial announcing the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC endorsement of Burkholder. In a close race, the number of votes mistakenly cast for her could decide the election.

I'll be voting for Tanner and Schumacher (no relation to current Councilmember Michael Schumacher). I made my decision based on what I've learned about them in print, social media, streamed video of City Council meetings, and their campaign platforms. Click on their names below for links to their websites.

Ann Tanner, elected to the Carlsbad Unified School District Board of Trustees in 2010, served as president in 2014. During her four years on the board she had to address the divisive issues of balancing budgets, coping with funding cuts, and seeking consensus within the divergent views of her constituents.

I was impressed by Tanner's experience as an elected official and the comprehensiveness and specific priorities in her platform.

1. Require fiscal discipline, balanced budgets and prudent reserves. Deal with the city's $450 million unfunded pension liability by beginning now to fund pensions at 100 percent.

2. Develop support for entrepreneurs, small businesses and emerging technologies, making clean, high tech and research/development businesses a priority.

3. Restore trust and accountability in city government by giving all constituents equal access, providing explanations of all city council votes, and shining a light on campaign contributors' specific agendas.

4. Seek public opinion from all, not just "those who matter," about what to do when the land occupied by the Encina Power Plant is vacated, preferring it to be zoned Open Space for all to enjoy.

5. Return the 48-acre site near the lagoon to TR (Tourist Recreation) zoning, allowing green space for country trails, birding, lookout points, and picnic areas.

6. Reduce building height limit in Village/Barrio Plan back to 35 feet. Make the village walkable and bikeable.

Cori Schumacher, a charismatic leader in the campaign that stopped a developer from polluting a pristine landscape surrounding a city lagoon, she impressed me with her speeches about what was wrong with the developer's project. While the issue drew passionate feelings from both sides, Schumacher relied on facts, not emotions, to make her case.

As does Tanner, Schumacher goes beyond generalizations in describing her priorities.

1. Stop the Council's reliance on the seasonal and unpredictable tourism and hospitality industry. Instead, attract and retain the talent and businesses of the over $250 billion global clean tech industry.

2. Give voters, not developers, control over land use matters.

3. Amend the city's Growth Management Plan to define what amount of growth per 3-5 years is acceptable to decrease the impact of simultaneous, large scale developments.

4. Develop more creative and active methods of engaging residents, listening to them, rather than developers and real estate investors, to make decisions for our community.

5. Restore confidence in the competency and integrity of local government, with more openness, transparency and accountability.

6. Support a transition in Carlsbad to 100% renewable energy by 2035 by allowing residents more choices of energy providers through Community Choice Energy (e.g. See here for Q&A link for Sonoma Clean Power).

Bill Fowler says his reason for running is to stand up to a bully, the current City Council, promising, "I am ready to lead our great small city into a future where we protect our life style, protect our environment, keep our streets safe and have a City Council that listens to our citizens."

Those are excellent goals, but his platform and public comments are aimed mostly at attacking the Council, falling short of the vision of city growth and development described by Tanner and Schumacher.

Brandon Rowley, a 23 year-old recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obisbo and San Diego Zoo employee, says he's running for office to "energize and empower young adults to become actively engaged in local government…and bring merit to the idea that younger voters matter in politics."

That's a worthy goal, especially in a city with a history of electing officials of a certain age only. Although Rowley's leadership experience falls short of my top two candidates, I hope he continues to be engaged in local politics. Both his resume and platform are impressive.

Business as usual is no longer acceptable in Carlsbad politics. Ann Tanner and Cori Schumacher have the experience, integrity and talent to begin replacing the elected officials who've been ignoring the best interests of their constituents.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Vista's Mixed Use Zone: A Developer's Dream

Imagine a city where developers are able to choose from among 57 different business enterprises for a downtown site, either for a single use or any combination thereof. Here's a small sample from the ala carte menu.

Bank or financial facility
Multi-family dwellings
Recycling collection facilities
Retail shops and restaurants
Check casher
Pawn Shop
Service stations
Bail bond businesses
Bargain-basement stores

Add to that list temporary uses for carnivals and circuses, a farmers market, and seasonal sales of pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Welcome to Vista, California, where the purpose of its Mixed Use Zone is "…to allow for a mix of residential and commercial, or just residential, or just commercial (standalone) land uses."

