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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, June 13, 2017

Carlsbad Mayor's Profile in Cronyism

A story appearing in the August 26, 2004 edition of the San Diego Union Tribune carried the headline, Flower Fields Manager to Join City Commission. Michael Cardosa had been appointed to Carlsbad’s planning commission. In addition to listing his qualifications for the position, the article gave the names and occupations of the eight other candidates.

Current city Councilmember Michael Schumacher was among them.

What a difference a decade makes.

At last month’s May 9 meeting, first-year Councilmember Cori Schumacher called for a discussion of how to formalize the process for appointments to city committees and commissions to improve public transparency. Mayor Matt Hall was stumped.

“We’ve done this same process for almost 40 years,” he patiently explained to the rookie council member, “and it seems like it’s worked out all right up to this point. Help me understand what we need to fix.”

Council members, Mark Packard, Michael Schumacher, and Keith Blackburn agreed with Hall. After an uncomfortable silence, each made it clear they saw nothing wrong with keeping constituents in the dark about the number and names of candidates for appointment or how the Council evaluates their applications.

Beneficiaries all of the in-crowd network, Hall and the three other good old boys seemed annoyed to have their work questioned.

At the following week’s meeting on May 16, Carlsbad resident Vickey Syage explained to them why their shadowy appointments needed fixing.

“The way you’ve been doing it for the last 40 years doesn’t work anymore,” she patiently pointed out, reminding them, “There were no cell phones forty years ago, no laptops, no Google or social media, no public Internet. We need a new, transparent appointment process.”

Hall had been on the Council for six years at the time when he attended that 2004 meeting. The transparency of decision-making under the leadership of Mayor Bud Lewis, compared to the secretiveness of commission appointments following Hall’s election as mayor in 2010, belies his selective memory.

Thanks to a Facebook friend who prefers anonymity, my attention was called to council meetings where planning commission appointments were made under Hall’s leadership in apparent violation of city policy.

According to City Policy #81, Appointments to Commissions and Committees: “Appointments shall be made by Mayor with city Council concurrence, except for the planning commission and historic preservation commission, which are appointed by a majority of the city Council.”

Appointments to other committees and commissions are normally listed among the “Consensus” items on meeting agendas. They are grouped together with other items for a single vote for concurrence without discussion. A council member may ask that the mayor's intended appointment be removed from the consensus column for a separate vote. If at least three council members vote against the mayor’s appointment, the candidate cannot be seated on the committee.

But appointments to the Planning and the Historic Preservation commissions must be listed as separate agenda items, calling for nominations from council members, including the mayor. A majority vote produces the appointments.

Shortly after Hall’s election as mayor, two appointments to fill vacancies on the planning commission appeared on the Council's January 25, 2011 meeting agenda.

“I put before you two names, Kerri Siekmann and Neil Black,” the mayor declared. After his implied motion was seconded he called for a vote without discussion or mention of any other candidates. The vote to approve his choices was unanimous.

Planning Commissioner Michael Schumacher’s term expired in April 2011. But it wasn’t until the June 28 meeting that his vacancy appeared on the agenda. This time Hall simply declared, “I would like to reappoint Michael Schumacher.”

His call for a vote passed unanimously, once again with no discussion of other candidates.

Schumacher abandoned his seat on the commission when he was elected to the City Council in 2014.

At the council’s December 4, 2012 meeting Mayor Hall announced he would like to reappoint Marty Montgomery to the planning commission to fill a vacancy expiring in 2013. Montgomery had already served on the commission for two terms, a total of eight years.

Hall explained he wanted to reappoint Montgomery because of two or three planning issues that were extremely detailed and would be coming up in the next several months. He claimed it would be “in the best interests of the community” to have someone who would be “up to speed and could analyze those projects and make a fair assessment.”

With no word of other candidates, Hall’s reappointment motion carried unanimously.

Montgomery was reappointed a third time in 2015. If he serves out this term, he will have been on the commission for 12 of the last 15 years, uncontested by other candidates, thanks to the mayor’s patronage.

At this year’s March 28 meeting, with an agenda item before him for two appointments to the planning commission, Mayor Hall asked City Attorney Celia Brewer to respond to “the conversation about the procedure for planning commission appointments and whether the Council meets the legal requirements.”

One of the applicants, Brian Flock, a graduate of the city’s Citizen Academy, had complained about the lack of transparency and responsiveness to his application.

Brewer began with a slap at Sacramento.

“The legislature, in all of its wisdom, decided there were untapped resources in all the communities in California. They adopted something called the Maddy Act, requiring the city to put out once a year list of vacancies on committees and commissions.”

Brewer assured the Council, “The process is working legally today, and any past deviations were by and large a matter of how words like ‘appointment’ and ‘nomination’ are defined.”

For the first time since his election seven years ago, Mayor Hall was careful in his wording when he put forward the name of Velyn Anderson for reappointment to the commission.

“That would be my first nomination,” he carefully announced.

Cori Schumacher pointed out that two applications had arrived within the previous two days. Explaining there was no published deadline, she moved for a continuation of the meeting to a later date to allow time to review them. The good old boys sat silent. Her motion died for the lack of a second.

Schumacher then asked to be allowed a second nomination. Hall cut her off.

“We will vote on this one, and then you can nominate the second one, so it’s not like we’re putting one person against the second person.”

Overruling the mayor, the city attorney agreed with Schumacher that she was allowed to make a second nomination for the position. The two nominations would be voted on in order.

Schumacher made her second nomination, Carolyn Luna, citing her qualifications.

After Hall’s nominee won on a 4-1 vote. Schumacher re-nominated Luna for the second vacant position.

Michael Schumacher countered with his nomination of Lisa Rodman, a high-profile champion of last year’s failed Measure A, which would have put a shopping mall on the shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Rodman has also been a former president of Carlsbad's Hi-Noon Rotary Club.

Rodman won the seat on an identical 4-1 vote.

The other 8 applicants for the two positions remained anonymous.

At the Council’s May 9 meeting, Hall explained how he reviews applications.

“I take the name off the top of it. I look at everything below the name. I look at their standing in the community, their time in the community. Other boards commissions, or committees they may have or haven’t been on. I understand the strengths of that person and I put a name forward.”

Hall makes no mention of the applicant’s qualifications in education and experience. His review appears to be a search for fellow members of Carlsbad’s leadership in-crowd. Hall and Michael Schumacher are both former planning commissioners, while Councilmember Packard has been a member of Hi-Noon Rotary, a club requiring $1,200 in yearly dues and fees.

Hall doesn’t need to see the names at the top of the applications to find out if a candidate is among his favored few.

According to the city’s Web Page Information for Applicants, all applications are open for public inspection. Councilmember Packard’s claim that hiding the names of applicants saves them from embarrassment appears to be a cover for his fear he will be held accountable for his decisions.

Revealing candidate names gives them the recognition they deserve to gain public support for later leadership opportunities. Like, for example, the recognition Michael Schumacher received in his transparently failing bid to be appointed to the planning commission in 2004.

The good news is that three of the good old boys will be up for reelection next year. That, together with the adoption of district elections, means there’s hope for Carlsbad to abandon go-along-to-get-along politics, opening the door for “untapped leadership resources,” critical to stopping the transformation of this Village-By-The-Sea into a deep pocket developer’s dream.