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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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Billionaire Developer Pays Off County GOP for Backing Carlsbad's Measure A

Following Caruso Affiliated's Money Trail

When I got an email a few days ago from an unrecognizable sender with the single word "Caruso" in the subject line, I was skeptical. Was this just another phishing expedition? But curiosity got the better of me. Opening it I found the unsigned message, "Caruso Acquisition LLC gave $50,000 to the San Diego County Republican Party on 12/31/15." It was followed by a link to the California Secretary of State's website. Checking it out, I found only one thing wrong with the anonymous message. The gift was actually made on December 30.

The timing of the donation struck me as odd. Rick Caruso had already invested $7 million in an attempt to build a shopping center next to Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Why the sudden urge to give big bucks to the Republican Party?


I found the answer after a search of San Diego GOP Endorsements: "The Republican Party of San Diego County urges all City of Carlsbad Republicans to vote Yes on Measure A in the February 23rd special election. Support the Republican-controlled Carlsbad City Council…" The site displayed the corporate image of Yes on A yard signs.


It seems the billionaire developer, who could not openly contribute to Carlsbad's allegedly nonpartisan elected officials, had found a way to buy their favor indirectly.

All three successful candidates in the 2014 election: Matt Hall, Mark Packard, and Michael Schumacher, report donations to the GOP of San Diego County on their campaign finance disclosure forms. Mayor Hall tops the list with $8,000, including one undefined donation amounting to $3,615 and another $2,500 for  "table sponsorship for City of Carlsbad Reagan/Lincoln dinner." Mark Packard paid $2,500 for "campaign literature and mailings."

The combination of Caruso and Council member candidate GOP donations is a perfect example of "one hand washes the other."

From studying the California Secretary of State's Campaign Finance website it's clear Rick Caruso is politically an equal opportunity benefactor. He's contributed heavily to the campaigns of Democrats, including Governor Jerry Brown, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His generosity extends to mostly Democratic Los Angeles City Council candidates.

Given California politics, it's no mystery why he favors Democratic candidates statewide and in Los Angeles, while supporting Republicans in San Diego County. The common thread seems to be which political party has the power to fill Caruso's pockets by approving his development plans in their respective voting districts.

But what really caught my eye was how generous he's been with city council members in Glendale, the site of his splendiferous shopping center, the Americana at Brand, which opened in 2008.

In 2005, the year construction began, the following entries appear in Caruso's campaign finance disclosure forms. From March 31, to April 4 sixteen payments of $4,000 each are made to a payee, "Glendale Neighborhood Protection," defined as a "City Council Member," amounting to $64,000, for "Slate Mailers," another name for deceptive mass mailers. According to inewsource.com, "They are produced by for-profit organizations who often try to make the flier look like it’s sanctioned by a specific political party." Sound familiar, Carlsbadians? Remember those glossy Caruso mailers, graced with the smiling faces of all five council members?

On April 5, 2005, Glendale had a City Council Election. Dave Weaver won a 4-year term. A year before Caruso's shopping center opened in 2008 he contributed $12,000 to help Weaver get elected mayor. He gave him another $1,000 this year for an unsuccessful attempt to retain his seat on the council.

The developer donated $1,000 to Erik Yesayan this year. Upon reading this article, Yesayan pointed out, "While I did receive a donation, I did NOT deposit or accept the donation." The candidate had served for five years on the city planning commission. He lost his race for a council seat in the city's April election.

Glendale City Council member and former mayor, Laura Friedman, who previously served for five years on the Glendale Design Review Board, got the nod this year from Caruso to the tune of $4,200 for her run for a seat in the California Assembly.

Caruso boasts that he arrived in Carlsbad four years ago to begin his campaign for a lagoon mall, meeting with 6,000 residents to explain how wonderful it would be. What he doesn't tell us is that he also met with City Councilmember Farrah Douglas to lobby for his plan, sweetening the deal with a donation of $3,000 for her run for State Assembly in 2012. She lost that race but was fully on board with the developer. It makes you wonder how many promises Caruso made to other council members.

This year the developer has already given Oceanside City Council member Jerry Kern $1,000 for his campaign for the California Assembly. Oceansiders may want to know what the developer wants in return.

Of the $7 million Caruso has spent on his lagoon mall campaign, more than $2 million is listed as "nonmonetary" contributions. That means goods and services, like his paid army of dishonest canvassers and signature gatherers. A couple of days ago I found an ad in the San Diego UT, promising $22/hr for "canvassers" to promote Yes on Measure A on election day, February 23, from 9 a.m to 8 p.m. Voters should be forewarned of last minute dirty tricks near polling places.

