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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Referendum Signatures Stun Caruso, City Council Pals

Strawberry Field Owner's Campaign Donations Revealed

It must have been quite a shock for L.A.'s Caruso Affiliated executives to see the stack of signed petitions delivered to the Carlsbad city clerk's office last Thursday. The 9,000 signers of the referendum petition are calling for a public vote on the developer's plan for a lagoon-view shopping center, as promised in the title of the initiative, Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters.

When the Carlsbad city Council unanimously approved his plan on August 25, Caruso had already spent nearly $3 million on signature gatherers and a blizzard of glossy, full-color mailers to persuade 20,000 Carlsbadians that his plan to build a shopping mall was all about saving the Strawberry Fields.

The day after the council voted, a grassroots group, Citizens for North County, announced its plan to launch a referendum drive. Caruso had to redouble his marketing campaign. But this time his mailers, accompanied by daily prime time TV ads, featured headshot photos of and quotes from all five city Council members, as well as the owner of the Strawberry Fields. Each repeated the lie that signing the referendum would destroy the Strawberry Fields, despite the promise of Prop D to preserve them, passed by voters in 2006. The Caruso mailer included a detachable, postage-paid card to return to the city clerk for signers of the referendum to have their names withdrawn.

About 700 signers chose to do so. Caruso relied on the confusion caused by his two dishonest campaigns to "Save the Strawberry Fields," the first by signing an initiative, the second by refusing to sign a referendum, to keep residents from signing anything. Heads he wins, tails we lose.

While the strange bedfellows of big-money and elected officials urged us to turn down our right to vote, the citizen-led referendum drive soldiered on, relying on social media to generate hundreds of volunteers to station themselves in city parks and other public places to collect 9,000 signatures in 30 days on a paltry $9,000 budget. That's 300 signatures a day at a dollar apiece.

It took 90 days for Caruso's professional signature gatherers to snag 20,000 signatures. With a $3 million budget, that amounts to only 222 signatures a day at $150 each.

I couldn't help but wonder why the city Council not only refused to put the Caruso plan up for a vote in a special election, but even to delay their decision for 30 days to enable residents to be more fully informed. The August 25 meeting was packed with dissenters. You'd think elected officials would be more responsive to their constituents.

That made me curious about campaign contributions, so I went to the city's website, where I found, among Mayor Matt Hall's financial supporters, the name of James Ukegawa, the man you see posing in the Strawberry Fields on Caruso's mailers and in his TV ads. He's identified as a "Carlsbad Strawberry Company Farmer" on the mayor's filing form, stamped by the city clerk on July 30, 2014. Ukegawa's $5,000 contribution is dated June 7, 2014.

The "Strawberry Company Farmer" is identified on Michael Schumacher's campaign finance filing as the "Owner of Aviara Farms." He made two contributions to Schumacher's campaign, one for $2,500 on September 12, 2014, the other for $1,760 on October 29, 2014.

Mayor Hall and Council member Schumacher had $9,260 good reasons between them to support their favorite constituent.

As I perused the many other contributions to the campaigns of these two candidates, I noted the number of out of town real estate companies, building and construction firms, and for some unknown reason, the special generosity of the executives of the Rancho Santa Fe Grand Pacific Resorts. I'll leave that mystery to an investigative reporter, if there are any left after the collapse of print journalism.

The willingness to accept significant contributions from out of town businesses shows the hypocrisy of elected officials who blame "outside interests" for the success of a referendum drive. Click here to find the city's web page disclosing campaign contributions.

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters has 30 days, not including weekends, to validate the referendum's signatures to see if there are 6,523, the magic number that will force the city Council to either hold a special election or put Caruso's plan on the ballot in the 2016 general election.

A few years ago, Carlsbad boasted of a $50 million reserve fund, I'm guessing it's grown substantially since then. The city says the cost of a special election would be $500,000. Mayor Hall says it would be a waste of money. Considering what's at stake, I'd say it's a bargain.    

