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.
Citizen activism triumphed over corporate greed last week when
Carlsbad voters defeated Measure A. If approved it would have transformed the
quiet beauty of one of the city's three pristine lagoons into the home of a Los
Angeles-style shopping center/tourist magnet.
The 53 percent voter turnout surpassed SD County's 45
percent in the 2014 gubernatorial election. The Citizens for North County activist
group opposing the measure raised $115,000 in donations to produce 20,362 NO
votes. That's less than $6 per voter.
The corporate bully, Caruso Affiliated, invested $11 million
on its lagoon mall project. The 18,806 YES votes cost Rick Caruso nearly $600 per
voter. The billionaire developer failed to generate enough votes to equal the
20,000 signatures he gathered on last summer's deceptive initiative campaign. It
seems my wife and I were just two of many others who were duped into signing the
initiative by Caruso's promise of a vote of the people.
The victory over a corporate bully in Carlsbad is not only a
lesson in democracy, it reveals how low cost grassroots campaigns using social
media can level the playing field. While Caruso had the big money, the little
people had the home field advantage.
A few weeks before the February 23 vote, Caruso boasted of
the support of, "allthe people who really matter." At
the top of his list were Mayor Matt Hall and council members Mark Packard and
Michael Schumacher. They became high profile spokespersons for the project, none
having to face voters this year. The other two Council members, Keith Blackburn
and Lorraine Wood, who will be up for re-election, have maintained low profiles after
having voted to approve the project on August 25.
Jimmy Ukegawa, owner of the Strawberry Fields farm, and Lisa
Rodman, CEO and only paid staff member of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, were
featured in Caruso-produced TV ads running daily, almost hourly it seemed, in the
final weeks before the special election. Union leaders for the fire and police
departments joined those poster children on TV. What these individuals had
in common was their political and financial interests in the developer's
The three Carlsbad residents who signed the Agua Hedionda
85/15 Specific Plan Initiative "TO BE SUBMITTED DIRECTLY TO THE VOTERS;"
a volunteer member of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, a former Chamber of
Commerce CEO, and a former city planner, seemed to be missing in action on Measure A.
By contrast, high profile supporters of the "No on A" campaign
were activist volunteers, environmentalists, surfers, and former city staff members with specialized knowledge of the project's impact. None were paid for their
work on the campaign.
Caruso's shopping mall competitor, Westfield, was not at all
involved in the referendum campaign, but stepped up to contribute $75,000 to
the Citizens for North County, a pittance compared to the flow from Caruso's
While unpaid "No on A" volunteers politely canvassed
the city, Caruso's paid operatives went door to door promoting the project.
Retirement homes and assisted care centers complained of unwelcome
electioneering of their residents.
After focus groups paying up to $200 to participants told
them Caruso's glossy mailers were more irritating than informative, the developer
turned to a flood of television ads in the weeks leading up to the
The developer opened an information tent at the Strawberry
Fields with paid staff to answer questions. Watercolor paintings were posted to
whet the appetites for the developer's promises. The 397-page description of his
85/15 plan was not available.
Meanwhile, Citizens for North County set up portable pop-up
tents for volunteers to answer questions.
In the final days leading up to the election mysterious
things began to happen to yard signs. The large, printed corporate style signs
for "Yes on A" began to exhibit identical slashes of red paint across
them. But it wasn't actually paint. Just another printed sign with the defacement. Some were partially torn. None masked the message. The
"Yes on A" remained readable. Smaller, untouched "No on A"
signs stood next to them.
The corporate-style signs began to be accompanied by printed
hand-drawn ones, mimicking those of "No on A," carrying a new slogan:
"Save our Lagoon, Yes on A." The developer's dirty tricks? I report, you decide.
Citizens for North County used Facebook, twitter and
YouTube to get their message out since there was very little mainstream media
coverage of the special election. UT San Diego, the county's only print daily
newspaper, endorsed the project.