It's a developer's wet dream.

One developer has already received the go-ahead from the city's Planning Commission to build a high density, 41-unit apartment complex on a 1.5 acre site in a scenic downtown area known as Creekside.

He's now proposing an 88-unit apartment complex on a 3-acre site near City Hall, where he'll demolish a 22,000 square-foot building that once housed shops in the Breeze Hill Promenade Shopping Center.

Silvergate Development Manager Ian Gill introduced his plans two years ago. They've been met with strong opposition from a group calling themselves Vistans for a Livable Community, who say plans for Creekside and Breeze Hill violate twin goals listed in the Land Use and Community Identity Element of the city's General Plan: smart growth and sustainable development.

Opponents say the developer's plans should be denied because of their high density, which would create unacceptable additional parking demand, traffic hazards, the violation of smart growth goals, and the abandonment of balanced commercial growth.

At the City Planning Commission's September 6 meeting a motion to disapprove the Creekside plan was interrupted by the assistant city attorney, who claimed a state law required it to be approved unless there is documented evidence the project would have "a specific, adverse impact upon public health or safety." Following his opinion, Commissioners voted to approve the plan. That decision has now been appealed to the City Council by Deputy Mayor Amanda Rigby.

There's a solution to the developer's standoff with his opponents. He could build at both sites to conform to the density and building height requirements in the city's Multi-Residential Zone, like those governing the 300-unit Charlemont condos located near his Breeze Hill project, reducing density by limiting dwelling units to 15 per acre.

That would bring the number of Creekside apartment units down from 41 to 23 and the Breeze Hill plan from 88 to 45. The first floor of all buildings could be leased office and retail space, creating actual mixed use sites.

By doing so Silvergate could satisfy the land use and community identity goals in the General Plan: retaining and expanding the city's economic base, addressing housing needs, and maintaining the safety and convenience of roadway users.

But follow the money to see why that would be a non-starter with the Deep Pockets.

Pathfinder Partners LLC, a San Diego-based real estate investment firm, bought the Breeze Hill Promenade Retail Center for $7.35 million in August 2014. Here's what Mitch Siegler, Senior Managing Director of Pathfinder wrote in his April 2015 report to investors about the Breeze Hill purchase.

The center includes two free-standing buildings – one a national drug store chain and the other a national bank…Red hot demand for these. We’re planning to sell them and recover our entire investment. And we’ll be left with the 10-year-old, floundering inline retail center in back – for free. Highest and best use isn’t retail but residential. We hope to demolish the retail center and build 100 apartments.

That explains why the retail center floundered. Property owners were in no hurry to help it succeed. The Breeze Hill property changed to mixed-use in 2012 at the owner's request, when the city updated its general plan.

As one shop owner put it in a September 19 letter to Mayor Judy Ritter and the Vista City Council, "This was not a failed shopping center, it was a shopping center that was failed by its owners."

Her shop was located there from 2009 - 2014. Beginning with an application to rent a space, she described her experience with the leasing agency. After waiting two months for a reply, she called them back. It took another six months before the lease was hers.

The agency promised her several other businesses were on the way, the center was filling up. But over five years only three new businesses moved in.

She realized the owners had no intention of renting out the surrounding shops when one of her customers, planning to open an exercise business there, tried to contact them about renting a space. Her calls were never returned.

After the Planning Commission voted to table the Breeze Hill project until it gets an Environmental Impact Report, Silvergate's agitated Ian Gill drafted a letter to John Conley, Director of Community Development/Engineering, asking for an appeal of the Commission's action. Conley agreed to schedule the appeal, citing development code, section 18.04 .5 0B .2, reading: "…all decisions of the planning commission are appealable to the City Council."