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No 'Bird's Eye View' of Nordy's-On-The-Lagoon

Deadline Looms for Vote on L.A. Developer's Plan

While paid signature gatherers raced through neighborhoods representing themselves as concerned citizens on a mission to save the Strawberry Fields, a glossy mailer appeared in my mailbox titled, A Bird's Eye View of the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Plan, with a full color sketch of an aerial view of the site.

Birds apparently can't see shopping centers. The verdant landscape is littered with thumbnail photos of a family at a picnic table, a man picking strawberries, a couple strolling down a path and a guy inexplicably carrying a surfboard, as he walks away from the waveless lagoon behind him. A small amphitheater is nestled amid the lush greenery.

Read the fine print to discover what's missing from the sketch, the "outdoor retail, shopping, dining…promenade." After the Carlsbad city council unanimously approved the plan, despite the promise of its title in the document filed with the city clerk on May 12, "INITIATIVE MEASURE TO BE SUBMITTED DIRECTLY TO THE VOTERS" (my emphasis), it's become clear that birds were not the only ones who failed to see the entire developer's plan.

A promenade sounds far more attractive than a shopping center. To discover what Caruso has in mind, check out the Specific Plan's Visitor- Serving Commercial Development Standards. The 26.7 acres will include 13 acres of building floor space, twice that of the Carlsbad Premium Outlets. The maximum height of buildings will be 35 feet, or three stories high. Protrusions from the tops of those buildings will be allowed, up to 55 feet, to accommodate flagpoles, steeples, elevator housing, architectural towers and wireless masts. A cluster of multi-level parking garages will be included. I could find no limit to the number of three-story buildings permitted on the site.

In addition to Nordstrom and a collection of upscale shopping boutiques and dining facilities, Caruso's promenade will be open to banks and financial services, management and leasing offices, limited office spaces for lease, barber shops/salons, electric car charging stations and travel agencies. The site will rival the city's downtown in shopping and civic amenities.

It makes you wonder how the plan will affect the Carlsbad Village Master Plan, intended to rejuvenate the downtown, since, "competition from modern shopping centers had sucked away much of the area’s commercial vitality." Will we see empty shop windows in the Village when downtown customers are drawn to the lagoon's shops, and downtown owners go out of business because they can't afford the rent to move there?  

The best way to picture Carlsbad's Strawberry Fields Mall is to take a look at the L.A. developer's last creation.

In my last posting here I suggested going to the city's website to find the most accurate description of the plan. I should have directed you only to the official documents found there, with a warning not to stop at the page titled Fast Facts. Be as wary of fast facts as you are of fast talkers.

Here's the preamble to the page: "Chances are, some of what you have heard is not true. The city’s goal is to ensure the community has access to accurate, unbiased information." What follows is a series of answers to hypothetical questions. Here's the answer to the question that gave rise to the Citizens for North County's volunteer-led petition for a vote of the people.

Question: Were voters tricked into signing the petition (to save the strawberry fields)?

Answer: The city attorney's impartial title and summary appeared on every signature page. The summary clearly described what was being proposed under the plan. 

Click on the link and you will find a description of the plan all right, but no commitment to save the strawberry fields, and no warning that five city council members could approve it without a vote of the people. The integrity of city officials can be questioned when they claim signers of the petition were fully-informed when confronted with signature gatherers paid by a developer hell bent on bypassing city voters.

Whether you were tricked into signing the petition, or fully support the developer's plan, I hope you will agree a project of this importance to the community should be able to gain voter support. The petition for a vote must gather enough signatures by September 24 to be put on the ballot in a special election this year, or in next year's general election. If you are a registered voter in Carlsbad and have not already done so, click here to find the locations of volunteer signature gatherers before the deadline.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Carlsbad City Council Backs Caruso Bogus Claims

Strawberry Fields Not Threatened by Vote

Caruso Affiliated's latest glossy mailer features the smiling faces of the five city Council members who voted unanimously to approve the developer's plan to build a Strawberry Fields mall. Directly below the beaming politicians is the plea, Don't let outside interests end the Strawberry Fields and take away what's ours, followed by the command, Don't sign the petition. You're invited to "get the facts" from a link to Caruso's corporate marketing campaign.

