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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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How the Little People Crushed a Corporate Bully

Preserving Carlsbad's Future the Right Way


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, "all the 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 success.

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 deep pockets.

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 election.

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.

The only regular media attention opposing Caruso came from the publication of my twelve blog postings, which were driven by my anger and guilt over being duped: TheRiehlWorld2.blogspot.com at OsideNews.com, the San Diego Free Press, and the weekly San Diego Reader.

While the little people triumphed this time, it appears Carlsbad has not seen the last of Rick Caruso. Here's what he said in his concession letter to supporters.

"I urge the residents of Carlsbad who supported me on Measure A to join me in finding ways to come together. I promise that we will be in touch very soon."

Will he return to the lagoon with a revised plan? Or does he have an oceanfront resort, replacing our seaside smokestack in mind? Or both? Stay tuned.


  1. My guess is that a majority of the people who ostensibly "supported" Caruso (man, that man has a ton of hubris) were simply misinformed on the crux of the issue due to the smoke and mirrors campaign put on by this LA developer. After speaking to the "NO" canvasers, and hearing their reports from the field, I made this conclusion. The "YES" types weren't voting FOR Caruso as he crudely stated in numerous forums; rather, they thought they were voting to "save the strawberry fields," or to "save the lagoon." They were misinformed. So at the end of the day, the vast, vast majority of Carlsbad residents got what they wanted.

  2. Just received this great summary from an anonymous writer.

    What went RIGHT in Carlsbad? Measure A Failed. Why? Simple explanation: People don’t like being lied to.
    Back in August when I decided to walk in the hot sun gathering signatures so that all the citizens of Carlsbad would have a chance to vote on the then-denoted “Agua Hedionda 85/15 Plan”, I made a point of telling everyone I spoke with that I was doing this so that they could vote; how they voted was up to them. I also made a vow to myself that if we earned the right to vote, I would try to stay out of it from that point on. With the exception of a few lapses in the week leading up to the election, I kept that vow. The fact that I was so busy working also precluded my being more involved had I chosen to do so.
    Now that the results are in, we are being asked to “forgive and forget”. I think I can forgive some of my fellow citizens for being so easily swayed. Heck, the week before the election even my own accountant told me she had already voted in favor. I didn’t storm out of her office. I accepted her right to make her own decision. I wonder, though, can the supporters forgive US for denying them their precious mall? Some of them were already celebrating their victory BEFORE all the votes were counted. Is this their idea of democracy? Only counting the votes of people who agree with you?
    I can even forgive Caruso. After all, we all know what he was in this for. He’s a businessman, and his goal is to make as much profit as he can and use every trick he can to do so. If people fall for it, caveat emptor, right?
    What I can’t forgive and none of us should ever forget is how the Mayor and City Council tried to rob us of our voice and our vote, how they sided with a developer and tried to sell us out, how they lied to us and about us, how they condoned bullying, harassment, and abuse, and how they acted as though their constituency consisted of only those who supported this project. People kept saying we should let our elected officials make the “difficult” choices for us. Well, they made a choice, but they took the “easy” route. Choices have consequences. Was this a wake-up call or will the Mayor and City Council see this as just a minor obstacle in their path and continue along the same road that divides the community?
    Why did Measure A fail? It failed because a group of concerned citizens chose to get involved. They mobilized (with NO outside help, at first); they communicated; they put in long hours doing research; they walked and sweated in the hot August sun, all without any compensation or reward. This is how true democracy works. Now, Mayor and City Council, would you like to bet on whether we can do it again?

    1. That is exactly how I feel about the Mayor and City Council! Very well said and clear!

    2. Well said! The only thing omitting is the arrogance of the city council with their decision making process. From the Union Tribune dated 28-Feb 2016, by Logan Jenkins stated in his article "What went wrong in Carlsbad" "Here’s the patronizing argument expressed unanimously by the council last summer: We and city staff in our infinite wisdom have studied this project and, believe us, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. This developer bent over backward to conform to our high standards. The initiative allowing Caruso to skirt nettlesome CEQA regulations was a practical move to save time and expense from lawsuits. For the same reason, we’re going to approve it outright. Why bother with a public vote when the outcome is assured?"


  3. Kudos for your journalistic integrity, beautifully summed up with "I report, you decide." On behalf of all those opposed to "A", you have our gratitude for your support and our thanks for helping to bring clarity to a complex issue.

  4. Carlsbad Voters..... Esepecially CNC ....Will ALWAYS Be Watching Him Eyes WIDE Open Forever Mr Caruso & Your Puppets ! Don't You forget !✌️Time for A NEW COUNCIL & a MAYOR ..... Who will listen to ALL OF CARLSBAD ......WE MATTERED ....HOPE YOU SEE THAT NOW .....

  5. The Caruso Affiliated corporate overview notes development principals that include targeting communities whose residents possess "high levels of education". Carlsbad voters did their homework and did not disappoint.👍
    I look forward to the November elections.

  6. Well said and how our side feels, strongly Kim Trujillo.

  7. Thanks Richard. We still have a few items on the agenda.
    I am wondering, the commercial zoning was changed by the city just recently. They will not change it back for obvious liability reasons but, I feel it should be reversed back to the zoning it was, by specific plan I believe. A tourist serving (TS) designation. This is must more suited to the parcel next to the freeway, allowing Caltrans to implement the new ramp at Cannon. We really don't need a mall, any mall ot 600,000 of retail at the site. Would this be a good subject for you to tackle?

  8. Yes, Michael, it would. Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. I am grateful to everyone who took the time to do their own fact finding. It was a long and stifling campaign waged by the developer and his fawning followers. Many I spoke with had no idea what was in that 397 page law. They took it on faith that Mr. Caruso would deliver on his promises. He had after all all those that mattered on his side. I hope all you folks that matter enjoy the humble pie being served with the developers Kool-aide. I heard those tacos at the Sheraton were tasty! I hope I never have to witness such an event as this bungled "Citizens Initiative" process written and paid for by a non-citizen anfd using hired liars to achieve his goals. Thank you to everyone that matters.

  10. Thanks Richard. I grew up among farmers and never heard of anyone offering to save a soybean field by building a mall! I'm so grateful to have had a chance to participate in the NO group. Up until this wonderful win, I thought Carlsbad's motto was 'no plot shall go undeveloped". Thanks again.

  11. Many Thanks Richard. We needed everyone's combined efforts on our "vertical" climb up to the victory platform. I'll say it again.... this was Carlsbad's "Harry Truman" moment and we shall use this victory to springboard our City government forward in a positive manner that represents what we want .... not what rich and deceitful businessmen/politicians want. The CC and Mayor undoubtedly know today that we mean business and that their actions will have a large bearing on their collective futures as elected officials in our City.

  12. Very well said, Andrew. I do believe we're seeing a turning point in city politics, and I look forward to writing about that.

  13. Next time we gather signatures, it ought to be a 2-for-1….Recall combined with ballot initiative that establishes term limits. We don't need any more regimes.

  14. I agree completely Rosa, well stated! We need to keep in mind the politicians and citizens that campaigned for A with only their personal political and financial interests in the developer's success and not the true interests of the citizens of Carlsbad.