City planners have told those opposing the projects the goals in the city's General Plan are only "guidelines," and that Silvergate's plans dot all the "i's" and cross all the "t's" in the building codes of the mixed use zone. Fair enough. But they may also be leading Vista backwards down a path toward the zone-free urban decay reminiscent of the 1950's.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Vista Planning Commission Meeting a Case of Deja Vu

A couple of days ago I came across an article in the Vista Press about the September 6 meeting of the city's Planning Commission, during which a developer's site plan to build a 41-unit apartment complex along Creek Walk in downtown Vista was approved (A Two Water Bottle Night at the City Planning Commission Meeting, Sept. 9). Writer Pat Murphy's description of the meeting was eerily reminiscent of the August 25, 2015 Carlsbad City Council meeting, where a developer's plan to build a shopping mall on the banks of the Hedionda Lagoon was unanimously approved, despite an overflow audience of residents voicing their opposition to the project.

Murphy called Vista's meeting a "two water bottle night" to describe the lengthy session, with standing room only attendance for opponents of the project. The first to speak was an individual introducing herself as a representative of a group calling themselves, "Vistans for a Livable Community." That sounded to me a lot like the group that dubbed themselves "Citizens for North County," who spearheaded the defeat of the developer's plan for Carlsbad.

The complaints about Vista's development plans also sound familiar. As Murphy put it, they were passionately anti-"high density" housing, with warnings of traffic congestion and inadequate parking. When one Commissioner pressed the parking issue, asking for an additional 11 parking spaces, and other Commissioners agreed, the developer readily granted their request.

Unlike the Carlsbad City Council's rock solid refusal to be moved by lagoon mall opponents, Vista's Planning Commission appeared swayed by audience opposition. They were about to vote to deny the developer's proposal, when Assistant City Attorney Jonathan Stone put a stop to their rush to judgment.

“Please let me inform you of something before you take your vote. According to State Law the Planning Commission cannot disapprove this type of project. There is a section of the California Fair Housing Act that you need to see.”

After a brief recess, and without a word about what they'd heard from Stone, the Commissioners voted 6 to 1 to approve the developer's plan.

So, what was the purpose of the public hearing? With no explanation of that mysterious codicil in California Code that stopped the planning commission and audience members in their tracks, I emailed Stone to ask for his source.

"The relevant statute is Government Code Section 65589.5(j)," Stone explained. "The statute requires approval of a housing development which 'complies with applicable, objective general plan and zoning standards and criteria, including design review standards…' unless the development will produce a 'specific adverse impact upon the public health or safety…' based on 'objective, identified written public health or safety standards.' "Subject to appeal rights to the City Council, Vista’s Planning Commission can finally approve applications for site development plans."

Stone's quotes are accurate but incomplete. The Code acknowledges another option for the Commission's decision: "to approve it upon the condition that the project be developed at a lower density." It appears the Commission could have chosen a third option.

If it's true they could only vote to approve the plan, the agenda item promising a "Public Hearing" was misleading. A more appropriate title would have been a "Report to the Public." It appears Vista city leaders have found the recipe for public distrust that the Carlsbad City Council found after last year's August 25th meeting.

The next step for Vistans for a Livable Community might be to exercise their appeal rights to the City Council, citing the same California law cited by Stone.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Election Day Rx for Tri-City Hospital

Will Voters Be the Cure?

According to a 2011/2012 San Diego Grand Jury Report, Tri-City Healthcare District Continuing Issues, May 30, 2012, "The Grand Jury believes the coming election to be an excellent opportunity for the electorate to remake the current Tri-City Hospital Board of Directors into a less distracting and more professional body,"

So, how did that go? In the four years since the 2012 election, the "remade" board fired its CEO, hired and fired his replacement, and hired another to take his place.

A series of failed lawsuits cost the hospital over $30 million in settlements, attorneys fees, and lost revenue resulting from bogus allegations related to the purchase of a medical office building that remains vacant to this day on the hospital's campus.

Yesterday, Tri-City attorneys filed a motion in Superior Court to avoid having to make a payment on the settlement of its most recent failed lawsuit. Chief Financial Officer Ray Rivas explained that the $12.1 million judgment could trigger a default on a line of credit that funds payroll, accounts payable and all other hospital expenses.

Is Tri-City on the brink of bankruptcy?