You'd think our public officials would refer us to the city's website, where you can find unbiased documents related to the developer's plan, like Prop D, passed by the voters in 2006, and the entire Agua Hedionda South Shore Specific Plan (AH-SP). So I went to the city's website, where I found this. "The City of Carlsbad did not sponsor the initiative and, by law, no public resources may be used to advocate for or against an initiative or referendum."

I'm sure council members got legal advice before climbing aboard Caruso's campaign train to keep their constituents away from the voting booth. They are merely trumpeting the wisdom of their decision. But how can they explain their opposition to the referendum? The website explains there is no referendum yet filed with the city clerk. Council members might be successfully skirting the law, but next year's election will allow voters a say in the wisdom of that.

Prop D can be found here. These two sections caught my eye. 3.1.8 The city shall also ensure that… the existing Strawberry Fields are allowed to continue as long as it is economically viable for the landowner to do so." Despite this promise, the Caruso/City Council mailer claims putting the AH-SP up for a vote will mean the loss of "Jimmy Ukegawa's iconic Carlsbad Strawberry Company, our strawberry farming heritage and protections for coastal agriculture."

Because of my guilty conscience about signing an initiative I was told was a citizen's-led effort to save the Strawberry Fields, I vowed to read the entire 397-page document, which can be found here. It's titled, Initiative Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters, received May 12,  2015. You read that right. No mention of the city council's authority to rubberstamp it, and a very good reason many of us felt misled.

The "intent" of the AH-SP, according to its introduction, is to "provide for the continuation of coastal agriculture and strawberry farming," mirroring Prop D. Neither guarantees financial support for the fields. The city's website claims AH-SP would "guarantee continued agriculture on the site in perpetuity by providing financial support to the top farming operation." Note the absence of the words "Strawberry Fields."

You also won't find those words in the AH-SP's guarantee of financial support. "The Specific Plan establishes revenue sources from the Specific Plan's visitor-serving commercial uses, and/or from private funding, to dedicate, improve, restore, operate, and maintain in perpetuity the dedicated open space areas at no tax burden to Carlsbad residents."

Contrary to the Caruso/city Council mailer, just as signing the petition for the initiative did not guarantee Strawberry Fields forever, refusing to sign the referendum petition will not save them from being plowed under the day after the new Nordstrom's is open for business. It will only save the land for agriculture, with a vague promise to subsidize growers, with funding from a variety of unnamed sources.

The city Council's rubber stamp and promotion of the Agua-Hedionda Specific Plan is both irresponsible and unseemly. For elected officials to mount a campaign urging their constituents not to vote is both ironic and politically stupid. 

Carlsbad residents have only 13 days left to sign the referendum petition. Signature gatherers are going door-to-door and setting up tables at local parks. Here's this week's schedule. Click here for future sites.

Mon-Fri  9/14-9/18 , 3  - 5 PM              Dove Library      
Tues 9/ 15,   4 - 7 PM                            Stagecoach Park
Wed 9/16,  4 – 7 PM                              Poinsettia Park
Thurs 9/17, 4 - 7 PM                             Calavera Hills Community Park
Fri 9/ 18,  4 - 7 PM                                Alga Norte Community Park

Monday, September 7, 2015

Have You No Shame , Mr. Caruso?

When my wife and I arrived at Alga Norte Park last week to be among the first to sign the referendum to let us vote on the city Council's decision to allow a developer to build a shopping center on the Hedionda Lagoon, we found two tables there, the first set up to dissuade those of us headed for the referendum table nearby. The folks supporting the Caruso development were pleasant enough, inviting us to hear their side of the story. But having already been duped into signing a petition to "save the Strawberry Fields," only to learn we'd been misled, we headed straight for the referendum table a few yards away.

