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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Preserving Citizen-led Advocacy The Right Way

After vowing never again to sign a petition, my wife and I are headed to Alga Norte Park this afternoon to sign one. It's our attempt to make up for foolishly falling for the pitch to support an initiative to "save the strawberry fields." The man with the clipboard at my door claimed he was a member of a group of concerned citizens, rallying to save them.

A day later I learned how I had been sweet-talked into abandoning my skepticism of California's bogus initiative campaigns. He was far from the public-spirited do-gooder he represented himself to be. The guy walking away with my signature was paid for its delivery to the developer who was rallying to bring a strip mall to the strawberry fields.

Caruso Affiliated's deceptive $2.5 million marketing campaign was rewarded with the unanimous support of Carlsbad's City Council, who decided spending less than 1 percent of its reserve budget on a special election was too great a cost to allow a vote of the people. They also refused a 30-day delay to consider additional feedback from their constituents.

The city's website describes the Agua Hedionda South Shore Specific Plan as a "citizen-led initiative," proposed by the city's former planning commissioner, the former chair of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, and the President of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation. The website lists them by name only, simply as "residents," rather than the politically well-connected individuals they are. Caruso Affiliated is listed as the "primary sponsor of the plan."

After the City Council's vote, out of both curiosity and sour grapes, I conducted an online search for "Preserving Carlsbad Open Space The Right Way." I discovered the initiative's campaign slogan is also the name of a "California Corporation, filed May 18." The registered agent for the company is Sean P. Welch, a San Rafael attorney, whose law firm, Nielsen Merksamer, advises clients on "all aspects of campaigning for initiatives and referenda ballot measures." Topping the firm's list of clients is Caruso Affiliated, LLC.

The good news for Nielsen Merksamer is that all initiative campaigns, win or lose, are good for their bottom-line. The bad news for us is that this "citizen-led" initiative was actually a corporate-led one that cut the people out of the picture.

Today my wife and I will sign a legitimate citizen-led referendum. It's being organized by Citizens For North County, a 501(c) 4 advocating on behalf of preserving North San Diego County’s natural habitat, quality of life, and character. Unlike Caruso Affiliated's corporate campaign, this one's truly an all-volunteer effort, with no paid signature gatherers, and absolutely no financial support from any large corporations.

Not surprisingly, Rick Caruso launched his fight against the referendum at a press conference yesterday, claiming it was being financed by a potential market competitor, the Westfield Mall (Seaside Courier, Aug. 31). In response, Westfield's Executive VP of Corporate Relations issued this statement, "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."

Citizens for North County will need at least 10 percent of Carlsbad registered voters, about 6,500, to sign the referendum by September 24 to force the City Council either to rescind its approval of the project and call a special election, or certify the referendum and put it on the ballot for the next general election.

Don't listen to the guy who fooled you the first time around. Go instead to sign the referendum today, beginning at 3:30 to 7:30 pm at Alga Norte Park, the same time Wednesday at Poinsettia Community Park and Thursday at Calavera Hills Community Park.

Better yet, be a volunteer to preserve citizen-led advocacy the right way and earn your right to vote on the project.

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