ENCINITAS — Encinitas voters will have their choice of several contrasted visions and directions for the city, as they will elect a council member to replace outgoing councilwoman Teresa Barth.
The Nov. 4 election pits four candidates in a race for one seat, which became available when Barth announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election.
At stake is a potential ideological shift in the council, which, combined with the elected mayor’s race, could be dramatically different following the election.
Currently, Barth and council members Lisa Shaffer and Tony Kranz create a three-member voting majority on many of the higher-profile city issues, including the purchase of Pacific View. Depending on the results of the election, the voting majority could remain intact, a new voting majority could emerge, or there is the possibility of a plurality among the five voting members.
Suffice to say much is at stake.
Catherine Blakespear, an estate attorney and traffic commissioner; Julie Graboi, an educator and community rights advocate; Alan Lerchbacker, a retired Naval officer and CEO; and Bryan Ziegler, a current deputy county counsel comprise the City Council field.
Each of the candidates said they believed that Encinitas stands at a significant crossroads: the once sleepy beach town has gradually transformed into a bustling suburbia, but a number of forthcoming issues threaten to rob the city of its remaining vestiges of its roots, including a proposed update to the city’s housing element, and a recent lawsuit filed by the Building Industry Association to challenge the city’s recent changes to its density bonus law.
Additionally, the question of what to do with the city’s impending purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School site has played a significant role during the campaign, as preparing the land for its interim and permanent uses could dip further into city coffers.
And finally, a more immediate issue that has faced the city is how to address the city’s rowdy downtown night scene, which has threatened quality of life for residents in the area’s downtown.
The Coast News interviewed each of the council candidates and will post answers to a number of questions dealing with these topics on the website at thecoastnews.com.
This article gives a brief overview of each candidate’s campaign message and priorities.
The prevailing theme of Julie Graboi’s campaign has been a simple, two-word phrase: “residents first.”
She said it was the reason she joined the race: the current council majority, she said, has turned a deaf ear to the residents on critical issues, namely those surrounding the character of the five individual communities.
One of the primary breaches of the residents’ trust, Graboi said, was the city council’s opposition of Proposition A of 2012, which happened after then-candidates Lisa Shaffer and Tony Kranz voiced support for the landmark land-use initiative during their campaigns, but then reversed course after they were elected.
“Many of us in the community felt that we were used, and there was a feeling of betrayal by the (council) majority,” Graboi said.
Graboi, a staunch advocate of Proposition A, said she would protect the initiative from perceived end-runs around it, including the upcoming housing element, which she said could present opportunities for developers to exploit loopholes in the zoning code.
One of the areas of the Housing Element that she disagrees with is the city’s argument that it needs to create high-density zoning to accommodate more than 1,000 so-called affordable housing units to meet the state’s mandated affordable housing allotment.
Graboi said she would direct city staff to perform a more robust amnesty effort to legalize the city’s unpermitted dwelling units and bring them in as affordable units. She and mayoral candidate Sheila Cameron have both stated that there could be as many as 1,000 of these units in the city, which would mitigate or eliminate the need for re-zoning altogether in the housing element.
Further eroding the trust was the council’s reluctant approval of the Desert Rose density-bonus project in Olivenhain, which borders Graboi’s home. Graboi was among the residents who spearheaded the opposition group Save Desert Rose, which successfully sued the city and developer to have the project overturned based on the environmental concerns raised before the council’s approval.
Graboi said she believes the city’s recent actions to close several loopholes in the density bonus law was a start, but that the city’s ordinance needed a complete overhaul to discourage such developments. Currently, eight of the 10 major residential projects in the city’s planning queue are density-bonus development.
That is too many, Graboi said.
Graboi, a frequent participant at city council meetings, has also been critical of the city’s methods of surveying residents for important projects, such as the housing element and the unsuccessful update of the General Plan in 2011. The city has used unscientific methods of polling residents, or in some cases reached out to stakeholder groups in advance of attempts to reach out to the general electorate, which Graboi said gives a skewed perspective of public opinion.
