Encinitas City Council unanimously sacks Planning Commission chairman

Residents voice support of Bruce Ehlers in tense meeting


Former Encinitas Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Ehlers, with supporters behind him, addresses the City Council on Wednesday, April 13, ahead of the council’s vote to remove him from the commission. (Encinitas city video feed)

Roman S. Koenig

The Encinitas City Council ousted Planning Commission Chairman and council candidate Bruce Ehlers on Wednesday, April 13, following an earful from angry residents.

“Career suicide,” “We’re firing you all,” and “You’re done,” were among the catcalls directed toward council members during the meeting.

“I did not intend to have this be a public execution,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear told the crowd in response to some of the comments, explaining that the original request was to have Ehlers resign, but Ehlers wanted a public discussion.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council removed Ehlers from the Planning Commission effective immediately, citing conflicts of interest and Ehlers’ unwillingness to follow city housing rules as ordered by the state, among other grievances.

The action also came weeks after Ehlers, a primary author of the city’s voter-approved Proposition A growth-control initiative, announced his candidacy for council District 4, which includes Olivenhain, the site of the controversial proposed Goodson apartments project. In late March, California Attorney General Rob Bonta ordered the city to build the project.

In remarks ahead of public comments and the vote, Blakespear, who is running for state Senate, said Ehlers was not serving on the commission in good faith and called him a liability to the city. She accused Ehlers of proposing “unlawful solutions” to housing and creating a “subversion” of the city’s housing goals.

… His obstructionist conduct necessitates his removal from the Planning Commission.

— Mayor Catherine Blakespear, referring to Bruce Ehlers

“The commissioners, while serving at the pleasure of the City Council, need to be serving in good faith,” she said. “And they need to be implementing the policies and objectives that are made by the elected leaders who were voted on by the people in the city and who appoint the commissioners.”

An agenda report prepared by Blakespear and District 1 Councilman Tony Kranz, who is running for mayor, listed grievances that they said necessitated Ehlers’ removal.

“As disclosed by Mr. Ehlers to the Planning Commission on June 3, 2021, he is the treasurer for an organization that contributes money to the plaintiffs suing the City of Encinitas in opposition to one of the housing sites,” the report states. “The Planning Commission is a quasi-adjudicative or recommending body overseeing discretionary permits and Mr. Ehlers’ actions are not consistent with the goals and policies of the City of Encinitas.”

The group in question is Carlsbad-based North County Advocates, which is in a legal battle over Encinitas’ high-density housing goals, including the proposed Olivenhain apartments project. Ehlers’ alleged links to Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development were also in contention.

“Mr. Ehlers’ presence on the Planning Commission is a liability to the city of Encinitas,” Blakespear said during the meeting. “And therefore his obstructionist conduct necessitates his removal from the Planning Commission.”

Speakers ahead of the vote, including Ehlers, challenged those assertions. He noted that Blakespear and Kranz’s agenda report states that he “is” the treasurer of NCA, which he said is no longer the case.

“The report incorrectly states that I am the treasurer of an organization contributing to a lawsuit filed against the city. I was the treasurer of North County Advocates but resigned that position last year to avoid potential conflict,” he told the council. “I formally resigned the NCA board, its membership, and as the treasurer on Sept. 17, about seven months ago. Prior to resigning, I did not discuss or communicate with NCA board members or project opponents regarding any projects that I reviewed on the planning commission. In short, for any project that came before me at the Planning Commission, I avoided any ex parte communication as is required by the Planning Commission bylaws, state open meeting laws, city disclosure policies and municipal code.”

I avoided any ex parte communication as is required by the Planning Commission bylaws, state open meeting laws, city disclosure policies and municipal code.

— Bruce Ehlers, former Planning Commission chairman

Encinitas resident C.J. Minster, speaking to the council, also said that the report “fails to acknowledge that Mr. Ehlers resigned from NCA in September and voluntarily recused himself from all discussions and decisions related to that project.”

Before the vote, District 2 Councilwoman Kellie Hinze drew a jeer of “You’ve already decided” when a statement she made could have been construed as foreknowledge of the outcome.

