North Coast Current

Current Q&A: Encinitas council candidates discuss new mayor’s post, pot shops, housing, pensions and media

Sandy Coronilla

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This November, Encinitas residents will cast their votes to elect a new City Council member to serve a four-year term. The four qualified candidates include deputy county counsel Bryan McKeldin Ziegler, college instructor Julie Graboi, businessman Alan Lerchbacker and attorney Catherine Blakespear.

All four candidates agreed to participate in a North Coast Current question-and-answer survey designed to inform voters of each candidate’s positions on important civic issues before they hit the polls on Nov. 4. Here are their unedited answers in order of response time:

Leadership philosophy. This will be the first Encinitas City Council to operate under an elected mayor. How should the mayor and council interact? In general, how do you expect the dynamic between mayor and council to change now that the mayor will be elected and not appointed?

ziegler-bryan-2012-colorBryan Ziegler: I personally believe in Christ-centered servant leadership. If elected to City Council, I promise to be a servant of the people. My purpose is to serve the citizens of Encinitas and do everything in my power to preserve their quality of life. My purpose is not to further my own agenda or any special interests. I will do my best to foster a positive working relationship with the other council members and the new mayor, but I will not bow down to special interests or do anything to compromise my duty to the citizens of Encinitas. I do not believe the newly elected mayor position will change much. They will still have a vote on the issues just like they did when they were on City Council. They will still remain a figure head that represents the City of Encinitas, it just won’t rotate any more.

Julie GraboiJulie Graboi: I see the elected mayor as the first among equals. It should be the responsibility of ALL elected officials and City employees to serve residents first. The mayor has a few privileges beyond other councilmembers like the ability to make appointments to commissions like SANDAG, and also has the ability to control meeting agendas. Recently, the agenda function has been taken over by the City Manager, and I think that going forward we need to do a better job since some meetings last less than 2 hours, while others go past midnight.

Alan LerchbackerAlan Lerchbacker: The relationship between the Mayor and the City Council will not change. Even though the Mayor will be elected directly by the voters, this does not grant the Mayor additional powers that do not have to pass with at least 3 votes of our 5 member City Council.

 

 

blakespear-catherine-2014-colorCatherine Blakespear: I don’t expect much change in the way the Mayor and City Council interact when the Mayor is elected. The person who served as mayor was always elected by the people first and then chosen by his or her peers to serve as mayor.

 

Measure F – Medical marijuana dispensaries. What is your stance on this particular issue?

Ziegler: I voted no on Measure F and do not support the opening of marijuana dispensaries in the City of Encinitas. As a prosecutor for the past 10 years, I have shut down many of these illegal facilities in the County of San Diego and fined the operators/owners. In my opinion, most of these facilities are run for profit in violation of the Compassionate Use Act and contribute toward increased criminal activity in their immediate locality. I do not support Measure F.

Graboi: I will vote ‘no’ on Measure F. My position on this issue is related to what is best for the safety of our community — particularly children. I am in favor of patients having access to cannabis through courier services, but I am not in favor of a storefront in Encinitas. Dispensaries in other cities have been draws for crime and other problems.

Lerchbacker: While I support the prescription use of medical marijuana, that can bring comfort and healing, I do not believe we need storefront dispensaries in Encinitas. There are adequate means for those with prescriptions to easily obtain their prescribed medication without the need for storefront dispensaries.

Blakespear: I am opposed to medical marijuana dispensaries in Encinitas and will be voting NO on Measure F. I don’t want Encinitas to (be) the regional magnet for people to buy their medical marijuana. A person who needs it for medical reasons can already get medical marijuana through any number of online delivery services. Allowing retail stores to sell marijuana in Encinitas would not enhance our community’s character.

Housing plan update.The city is currently in the process of creating a plan that will be put to a public vote in 2016. How should Encinitas allow affordable housing? What is your stance on density bonuses that allow developers to build higher-density neighborhoods? How does Measure A, which requires a public vote on building heights and zoning changes, fit into the mix, in your opinion?

Ziegler: I strongly supported the Encinitas Right to Vote Initiative, which became Prop A and passed by a majority of the citizens in Encinitas. I do not support State mandated density and affordable housing. California has no business telling local jurisdictions and private property owners what they have to do with their own personal property. I believe Prop A is an effective tool at preventing the State from moving forward with these unconstitutional mandates. If elected, I would do everything in my power fight the State of California on this issue and not give in to special interests. I have prosecuted the State of California for environmental violations and recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the people. No one is above the law, least of all is the government.

