City staff come under fire in candidate forum

ENCINITAS — Encinitas’ city staff came under fire at Thursday night’s City Council forum, as candidates were critical of the city attorney, city manager and planning department during several questions.

The question of the job performance of City Manager Gus Vina and City Attorney Glenn Sabine has been a prevailing theme on the campaign trail, as a few candidates have gone so far as to call for the duo to be fired.

While none of the three council candidates on hand at the Leucadia-Encinitas Town Council forum made such a call, they made no attempt to hide their frustrations with the outworking of the city’s day-to-day affairs.

Julie Graboi said she would reverse a recent council decision to allow the city’s department heads evaluate Vina, which in an earlier interview she said should be the council’s responsibility.

“I want to make sure we are getting the best out of our city attorney and city manager,” Graboi said.

Graboi also reiterated her desire to see the city attorney’s position become a full-time city position. Currently, Sabine works part time in Encinitas and La Mesa and runs the litigation of both cities out of his law firm. In previous forums and interviews, Graboi said the arrangement has the outward appearance of a conflict of interest because the attorney is paid regardless of the legitimacy of the case he takes on.

Catherine Blakespear said that reform of the city’s planning department was one of the most pressing issues the city is facing. She cited the example of Coral Tree Farms, which she represented in their recent prolonged fight with the city to continue its farming operation on its property. She said some of the planning department’s requests were “painfully unreasonable.”

“Residents … come away infuriated and drowning in bureaucracy,” Blakespear said about people who deal with the department. “The Planning Department is mired in its own bureaucracy.”

If elected, she said, she would direct the city manager to enact reform to cut red tape within the department.

Graboi further chimed in that the planning department should be working with residents to expedite renovations, which she said would improve quality of life and neighborhood values.

Alan Lerchbacker said he was stunned to know that the Council did not have a performance plan in place for Vina.

The majority of the forum touched an issues that the candidates have discussed at previous forums, including Proposition A, the issues stemming from downtown nightlife, the Leucadia streetscape proposal, which includes the elimination of several of the neighborhood’s iconic eucalyptus canopy trees and the installation of five roundabouts on Coast Highway 101, and the imminent purchase of the Pacific View property.

As it pertains to Proposition A, Graboi said she still believes that recent actions by the city seek to undermine the 2012 voter-approved initiative that requires a public vote on major zone changes and structures above 30 feet.

“It absolutely is in jeopardy,” Graboi said, alluding to a mailer sent by the city to nearly 100 property owners that identified their properties as potential candidates for rezoning during the proposed Housing Element. “It is a very underhanded way to work.”

Blakespear responded that she believed Graboi’s tactics were “fear mongering.”

“We’re not going to have open space converted into high density housing,” Blakespear said. “Any zone changes … have to go to a vote of the people.”

Each also were given an opportunity in one of the questions to tout their education experience as well as their civic engagement over the past two years. Both Graboi and Blakespear are regular attendees at council meetings; Blakespear is the only candidate to serve on a city commission – the traffic and safety commission for four years.

“I believe you have to be affective working inside of the system as opposed to out side of the system,” Blakespear said. “It’s not about standing on the side and pointing out problems, it is about… charting a course forward.”

Graboi, a self-described citizens advocate, said community character was what drew her into the race. She said that recent city actions, including the now-defunct general plan update, represented assaults on the uniqueness of the five communities that comprise Encinitas.

Lerchbacker, a retired U.S. naval official and CEO, touted his business and naval leadership experiences as reasons he should be elected.

The forum, hosted by the Leucadia-Encinitas Town Council, and moderated by the League of Women Voters, was the first to only feature the candidates running for the open seat on the Council. Three of the four candidates attended — Blakespear, Graboi and Lerchbacker. Bryan Ziegler did not attend the forum as he was recuperating from a medical procedure. His wife Michelle read an opening statement on his behalf in which he reaffirmed his campaign platform of public safety, fiscal responsibility and environmental protection.

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