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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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mayor Spins Results of City's Public Opinion Survey

Carlsbad Land Use Plans Don't Match Community Vision

At the California Coastal Commission's May 11 meeting Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall testified that the city's General Plan, updated last September, reflects the community's vision for its future. But the responses to Carlsbad's 2009 Public Opinion Visioning Survey Report paint a different picture.

Hall claimed the plan "provides a policy framework  that will ensure we live up to our community vision and ensure an excellent quality of life for all who live, work, and visit our coastal city. In fact, values like small town beach community character, access to recreation and open space and multi-modal transportation are top of mind for our residents and given high priority in our General Plan."

But when you find the General Plan's land use changes allow mixed use commercial/residential development and high density shopping malls to be built near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and on property where the Encina Power Plant now stands, you begin to see the disconnect with the community's actual vision.

Hall is right about the Carlsbad Community Vision contained in the General Plan. But implying the new land uses reflect that vision suggests that he either didn't read the findings of the 2009 survey very carefully, or he chose to misrepresent them.

In March of 2009 the survey was mailed to every household in the city. Over 7,000 residents responded, achieving a statistical 95 percent level of confidence in its results.

The following are the highlights Hall failed to mention.

Responding to what should be the city's top priority in planning, two out of three (65 percent) chose, Protecting natural habitats in and around Carlsbad. Only one in four (26 percent) picked, Increasing revenue for the City to maintain and improve the services and programs currently offered.

Invited to make an open-ended response to The Number One Way to Improve the Quality of Life, more than half listed one of these nine, in the following order:

1. Stop/limit development
2. Increase parks and recreation facilities
3. Reduce crime
4. Preserve open space
5. Preserve beach/improve amenities
6. Green the city
7. Reduce traffic
8. Beautify the city
9. Preserve small town feel

Only one in ten listed either Expand and improve shopping and dining opportunities, or Keep city financially strong as their top quality of life priority.

Seven out of ten respondents rated the current shopping and dining opportunities in Carlsbad "good" or "excellent." Only one in four rated them as "fair" or "poor."

Maybe Mayor Hall's attention was drawn to the responses to the question of the Number One Way to Improve the City's Economy, where one in three placed Expand and improve shopping and dining opportunities at the top of their list. But two out of three chose other ways. Attracting bio/high tech and other companies/more jobs topped their list.

And when it comes to the types of new stores and businesses preferred, four in ten chose Small, independent or specialty retail stores and services, two in ten chose Tourist attractions and services, and only one in ten preferred Large retail stores.

In a survey section titled, Opinion Closest to Own: View on Number of Stores, Restaurants, and Businesses in Carlsbad, two fictional city residents were described.

Mr. Smith believes the city should increase the number of stores, restaurants and other businesses to provide more shopping, and dining opportunities for residents, which he believes would generate more money to fund city services.

Ms. Davis thinks the  city should limit the number of stores, restaurants and other businesses to stop the increase of traffic congestion and pollution, which she says are more costly than the tax revenue generated by new businesses. Respondents were asked to select the opinion closest to their own.

Forty-six percent agreed with Davis to limit development, 40 percent with Smith. Fourteen percent were unsure.

Carlsbad's Measure A, which would have allowed billionaire developer Rick Caruso to build his Lagoon Mall, failed at the polls on February 23 in a 52 percent to 48 percent vote, the exact spread in the make-believe contest between Davis and Smith.

Not only did Mayor Hall spin the results of the city's public opinion survey to justify his love of developers, the survey results reveal that he and his councilmember buddies could have predicted the storm of protests over their unanimous vote to approve Caruso's deceptive shopping mall scheme.

Had the Council called for a vote of the people at its August 25 meeting they would have saved the city the expense of a special election and the damage done to the community by the divisiveness it created.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Coastal Commission Halts Carlsbad Mayor's Land Use Shell Game

Find the Hidden Mega Mall

Thanks to the vigilance of California Coastal Commissioner Olga Diaz and the leadership of Carlsbad City Council candidate Cori Schumacher, regional shopping centers and mixed use residential developments were not allowed to sneak past the California Coastal Commission at its May 11 meeting to approve a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) Amendment to the city's General Plan Update.

In a shell game disguised as "consolidating land use designations," Mayor Matt Hall told commissioners there were no substantive changes to the city's land use plan for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Public Use Corridor in combining "Travel/Recreation Commercial," "Travel Services" and "Recreation commercial" into the single title, "Visitor Commercial."