Graboi: I am worried about the Housing Element since the City has already hired consultants and signed over $200,000 in contracts to bring in help for this project. This seems wrong since we already have a fully staffed Planning Department and spent more than $1.3 million dollars on the failed, General Plan Update (GPU) process that started in 2010 and was thrown out.

Planning even brought back the same housing consultant, Veronica Tam of Arcadia, who presented a completely unacceptable housing plan for the General Plan Update. She also was partially paid out of our Affordable Housing Fund. I disagree that a housing consultant should be paid out of funds that are dedicated to benefit the housing needs of citizens directly. It gives the appearance of someone who is self-serving and good at tapping into city resources — not a consultant who is here to serve the actual housing needs of low-income residents.

I have even heard some of the same language and the same positions from the GPU brought back. One councilmember stated in a newsletter that to satisfy the State, if we upzone property that it does not mean that it has to be built. This is not true. Once the zoning is increased, it can’t be taken back, and eventually it WILL be built at the higher density. This is the same misleading information that we heard before.

I would like to see an amnesty program that would allow for existing, non-conforming units to be brought into the affordable housing stock as a first step to addressing our affordable housing needs. Currently, the terms are that affordable units have to be identified as such in perpetuity, which seems unfair when density bonus units are kept as affordable for only 20 years. If we can identify these units, it could go a long way towards addressing housing numbers.

I support recent interpretations that council has made to support the Density Bonus ordinances that have been on the books in the Municipal Code. For a time, these rules were bent in special cases, but I support council’s decision to go back to the defined ordinances in the Municipal Code. Rounding down for partial units and adherence to other standards in the ordinance result in better projects for people who live in them and surrounding neighbors. These rules were put in place to mitigate negative impacts.

The way that Density Bonus has been applied in Encinitas, we often LOSE affordable housing or gain nothing. In the case of the Desert Rose Project across from my house in Olivenhain, there is already a low-income family living on the property who looks after the horses. They live in a unit that could be counted in the Affordable Housing inventory, but isn’t. Yet in exchange for building 15 market rate homes and violating environmental and safety standards, the builder wanted to provide one very-low income unit. This would mean that there was no gain at all in terms of affordable units, yet our local area would be compromised and stuck with many negative impacts with no actual community gain. Another problem with density bonus units is that there is no requirement that the low-income units benefit an Encinitas resident. If the actual benefits that are claimed were carried out to help people who already live here, maybe there would be greater support.

I think that Prop A was the most important law to pass since incorporation because it supports and protects our General Plan. Prop A does not change our General Plan but changes WHO determines changes in zoning. Instead of letting council decide, it allows for citizens to vote on changes in zoning. The passage of Prop A reaffirms our desire to protect our 5 communities — just like City Incorporation did.

Lerchbacker: The Housing Element of our General Plan should be updated immediately. We are the only city in San Diego County that does not have a certified Housing Element, which subjects the City to being sued and potentially losing land use control. Encinitas has not had a certified Housing Element for 20 years, which prohibits us from obtaining millions of dollars in available State grant funding that could go towards many of our local priorities, including improving our city street(s).

Density Bonus is State law, however, the City should continue to work at the State level for reforms to minimize any local impacts. Simply obstructing the law as the current Council has done has resulted in the City being sued, with the prospect of the taxpayer having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Proposition A is local law passed by the voters and should be followed.

Blakespear: It’s very important that we approve a plan for future housing that complies with state laws. If we don’t create a plan, we open ourselves to lawsuits by housing advocates or others, and eventually a judge will determine where new housing will go. I don’t want this. I want us to be in control of the growth of our city not outsiders.

Prop. A is the law and requires a vote of the people for zoning changes. Therefore any plan to change our zoning will be voted on by the people. I believe we need to comply with the state mandate to provide a mix of housing in our community. I don’t believe that density for the sake of density helps our communities and I support doing everything possible to make density bonus projects unappealing for developers to pursue in Encinitas.

Pension system. What is your position on the state of the city’s pension system?

Ziegler: The City of Encinitas should follow the County of San Diego’s lead by reducing the amount of its contributions to city pensions and creating a voluntary program for City employees to shift from a guaranteed pension to an investment program such as a 401(k) account. The savings plan should be mandated for new hires to reduce future costs of pension systems to the taxpayers.