Next week we'll find out if a billionaire L.A. developer has been able to buy our beautiful Village by the Sea.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Carlsbad Lagoon Foundation No Friend of Nature

Backs Caruso Mall

A billionaire L.A. developer came to town planning to transform one of Carlsbad's three lagoons into a magnet for tourist dollars. After winning the approval of local officials, he encountered a group of protesters bent on preserving the lagoon the right way.

No, that's not the story of Rick Caruso's plan to build a shopping mall next to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. It's about another L.A. developer's failed attempt to build an amusement park, Nemo's Secret Harbor, surrounding the Batiquitos lagoon in 1972. The L.A. Times carried a retrospective story about the fiasco on March 31, 1985.

The size and scope of the 1972 project dwarfs Caruso's. But the developer's aim was the same, to make money off the site's beauty while putting it at risk. There are, however, two important differences:

1. In 1972 the developer was honest. He didn't promise to preserve anything. Caruso claims he'll be the savior of the strawberry fields and open space, even though the people of Carlsbad voted to make that happen by approving Prop D in 2006.

2. The opponents of the amusement park were led by the president of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation. This time around the chair of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation (AHLF) and its CEO lead the campaign to build the lagoon mall, raising questions about the Foundation's tax-exempt status.

The slogan, "Preserving Carlsbad's Open Space the Right Way," was crafted to appeal to conservationists. After I learned it was a smoke screen for a new shopping center, I was astonished to learn of AHLF's support. So I compared the Foundation's mission statement to those of the Batiquitos and Buena Vista Lagoon foundations.

"The Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation is dedicated to the preservation, enhancement, and protection of Batiquitos Lagoon, one of the few remaining tidal wetlands on the southern California coast."

"The Buena Vista Lagoon Foundation's objectives are: to conserve and restore the Buena Vista Lagoon marsh and wetlands area…and manage such lands for the public good."

"The mission of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation is to inspire people through education and outreach to preserve the Agua Hedionda Lagoon as an accessible and healthy watershed."

Unlike the other two, which are primarily about conservation, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation is focused on fundraising for more public access. It's sadly ironic that its Discovery Center, which teaches children about watershed preservation, could provide them with a view of a high density shopping mall that threatens it.

Unlike the open space surrounding the other two lagoons, almost entirely publicly-owned and free of commercial uses, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon is surrounded by commercial stakeholders: a utility company, power plant, desalination plant, aqua farm, and a water sports marina.

That explains why the AHLF board is packed with representatives of corporate sponsors, including Michael Gazzano, a Caruso Affiliated executive, whose boss has a major stake in the lagoon's tourism revenue. The newest member is Jimmy Ukegawa, the wealthy strawberry fields owner whose prosperity depends on Caruso's success. Ukegawa was a major donor to Mayor Hall's and Councilmember Michael Schumacher's 2014 campaigns.

Unlike the leadership of the other two lagoons, AHLF officers have no background in environmental or biological sciences.

One current AHLF board member, Eric Munoz, has spoken out against Measure A in a letter to Citizens for North County, the group opposing Measure A. His eighteen years of experience on the city's planning staff led him to cast the single vote opposing the Foundation's support of Measure A, explaining,

"A past planning commission chair, a retired planning director, and a retired city attorney have all voiced concerns with the plan only to be discredited. So input of those who have provided technical guidance for planning commissions and city councils for 25 to 30 years is off base? Those who wrote and/or provided legal counsel for the city's Growth Management Plan, Proposition D and the region's first Habitat Management Plan suddenly have no credibility?"

Munoz tells of how Caruso's 85/15 promise is built on a lie. "Power line easement areas and environmental wetland buffers are constraints that cause this 48 acre commercially-zoned property to have an estimated net developable acreage of about 27 acres."

The former city planner gets my profile in courage award for bucking the tide of true believers on the Foundation Board.

High profile endorsers of Measure A have something to gain from doing so. The Foundation itself gets regular grants from the city, amounting to $208,000 in 2014-15. Last year Caruso Affiliated donated $15,000.

It's hard to believe a new 13-acre shopping mall with single road access would not create crime and fire safety problems, no matter how many traffic control features the developer promises. So why do Carlsbad's police and fire department union leaders agree with the mayor and city council in their support of Measure A?

The only explanation I can think of is a paraphrase of dialog in the film, Casablanca. I'm "Shocked! Shocked!" to think union bosses would want to be friends with the five persons who control the pay and benefits of their members.

The scheme to bring an amusement park to the Batiquitos Lagoon failed forty years ago because an L.A. billionaire's plan was thwarted by a state environmental review revealing it was a nesting site for the endangered Least Tern. Shame on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation Board for not insisting the plan of this developer, who's already displayed his lack of integrity, should face the same environmental scrutiny.

On a final note, if Measure A passes Carlsbadians will need to brace for the predatory developer to set his sights on the property that becomes available when the power plant smokestack comes down. Watch for the slogan: "Preserving Carlsbad Beach the Right Way."