As Carlsbad voters will recall, an L.A. developer named Rick Caruso tried to bypass voters and state environmental impact reviews last year with a bogusly named "citizen-led" initiative, the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Specific Plan, which would have changed the land use of 27 acres near the lagoon from Travel Services (TS) to Visitor Serving Commercial (VSC), allowing a regional shopping mall to be built there. Carlsbad volunteer activists launched a successful referendum to force a vote on the project that led to the landslide defeat of the developer's Measure A at the polls. Surely, that would send Caruso packing.

But there was a reason for the billionaire developer to stick around town.

After Measure A failed, the land use designation for 48 acres adjacent to the lagoon returned to Travel Services (TS). But, hell bent on continuing to make the lagoon-side property attractive to developers, the city asked that it be changed to VC (Visitor Commercial) when it submitted its LCP Amendment to the Coastal Commission in April.

While Mayor Matt Hall described the change as simply semantic, consolidating previous land use designations in the city's General Plan, Cori Schumacher took a closer look. She discovered the VC designation would have permitted mixed use residential/commercial development on the 48-acre site. Thanks to her discovery, 140 Carlsbadians wrote to the Coastal Commission to object to the inclusion of mixed use residential development for that property, as well as the site of the soon to be shut down Encina Power Plant, part of which the city wants to be changed from Public Utility to VC.

The day before the Coastal Commission's May meeting citizen activist Amanda Mascia discovered the city's VC designation would allow shopping centers on both the 48 acre lagoon-side site and the power plant property, despite the will of the people in defeating Measure A.

At the commission's May 11 meeting Mascia produced a copy of an April 6, 2016 memo from Jennifer Jesser, Senior City Planner, to City Manager Kevin Crawford. Jesser advised Crawford the change from TS (also referred to as "TR" by the commission) to VC is appropriate because, "Commercial development in Carlsbad since 1994 has shown that visitors are also served (and drawn to the city) by specialty, visitor-serving and attracting retail developments, such as the Carlsbad Premium Outlets and The Forum Carlsbad."

Mascia's testimony spurred Commissioner Diaz to ask commission staff what changes would be allowed in changing TR to VC. She referred to the staff report submitted with the meeting's agenda that called on the city to "initiate a comprehensive assessment of the city's current stock of visitor serving uses before an implementation plan and zoning for the VC land use designation could be approved."

Diaz pinned down staffer Toni Ross, Coastal Program Analyst, with the question, "Would changing from TR to VC allow shopping centers?" Despite the city planner's April 6 memo, Ross claimed VC wouldn't add anything more to what is already allowed for TR because the TR allows for retail shopping. He declined to answer whether the changed designation would allow regional shopping centers to be built there. Without explaining how, Ross echoed Mayor Hall's claim that the change would be an improvement simply by "consolidating land use" designations.

For their part, the mayor and assistant city manager chose not to respond at all to Diaz's request for clarification. Their silence spoke louder than words. Let them guess what we've hidden under Visitor Commercial after we've shuffled the shells of TS, TR and RC.

Seeking closure, Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb explained, "Today's decision is on land use only, not zoning, which would have to be addressed later, after comprehensive review of visitor serving uses in the city." She recommended the exclusion of the land use change for the two properties in question if the commission believes the VC designation "is not consistent with the City's General Plan."

Four votes were taken. The first was to reject the original proposal submitted by the city. The other three involved excluding the two properties in question from land use changes and approving the city's LCP Amendment with mapping modifications recommended by staff and previously agreed to by the city.

The Coastal Commission's approval of the city's LCP with modifications was celebrated as a victory by the citizen activists attending the meeting. Without excluding the two properties, the VC land use designation would have allowed shopping malls, as well as mixed use residential/commercial development if supporting implementation and zoning plans were later approved by the Coastal Commission.

The city's website, reporting the vote of the commission, "Coastal Commission Approves Land Use Updates" is more of a face-saving gesture by elected officials than helpful information for their constituents. There's no explanation of why the commission "deferred approval" of the VC land use changes, no mention of the commission meeting's debate over whether shopping centers and homes could be built on those two properties, only a vague reference to needing "more time to consider clarifications." No mention was made of the commission's call for a "comprehensive analysis and inventory of current visitor serving uses."

At the City Council's May 17 meeting Mayor Hall told Christine Wright and Vickey Syage, public speakers who criticized the city's presentation to the Coastal Commission, that he and staff would be happy to meet with anyone who would like to hear about the decision, and that understanding the commission's ruling was a "matter of semantics, and it's important for everyone to be on the same page."