Graboi: Some say that the pension system is the most serious issue of all in terms of the long-term financial health of our City. I am concerned that our City Manager has created new positions — particularly those that pay over $100,000. We do not have the population growth or sustainable revenue to support this. Meanwhile, many of the city services that are important to citizens like road maintenance and upkeep on infrastructure has been ignored. While the pension system is a problem that needs to be addressed at the State level, I would freeze hiring more staff and especially more consultants. I would also entertain an idea that pensions be capped at a certain level for highly-paid employees. Most city staff will not receive big pensions, but this is a very important issue that we need to investigate in great detail. If elected to council, this and the budget are 2 areas that I intend to look at first.

Lerchbacker: Encinitas has undertaken meaningful pension reform in the last few years and should continue to enhance these reforms in a fiscally responsible manner to bring pension benefits more inline with the private sector while being fair to its current employees. Our pension benefits are meant to provide for our government workers for their years of service. We are able to recruit the best and brightest to our government service.

Blakespear: In the last round of negotiations, the City reduced benefits and increased employee contributions to pensions for new hires, and required fire fighters to contribute to their pension costs for the first time. It’s illegal to remove benefits that were already granted. The city has fully funded our pension obligations as required by CalPERS. Council member Shaffer has proposed setting aside a portion of any unanticipated surpluses in the General Fund for an additional pension contingency reserve. This year a significant surplus is anticipated and Council agreed to consider this idea in November when the audited year-end numbers are available. I would support this idea. Encinitas has been overly generous with employee benefits in the past, and I would continue to hold the line in the future and look for opportunities to manage future obligations.

Local media environment. With four news outlets now based out of Encinitas (North Coast Current, Seaside Courier, Coast News and Encinitas Advocate), as well as several activist blogs, how do you rate the media coverage of the community’s civic issues? Do you see partisan bents to any of the publications? What is your philosophy on open access to media and constituents? Do you feel the current City Council is transparent?

Ziegler: I believe in openness in local government and transparency. If elected, I would keep an open door policy with local media outlets where they could come in (and) request information and we would give it to them as quickly as possible. I understand that some documents are protected under the Public Records Act, but a jurisdiction can still elect to give up those documents if it so chooses. I believe that the City of Encinitas should elect to give up documents more freely and create easier access for the public. If City Officials are doing the right things in the right ways then there should be no fear in releasing any and all documents to the public whenever possible.

Graboi: I am impressed by the quality of journalism that we have in Encinitas and by the professionalism of all of the members of the press whom I have met. I am happy that we have such a range of media outlets since each has its own readership and angle on the news. I also appreciate that there are many blogs that add to the conversation and engage many in our community.

However, I am not a supporter of the Peak Democracy platform at the City since it has been used more to influence opinion than to measure public opinion. If they really supported the stated goal of finding out what people think, they would not have a program that allows for answers to be removed or changed, and would consider all of the information in aggregate. In addition, important issues like if the Pacific View purchase should go forward, citizens’ opinions about density bonus, city pensions, and many of the important issues raised by the media have not been asked. The questions that I have seen to date were poorly constructed or biased.

The Council has done some good things to improve transparency like opening up subcommittee meetings to the public. An important issue that still needs to be addressed is the preservation of emails. City emails are only kept for 1 month, which I have been told is a violation of State Law. The City of San Diego recently changed their email retention policy to 1 year, and even the City of Oceanside retains emails for 3 months.

I would like to see our City emails kept for at least 1 year and records requests made digitally instead of charging 10 cents per page and delivered in hard copy. Besides creating greater transparency and time savings for the clerk’s staff, this policy would be more environmental as well.

Lerchbacker: More sources of local news is a good thing, allowing the citizens of Encinitas to obtain a balance of viewpoints. Overall, our local media provides good coverage of the community’s civic issues. All media is in someway biased. Different sources of news helps to keep extreme biases in check and provides multiple points of view. As a Council Member, my door will always be open to the citizens and the media. While not always successful, the current Council seems to strive for transparency. However, it appears that the City Manager and Staff have fallen behind in this area and need improvement.

Blakespear: As a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, I’m very interested in the role of the media. With four newspapers covering our city we are now experiencing a local news bonanza! I applaud this. Affectionately referred to as the “fourth estate,” the media is the watchdog of government and performs a critically important role in keeping our populace informed and our officials accountable. I’m impressed with the quality of the reporters covering Encinitas at the four newspapers.

I don’t read the anonymous blogs because I don’t care for petty, mean-spirited comments written without attribution. Anonymity breeds incivility.

Sandy Coronilla is a San Diego freelance writer

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Current Q&A: Encinitas council candidates discuss new mayor’s post, pot shops, housing, pensions and media