If elected, Graboi said all of that would change. She would request that staff perform scientific polling methods to accurately take the pulse of the electorate.
“These issues hearken back to the very reason Encinitas was formed, because back in 1986, the residents of the five individual communities felt the individual character of their neighborhoods was being threatened by the county, which was proposing bad projects everywhere it seemed,” Graboi said. “The founders banded together, and Encinitas was formed, but those five communities have maintained their relative independence… residents time and time again said they are happy with their communities and don’t want to see them changed, and I think the city should respect that.”
Catherine Blakespear, who is supported by the current council majority of Shaffer, Kranz and outgoing councilwoman Teresa Barth, has a slightly different viewpoint on the topic of community change.
Change, she said, is inevitable. Encinitas’ transition from a sleepy, surf and agricultural enclave into a slice of suburbia has long since happened. However, she said, it is important that the city manages the next wave of change so that the city can maintain those remaining vestiges of its heritage.
She has staked a large part of her platform on urban agriculture, including playing an active role in the update of the city’s agricultural land-use ordinance, the framework of which the council approved at a recent meeting.
While critics have claimed that it is a narrow platform, Blakespear contends that urban agriculture has far wider reaching implications than meet the eye.
“You can’t have a conversation about land-use planning and zone changes without it including urban agriculture,” she said. “If you look at the city’s (proposed) map of areas that are potential candidates for re-zoning or up-zoning, several of those are large greenhouses. We needed to give greenhouse owners the incentive to keep their land in agricultural use. Otherwise, yes, the land will become homes, and we will lose that critical piece of our heritage.”
Blakespear, who is the lone council candidate to serve on a city commission, gained attention this year when she represented Coral Tree Farms owner Laurel Mehl in her battle with the city to maintain her farming rights. The estate attorney said the battle between the city and the farm owner is emblematic of the disconnect between the city’s general plan goals of agricultural preservation and its actions.
In addition to urban agriculture, Blakespear said the most underrated issue facing the city is traffic circulation. These include issues as small as pedestrian crossings on Quail Gardens Road and Saxony Drive to major issues such as traffic circulation on the city’s oft-clogged arterial streets.
In office, Blakespear said she would press the council to begin work on an updated traffic circulation element that addresses these concerns.
“Even more important than where do these 1,000 affordable units go within the city is how are we going to move these people around,” Blakespear said. “I think it is critical for the city to take these issues head on.”
She also said the ordeal points to a problem endemic of the city’s planning department. She has proposed sweeping reform of the department to ensure that it will work more efficiently to meet residents’ needs.
“I think the department has become mired in its own bureaucracy,” Blakespear said. “People leave planning feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, and we as the council should not be happy or content with this outcome.”
Blakespear is also the lone candidate who supports the city’s purchase of Pacific View. She says the $10 million price tag was appropriate for a legacy property that has the potential to be something special for the community for decades to come.
She also touts her experience on a city commission as well as her ability to form consensus with others as her strengths.
Unlike Graboi, Blakespear said she believes the current council majority has governed the way they said they would in 2012, and she understands that some of the perceived deviations were result of influences outside of their control.
She believes, though, that it will be important for the next council member to listen to both sides of the dais.
“It is easy to stand on the sideline and point out all the flaws,” Blakespear said. “I have the ability to hit the ground running on day one, and work with both sides of the dais to help move the city forward.”
Alan Lerchbacker, 62, does not have the resume of civic engagement of either Blakespear or Graboi, but says his life experience more than compensates for that.
Lerchbacker spent 26 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of commander and handling several major operations during that time, including overseeing a 2,500-person naval base on Guam, the recovery of debris from the Challenger space shuttle crash of 1986 and the shutdown of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.
The shipyard closure, he said, required him to interface with 14 city councils in the Los Angeles South Bay area, including two of Southern California’s largest cities, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
There, he said, he saw examples of good and poor local governance and meeting officiating.