“I don’t think that neutrality has been maintained, so for that reason I’ll be joining the majority to remove Commissioner Ehlers from his role,” Hinze said during the meeting, drawing protests from the audience.

Contentious public comments

The rancor among the audience was enough for Blakespear to call a 10-minute recess at one point in an attempt to calm the situation and remind audience members to follow the City Council’s no-applause rule and two-minute speaking limit.

During an approximate hour, about two dozen residents, including some from neighboring city Carlsbad, defended Ehlers and challenged Blakespear and Kranz’s assertions. The city also received numerous written comments.

One Encinitas resident said Ehlers’ “thousands of hours of volunteer work on city projects, commissions and within the community is nothing short of exceptional. His crime? Being a contrary voice in the discussions regarding the overdevelopment, not increased development, but overdevelopment in Encinitas, and the threatened destruction of our quality of life in this town.”

Planning Commissioner and Leucadia 101 MainStreet President Kevin Doyle said Ehlers was a mentor to him when he joined the commission five years ago. He said he valued Ehlers’ integrity, knowledge and professionalism.

“This is a mistake to remove him,” Doyle said. “I have no doubt that he’s going to be able to hear cases clearly, effectively without bias because that’s what he’s been doing for the last five years.”

Encinitas City Council candidates also challenged Ehlers’ dismissal.

Mayoral candidate Cindy Cremona questioned the timing of the action given upcoming votes on controversial higher-density housing projects and approaching elections.

“Firing Bruce with such flimsy cause is reflective of a likeminded City Council consolidating power and eliminating an annoying enemy,” Cremona told the council. “Your ouster of Commissioner Ehlers follows a pattern of this mayor and council handpicking supporters for powerful positions.”

… I was shocked to hear that he was being forced to leave.

— John Schuster, Encinitas resident

Resident and past council candidate Susan Turney said Ehlers, during his tenure, tackled issues such as the alleged incorrect handling of agendas and commission voting records, and city staff errors.

“As a planning commissioner, Bruce analyzes issues down to their nanoparticles,” candidate Cremona also said. “Does he have opinions? Of course. Are his affiliations unlawful or even untoward? No. They’re just not the same as yours.”

Encinitas resident John Schuster said his observations were that Ehlers always told parties pleading their cases to the Planning Commission to work with city staff because the ultimate decisions were out of the panel’s hands.

“So I was shocked to hear that he was being forced to leave,” Schuster said to the council.

“Good politicians don’t pitch citizens against a man like Bruce Ehlers,” Cardiff resident Lorri Greene said.

Julie Thunder, candidate for District 3, which includes Cardiff, said that Ehlers’ position on the commission did not end his right to have opinions on the topics the panel deals with.

“Appointed commissioners do not give up their right to speak on public matters, so statements made by Bruce can’t be a proper basis for dismissing him,” she said.

Institutional integrity

In a brief exchange between Kranz and Ehlers, Kranz centered his concerns on the what he called the “institutional integrity” of city governance. He prefaced his comments by recalling that he and Ehlers had been longtime colleagues from past campaigns to recent controversies.

… It’s really important that the institutional integrity remain intact.

— Tony Kranz, Encinitas councilman

“I consider him a friend, and have always had a fine relationship with him, and was supportive of his appointment as a planning commissioner,” Kranz said. “But there are some other issues that I think are really important, and those are the institutional issues.”

Kranz said that even though he agreed with Ehlers on some of the issues related to housing, his involvement in legal actions called Ehlers’ objectivity into question when it came to the Planning Commission’s role.

“As a city, the role of commissioners is to carry out city policy adopted by the legislative body. And that is the City Council,” Kranz said “And it’s really important that the institutional integrity remain intact.”

Kranz said that perhaps the City Council could have reviewed Ehlers’ commission status sooner.

“In the declaration that Bruce made, the reality is that I agreed with him,” Kranz said.

Nonetheless, Ehlers’ signing of a declaration to a judge contrary to the city’s position in a legal matter related to Prop. A was not appropriate.

“There were plenty of people that could have made this declaration that would have not put in jeopardy your service on the Planning Commission,” Kranz said. “Now perhaps we were wrong for not taking this issue up back when that declaration was made in 2021.”

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