For starters he could explain why he resorted to a shell game with the California Coastal Commission to hide incentives for greedy developers.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Will Challengers in Carlsbad Council Race Change City Politics?

Evidence of Big Money Guiding Council Decisions

Five candidates have declared their intention to challenge the two at-large incumbents in Carlsbad's city council election in November. If they want to bring real change, beyond the addition of new faces, to the city's go-along-to-get-along political cronyism, they should also lobby for a new city ordinance to limit the amount and source of campaign donations from individuals, business interests and special interest groups, beginning with the 2018 election.

That's when the three other council members, who did the most damage to the council's credibility in the last two years, will be up for reelection. There's plenty of evidence big money, much of it from out of town, guides the decisions of these city leaders.

Mayor Matt Hall's 2014 campaign collected $9,500 from five donors who ponied up at least $1,000, the largest a $5,000 donation from Jimmy Ukegawa, the owner of the strawberry fields and the one person, other than billionaire L.A. developer Rick Caruso, who had the most to gain from a shopping mall on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Hall's four other deep pocket donors were executives with connections to the city's Grand Pacific Resort hotels.

Councilmember Michael Schumacher (no relation to city council candidate Cori Schumacher) was the King of Collections from high-roller donors to his 2014 campaign, amassing $23,760 in contributions of $1,000 or more from eleven donors. 

Jimmy Ukegawa was his greatest benefactor at $4,260. Brian Rupp, the President of Shopoff Realty Investments, based in Irvine, California, kicked in another $2,650. That's the firm with its eye on property east of Ponto Beach in south Carlsbad, where Rupp proposes to build 191 apartment and luxury townhomes, a public plaza, shops, and restaurants. Cameron Hulse, a Carlsbad orthodontist, added another $2,500 to Schumacher's campaign war chest.

Schumacher's eight other deep pocket donors included: Sharad Khandwala, the Solana Beach investor who brought the Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites to Palomar Airport Road; the California Association of Realtors; and an assortment of other commercial real estate owners and managers of property throughout the city.

Councilmember Mark Packard received a total of $3,500 in donations of $1,000 or more from three individuals to his 2014 campaign. His largest was $1,500 from Sharad Khandwala (see above). The other two included a San Diego Commercial Real Estate Services firm and a San Diego General Building Contractor.

Carlsbad's not alone in North San Diego County in attracting big money from out-of-towners. There's no limit to campaign contributions in Oceanside, either. Jerry Kern, a candidate for re-election to the city Council in 2014, collected $5,000 from L.A.'s California Real Estate Political Action Committee and another $3,500 from the Building Industry Association of San Diego, among his supporters who gave $1,000 or more to his campaign.

Another Oceanside city council member, Gary Felien, got $5,000 from the California Real Estate PAC and another $5,000 from Ure Kretowics, a LaJolla real estate developer, for his 2014 re-election campaign.

Meanwhile, Carlsbad's three neighboring cities to the south and east all have campaign contribution limits. Vista's $440 limit applies to all contributors, whether they are a business, committee, group or individual. San Marcos and Encinitas limit campaign donors to no more than $250.

Kristin Gaspar's 2014 Encinitas mayoral campaign raised about $30,000. I didn't count the number of her donors, but the city's $250 limit means she had to have at least 120 to produce that amount of money. It took the Carlsbad Three a mere 18 donations to raise almost $37,000.

To Carlsbad's credit, its website is the most accessible and transparent of any other North County city to campaign donations and statements of economic interests of elected officials.

You can get there with only three clicks, beginning with the homepage tab labeled, "City Hall." Click on "Open Government," then "Disclosure and Ethics," then choose from either "Statement of Economic Interests Filings" or "Campaign Financial Disclosure Statements" to examine official reports of a given public official or candidate.

The Carlsbad citizen activists who defeated a billionaire developer at the polls despite being outspent 100 to 1, should turn their attention now, not only to replacing the council's old guard beginning in November, but to reforming campaign financing that invites corruption.

They can begin today by lobbying for limits to the dollar amount allowed and source of support of the city's political campaigns. Leaders who owe their success to big money from a few out of town interests can hardly be expected to act in the best interests of the majority of their constituents.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Citizen Activists Spawn Carlsbad's Political Revolution

While outsiders Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attack insider politics at the national level, a rapidly growing number of local citizen activists, who Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall once claimed were controlled by outside agitators, have launched a political revolution of their own. It began on August 25, 2015, when the City Council ignored the objections of an overflow crowd of residents calling for a special election to decide whether a billionaire L.A. developer would be entrusted with the future of the city's pristine Agua Hedionda Lagoon for the next 30 years.

