Vote for none: As Encinitas prepares for first mayor’s race, nearby cities see drought of council candidates

The+cities+of+Del+Mar%2C+Solana+Beach+and+San+Marcos+have+decided+to+cancel+municipal+elections+to+save+money+and+instead+directly+appoint+candidates+to+open+seats+on+their+city+councils.+%28North+Coast+Current%29

The cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach and San Marcos have decided to cancel municipal elections to save money and instead directly appoint candidates to open seats on their city councils. (North Coast Current)

Sandy Coronilla

Residents of three coastal cities in North County will vote in California’s general election this fall. They’ll choose a governor and decide whether they’re for or against a handful of ballot measures. But voters in only one of those cities — Encinitas — will elect members of its own City Council and, in an historic moment, directly elect its own mayor.

That’s because the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach have both decided to cancel municipal elections to save money and instead directly appoint candidates to open seats on their councils.

It’s legal, and in Solana Beach it’s becoming a habit. Residents there have only voted for City Council once since 2006.

On Aug. 20, both cities voted 3-2 to appoint two candidates each in lieu of having an elections. With only one qualifying candidate for each seat, proponents of quashing the elections said it made sense to save money, especially when the two candidates would ultimately be voted in.

Del Mar’s cost savings for canceling its election is between $1,000 and $6,000. Solana Beach will save between $2,000 to $9,000.

UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser said the cities are sending a bad message.

“It says democracy isn’t worth the $8,000 price tag,” he said. “Even when a city doesn’t have enough people to have competitive elections, there is value in residents seeing a name on a ballot.”

Encinitas’ first mayoral race

There will be no shortage of names on the Encinitas ballot for an historic vote of its first directly elected mayor.

In 2012, residents voted to end a system of political jockeying that occurred within the Encinitas City Council for the largely figurehead position of mayor.

Some names resurrected, such as Sheila Cameron, a former one-term council member. And others burgeoning, such as Alex Fidel, who appeared on local television news with pencil puppets. Mike Bawany, a local engineer, rounds out the lot.

Headlining the mayoral race are current Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz. Gaspar has the most to lose if not elected. If Kranz wins, she’s out of council. But if Gaspar wins, Kranz remains in his current council seat.

Kranz said the next mayor of Encinitas needs to be a regional leader.

“The mayor sets the tone, should lead at SANDAG, at the state capitol, and is an advocate for policies good for the region,” Kranz said. “With the things I’ve accomplished and the values I have, I’m hopeful the residents of the city agree will with me.”

The fiscally conservative Gaspar and Kranz have previously disagreed on the city’s $10 million purchase of the Pacific View School property and will surely butt heads again in debates about finances and growth.

Encinitas is at a crossroads as it attempts to meet the housing needs of millenials alongside baby boomers. The mayor and council will be challenged to create low- and moderate-income housing while struggling with development issues of design versus density.

With Councilwoman Teresa Barth retiring, Encinitas also has an open council seat with no incumbent. Catherine Blakespear, Julie Graboi, Alan Lerchbacker and Bryan Ziegler are vying for the spot.

Candidate shortage in Del Mar and Solana Beach

The robust supply of candidates in Encinitas highlights the shortfall in its southerly neighbors. For the first time, three cities in San Diego have voted to forgo elections this fall. San Marcos also canceled its November election.

They aren’t alone. At least 21 California cities have decided to forgo municipal elections this year, including eight Southern California cities (Alhambra, Big Bear Lake, Calimesa, Chino, Holtville, Laguna Hills, La Habra and Los Alamitos).

The city of Tustin in Orange County would have canceled its election, too, had Measure HH, a transient occupancy tax, not been on the ballot, said Neal Kelley, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. The election code allowing California cities to cancel city elections prohibits it if there are qualified measures on the ballot.

Some think the lack of candidates vying for public office signals apathy.

Del Mar Councilman Terry Sinnott, one of the two council members appointed earlier this month, disagrees, at least for his small community. He said Del Mar residents are more aware and informed than elsewhere.

Sinnott was outspoken at the special meeting called by the Del Mar City Council that the election should proceed. He denied that a lack of opposition for himself and the other candidate, Dwight Worden, signified a kind of non-verbal validation of the men, who are active in the community.

Political science professor Kousser said a lack of candidates could reflect apathy or satisfaction, or it could be that many simply don’t see the job as worthwhile.

“We’d love it if voters had more choices,” he said. “But when you have uncontested races there may just be few people who want to take this thankless job knowing every Tuesday night they’re going to get yelled at.”

Kousser said smaller cities also pay their council members less than large cities, such as San Diego, and the work is often part-time, which makes the position less appealing.

The value of a vote

Sinnott said he was “disappointed” with the council for canceling the election.

“Canceling the election sets a bad precedent,” he said at the meeting. “Del Mar deserves an election. I think by canceling the election we’re disenfranchising write-in candidates.”

His colleagues on the council weren’t gentle in challenging him.

“What if people say that you’ve wasted our money by wanting an election?” Mayor Lee Haydu said. “Either way, Terry, you’re damned.”

“I’m willing to spend that money to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to register their votes,” Sinnott said.

In stark opposition, Worden, the other candidate, wrote a letter to the council in advance of the special meeting requesting it appoint him and Sinnott outright to office to save money.

“I am not in favor in spending public money for no gain,” Worden wrote. “With or without an election Terry and I will be seated on the council later this year.”

His sentiment was echoed at the special meetings in both Del Mar and Solana Beach by council members and some members of the public, too.

Kousser, the political scientist and Solana Beach resident, said the potential for cost savings when there’s a general election still to be held should have been weighed against the value that residents receive when they cast a ballot.

“It’s important for the public to know what city they’re in, and, for example, that Solana Beach has a council and now, by casting this ballot, they know who the representative is,” he said. “This knowledge will generate more competition in the future.”

“It’s hard for democracy to work when no candidates are running but it’s impossible when no one knows who’s representing them,” Kousser said.

Solana Beach’s newly appointed council members are incumbent Mike Nichols and realtor Ginger Marshall.

A partial list of California cities that have canceled November elections

  • Alhambra (Los Angeles)
  • American Canyon (Napa)
  • Big Bear Lake (San Bernardino)
  • Brentwood (Contra Costa)
  • Calimesa (Riverside)
  • Carpinteria (Santa Barbara)
  • Chino (San Bernardino)
  • Del Mar (San Diego)
  • Goleta (Santa Barbara)
  • Holtville (Imperial)
  • Lafayette (Contra Costa)
  • Laguna Hills (Orange)
  • La Habra (Orange)
  • Los Alamitos (Orange)
  • Los Altos Hills (Santa Clara)
  • Rio Vista (Solano)
  • Rocklin (Placer)
  • San Marcos (San Diego)
  • San Pablo (Contra Costa)
  • Solana Beach (San Diego)
  • Walnut Creek (Contra Costa)

Sandy Coronilla is a San Diego freelance writer