While we were a little disappointed to see the opposition nearby, we concluded it was just an example of a healthy democracy at work. But when the relentlessly dishonest television ads began to flood the local channels it became clear Rick Caruso's multi-million dollar marketing campaign remained in full swing. Then a glossy mailer arrived, paid for by Preserving Carlsbad Open Space the Right Way, Inc. (2350 Kerner Blvd., Suite 250, San Rafael, CA), "with major funding by Caruso Affiliated." It featured a quote from the Carlsbad Strawberry Company owner, Jimmy Ukegawa, the person most likely to benefit from having a shopping center next door to his business. He claims, "The efforts of corporate interests from outside of California and others to overturn our city Council's approval of the 85/15 Plan is an attempt to kill off my family strawberry farm and end coastal agriculture in Carlsbad."

Ukegawa is apparently unaware of the provisions of proposition D, passed by the voters in 2006. It specifically promotes farming in the area in question, for as long as it is economically feasible. It also provides for a comprehensive planning process, with significant citizen input, to determine appropriate open space uses. In fact, it raises agricultural uses of the property from priority 5 to priority 1. The owner of the Strawberry Fields has no more to fear from a public vote on the Council's decision than any other business owner in Carlsbad.

But the most troubling spin of these ads is linking the call for a vote of the people to, "corporate interests from outside of California" and "others." Rick Caruso must be having nightmares about his failed project in Arcadia eight years ago, where the city Council unanimously approved his plan for The Shops at Santa Anita mall next to the race track before a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled the project's environmental impact report had to be revised before the plan could move forward. Judge James C. Chalfant found 11 points of contention in the original environmental impact report, ranging from air quality to solid waste to traffic mitigation (L.A. Times, July 25, 2008). After the Arcadia City Council approved his plan it was challenged in lawsuits by neighbor Westfield Santa Anita and its community advocacy group Arcadia First!

Sound familiar? It must have been a déjà vu moment for the developer when he learned of the citizens for North County referendum campaign. But this time, after publicly blaming Carlsbad's Westfield mall for launching the same attack he faced in Arcadia, Westfield's vice president for corporate relations shot back, "Despite the use of the Westfield name in false statements by Caruso and others, Westfield is not providing any support, financial or otherwise, to the referendum drive." He promptly retreated to blaming "outside of California corporate interests," turning to the old Nixonian explanation for civil unrest.

When Caruso refers to "others," he's talking about you and me. Sign the referendum before September 24 and get the right to vote on the future of Carlsbad's open space by the beach.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Award-winning Carlsbad Author Pens Murder Mystery

Proud to prepare this press release for my prolific writer wife and love of my life.

Carlsbad author, Karen Truesdell Riehl, a 2015 San Diego Book Awards winner for Helga: Growing up in Hitler's Germany, has published her ninth e-book: Deception's Sins: A Roger Sundbee Mystery, now available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, iPhone, iPad, PC, MAC and other digital devices. Her writing achievements are remarkable, given her lifelong battle with dyslexia. She was unable to read until the age of 10. Her first book was a memoir, Love and Madness, My Private Years with George C Scott, recounting her 30-year hidden romance with the international film star.

Deception's Sins is the second in a series featuring Roger Sundbee. The young tennis pro who left Indiana after uncovering a small town's hidden stories (Freedom's Sins), has moved on to Deception Island, ten miles by ferry from Seattle. It seemed the perfect place to start a new life. But when Zeke Perry's body is found on the beach with a rope around his neck, Roger, the island's newcomer and the last person to have been seen with Zeke alive, becomes the prime suspect.

In an early review, Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite says this about Riehl's latest book. "Karen Truesdell Riehl's murder mystery is a droll and witty story with a fascinating location and a rich historical backdrop. She makes each person living on Deception Island seem real, with their own histories and dreams. The historical details woven into the plot are marvelous. I enjoyed reading Deception's Sins and hope to read other stories starring the multi-talented Roger Sundbee."