Two months ago I suggested the hospital start firing attorneys, rather than CEOs, (Tri-City's Fired CEO Cleared Again of Wrongdoing). But Irwin Schenker, an Oceanside resident with 35 years of experience in healthcare management, gave me an insider's view of Tri-City's Board of Directors. Flipping CEOs, it seems, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Schenker served from 2009 to 2013 as a citizen volunteer, appointed to the hospital's Finance, Operations and Planning Committee. The retired healthcare administrator told me that nothing in his long career had prepared him for the "series of sad circus events that passed for the Tri-City experience."

In the first Board of Directors meeting he attended, a discussion of how to terminate CEO Larry Anderson, about a year after he'd been hired, topped the agenda. He survived that first attempt, managing to hang on for nearly four more years.

Schenker told me the story of one board member who was so out of control with tirades, insinuations and insults the individual had to be excluded from attending meetings in person. Arrangements had to be made for the disruptive board member to sit in another room, fitted with electronic communications, to allow for limited participation.

The 2010 election brought another individual to the board whose behavior, according to Schenker, was even more bizarre. As well as disrupting meetings, on more than one occasion the new board member took a position on the hospital's front lawn to display signs warning visitors to go elsewhere for treatment, declaring Tri-City was unsafe for patients.

At one meeting, Schenker recalled, a board member challenged an audience member to a fistfight.

After two board members were replaced because of city residency requirements, the reconstituted board included two individuals who, it became apparent to Schenker, had a "hidden agenda" to fire Larry Anderson.

After Anderson was ousted, Schenker met with a couple of board members to question them about allegations of his dishonesty. They assured him the truth would shortly be made public. That "proof” never materialized.

After Schenker's four-year committee member term limit expired, he continued to attend board meetings open to the public. Here are some of his observations:

* Talented personnel have been terminated because of imagined loyalty to Anderson or lack of subservience to the board.

* "Fear and uncertainty have permeated the staff" because of continual changes in executive leadership.

* Financial reports are no longer as available to the public at meetings as they had been. Instead, an abbreviated financial report is briefly flashed on a screen. Cost items, such as legal expenses, part of comprehensive financial reports in the past, are no longer included.

* Opposing views are dealt with in a "mean-spirited manner," either by dismissal or, as was the case of one dissenting board member, an intimidating and expensive lawsuit.

San Diego County's Local Agency Formation Commission, (LAFCO), is a regulatory agency that provides information to guide the development of healthcare districts. In its May 5, 2015 report, LAFCO cited grand jury recommendations to "consider several governance alternatives for Tri-City, including merging the district with the neighboring Palomar Health HD, turning over hospital operations to an outside party, or selling Tri-City Medical Center to another health system."

On November 8 another four-member majority will be elected from the nine declared candidates. The incumbents: Larry Shallock, Julie Nygaard, Ramona Finnila and RoseMarie Reno were all there during the hospital's last four years of costly chaos.

Nygaard and Finnila are the most politically well-connected, having served a combined total of 26 years on the Carlsbad City Council.

In 2013 Reno was named Trustee of the Year by Modern Healthcare for her long years of service to Tri-City. Reno's board colleagues were apparently unimpressed. She was maliciously accused of a conflict of interest in the hospital's lawsuit related to the purchase of a medical office building, a case which collapsed in court. Reno was cleared of all charges of wrongdoing.

Among the five other candidates are Frank Gould, a retired Superior Court judge; Donna Rencsak, a psychotherapist; Leigh Anne Grass, a registered nurse; Marggie Castellano, a film/TV producer; and Dan Hughes, a business owner.

Combine any three of these five with the steady hand of RoseMarie Reno, and voters could get a new majority, free of the baggage of the last four years, bringing new hope for Tri-City's future. Given the legal issues bungled by the board, I'm hoping the retired judge will be among them.

California law will not allow a healthcare district to abandon an elected governing board. That means the only way to save Tri-City is at the polls.

Shortly after my wife and I arrived in Carlsbad 20 years ago, a Tri-City surgeon saved Karen's life. On November 8 we'll vote to save the hospital.