ENCINITAS — As one by one, friends and supporters of the late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan urged the City Council to name a dog park in her honor, Houlihan’s widower, Ian Thompson, wasn’t certain of the proposal’s fate.
“You never know, there’s always a wild card with the council,” Thompson said.
As it turns out, the decision was one of the easiest this council has ever made.
The five members unanimously approved the proposal to name the dog park, which is part of the soon-to-be-completed Encinitas Community Park, after Maggie Houlihan, whose tireless animal-advocacy efforts is the stuff of legend in the city.
“This makes perfect sense,” said Councilwoman Teresa Barth, who was Houlihan’s long-time ally on the council that Houlihan served on from 2000 until her death in 2011, when she died after a five-year bout with cancer.
“This is a big deal to name a park after someone, and I don’t think Maggie’s a good person to name the park after, she is the perfect choice for the park,” Councilman Mark Muir said.
Houlihan supporters first approached the city with the naming concept in August, when they pledged to donate $7,500 in park enhancements in exchange for the naming rights.
The council tabled the discussion to allow the new parks and recreation administration to review the city’s park-naming policy, which currently prohibits parks to be named after people unless the council or commission deems there are special circumstances warranting the action.
Parks and recreation Commissioner Sanford Shapiro brought the item to his board in May, which unanimously voted to recommend the City Council approve the proposal.
On Wednesday, the council and audience members echoed Barth and Muir’s sentiments and shared stories of her efforts in animal rights advocacy.
Local animal rights groups credited Houlihan for their existence. Friends shared stories of her passion for her own pets. The council shared stories about their lunches with their former colleague.
Kristin Gaspar recalled how Houlihan taught her how to give injections to her tortoise, which was suffering from liver failure.
Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz remembered how lunches with Houlihan almost always had to be held at a restaurant with sidewalk seating to accommodate her dog, Rose.
And then, there was the bunny suit story.
Barth reminisced about a time one Easter when Houlihan invited Barth to lunch after the city’s egg hunt, at which she always dressed up in a bunny costume.
“I thought she was going to go home and change, but we went to lunch and she kept the suit on,” Barth said, and the council chambers erupted with laughter. Barth said Houlihan spent most of the lunch taking pictures with kids as they passed by.
This was Maggie, supporters said: vivacious, full of life and fire.
Thompson, in his comment to the council, told an anecdote that many had heard before: Houlihan, during a sister-city trip to Japan, stopped to help a feral kitten in distress while participating in a triathlon.
In Japan, the act was hailed. Locally, Thompson said, the media and critics panned the act as disrespectful to the host city.
Houlihan went on to capture the most votes in the 2004 election several months later.
“I bring this story to your attention because the measure of someone’s contribution to a community is not always about a talent that we respect and admire, or how effectively someone has been able to expand the tax base or the length of time a person has served the city,” Thompson said. “Sometimes it’s about how deeply a person has been able to challenge our thinking about what it takes to be a conscientious member of our society.”
Shortly after the unanimous approval and thunderous applause that followed it, Thompson was asked what was the first thing he would do when the dog park opens.
“I’m going to go straight for the plaque, say a few words to Miss Houlihan, and congratulate her for another win for the animals,” he said.
The 44-acre Encinitas Community Park is currently under construction just south of Santa Fe Drive and west of Interstate 5. It is scheduled to open in the fall.