The Council had three choices that evening. They could put off their decision for thirty days to seek citizen input, they could call a special election, or they could approve the project. They voted unanimously to approve it. Outraged opponents gathered enough signatures to overrule the council's decision and put the matter up for a vote. Measure A, supporting the council's decision to allow the developer to build a shopping mall at the lagoon, was easily defeated, thanks to an army of volunteer political activists.

The defeat of Measure A turned out to be a watershed moment for city politics. The explosion of social media sites, packed city Council meetings, a proliferation of speakers at those meetings, the mayor's attempts to silence audience applause for those speakers, the demand for an apology from the mayor for his support of the billionaire developer, all speak of the unrest facing city leaders.

To their credit, or maybe just because of the approaching election, the Council seems to be listening now. After Mayor Hall initially dragged his feet, the Council passed an ordinance banning the sale of puppy mill dogs. A decision was delayed on the Village and Barrio Master Plan until a parking study is completed next year. A promise was made not to seek any more advice from Dover, Kohl and Partners, the Florida consultants who developed the flawed $380,000 vision for the plan.

If Carlsbad's political revolution is to succeed it will require the support of many who voted yes on Measure A. The ban on the sale of puppy mill dogs built a coalition of supporters from the opposing sides of that vote. Judging from the posts on social media, there's also a growing consensus on the future of the village and barrio.

Take, for example, Thomas K. Arnold, a writer for the Seaside Courier and strong supporter of the Caruso lagoon mall project. He accused Measure A opponents of intentionally misleading voters. He's now being praised by them for his May 31 article, Carlsbad, let's remain a village. Maybe there's hope for him to join those who seek replacements of the Council's old guard.

The influence of outside interests on council members can be found in their statements of economic interests and campaign donations. The mayor, a major landowner in the city, stands to gain personally from the downtown's economic development. Two other council members not up for reelection in the fall received substantial support from out of town commercial real estate investors in their last campaigns.

Mayor Matt Hall lists on his 2015 Statement of Economic Interests Form the eight Carlsbad addresses where he owns rental property. The first is the Senor Grubby's building on Carlsbad Village Drive. The other seven are on Tyler Street. Five of them have estimated fair market values above $1 million.

Hall's 2014 mayoral campaign received a $249 donation from Shopoff Real Estate in Irvine, the firm proposing a mixed-use development with commercial space, restaurants, and 191 apartment and luxury townhomes in south Carlsbad, east of Ponto Beach. He got another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, a San Diego firm that manages the Carlsbad Research Center Association.

Council member Michael Schumacher received $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, $2,650 from Shopoff Real Estate, $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, President of Alps Group of Hotels, a San Diego based development/management company that brought the Holiday Inn Carlsbad and the nearby Staybridge Suites to Palomar Airport Road.

Council member Mark Packard got $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, as well as another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet.

I'm predicting the three will vote as one through 2017.

There are already five declared challengers for the other two seats in the November 8 election, in addition to the two incumbents. Unfortunately, the three Council members who aren't facing reelection until 2018 were the most outspoken supporters of the lagoon mall. But all five allowed their faces to be featured on the developer's glossy promotional mailers. If the two running for reelection keep their seats, don't expect change in the way the Council does business, at least not until 2018.

Incumbents Keith Blackburn and Lorraine Wood begin their campaigns well-funded by money carried over from their 2012 campaigns. Blackburn has a cash balance of $122,000. Woods has $12,400. The two share the services of an Oceanside resident, Mary Azevedo, as their campaign treasurer.

Their coffers were, no doubt, enhanced by a shared fundraiser on June 2nd at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa, hosted by Grand Pacific Resorts, whose executives contributed $4,000 to Mayor Hall's 2014 campaign and another $3,000 to Michael Schumacher's. Those attending the event were expected to donate $250 to each of the two incumbents.

With seven candidates running for the two at-large seats, and those seats going to the top two vote getters, the danger to the city's political revolutionaries is that votes will be split among the five challengers, leaving the incumbents to get votes from their longtime supporters, plus those who recognize their names and don't want to take a chance on newcomers.

The power of the city's political establishment can be seen in the candidacy filing of Melanie Burkholder, the only candidate to list "Republican" to identify her political party for the non-partisan office. All others checked the "non-partisan" box.

More about all the candidates as election day approaches.