“You deal with so many personalities and so many leadership styles, so you learn from both examples and you incorporate the good governance styles into your style of leadership,” said Lerchbacker, who cited former three-term Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill as an example of good leadership. “While I haven’t been as engaged as I would like in our local civic scene, I think the examples of good municipal leadership translate from city to city.”
In his private life, he served as a CEO of an Alabama-based shipbuilding corporation and now works at a private equity firm called The Miller Group. Each of these experiences, he said, has helped him to refine his leadership and negotiating experience, which he said would be vital on the council.
An example of where he would have applied his negotiation skills, Lerchbacker said, was the city’s $10 million purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School property. Lerchbacker said he would have exacted more concessions from the school district, including requiring them to have the land shovel ready, a responsibility that lies with the city.
“That deal required more sophisticated negotiation,” he said. “Moving forward, the deal has been done, but I want to make sure that this type of one-sided negotiation isn’t our practice.”
Lerchbacker also said that this negotiation extends to working with the development community, rather than having an adversarial relationship with developers. He said he believes the opposition and ultimate lawsuit against Desert Rose could have been avoided if both the developer and the residents actually sat down and worked through differences.
“I learned that the two sides hadn’t sat down face to face until court, and that is a problem,” Lerchbacker said.
Lerchbacker said his other priorities when he arrives on the council will be to maintain and bolster the city’s public safety units, ensuring they have the best and up-to-date equipment to do the job, as well as to right the city’s financial priorities. He says he supports a 401(k) style retirement plan for new employees, which he believes will reduce the city’s future retirement obligations.
The final candidate in the race, Ziegler, shares similar views on the city’s financial priorities. He believes the city has spent far too much money on discretionary projects such as the Pacific View purchase and the lifeguard tower rehabilitation project, at the expense of public safety and maintaining and improving the city’s infrastructure.
“I think Pacific View was a big waste of money, and there are two left-leaning candidates, Kranz and Blakespear, who are trying to back up that huge $10 million waste of money that I don’t think the public or anyone really supported,” Ziegler said. “Even some of the more moderate left-leaning folks in town were in support of it as long as it would have cost the $4 million that it was appraised for, but not the more than doubled price that it is now.”
Ziegler believes the city should jettison itself from the purchase by selling the land to a private endowment fund for the arts, and recoup as much money as it can from the deal.
“If they don’t I think that public safety, police, fire, lifeguards, the cost of Pacific View is putting all that stuff at risk, considering they haven’t figured out how to pay for it yet,” he said.
Ziegler, who has served as a reserve deputy for 12 years, seven in Encinitas, said his No. 1 priority is public safety. He wants to ensure that the city’s contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department provides the city with enough deputies to lower response times.
Additionally, he believes the city should be doing regular special enforcement details with the Fire Marshal and state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control in downtown to curb the rowdy night scene. He doesn’t, however, believe the city needs any additional measures, such as the proposed “deemed approved” ordinance.
“I think we have enough laws on the books, and we need to do these special details to make sure they are in compliance with all the laws,” Ziegler said. “We need to go after the problem bars but not by creating new laws, we just need to get law enforcement out there, and funding those operations is something that should be a priority.”
In addition to public safety, Ziegler said, maintenance of roads and public infrastructure is the reason for a city’s existence. Again, he believes Pacific View’s purchase threatens the city’s ability to do so
“This is why cities are made, and we need to fund those basic infrastructure needs,” he said. “The city needs to be able to repair potholes and fix streets so that they are in good working order so that people are not damaging their cars on our roads, which creates a liability for the city.”
Ziegler touts his law enforcement background, as well as his ability to work with others who don’t share the same ideological views, as something that sets him apart from the rest of his opponents.
“My prosecutorial background makes me independent minded and I can’t be bought out by special interests,” Ziegler said. “I have cracked down on some of those very same special interests, developers and corporations that have committed environmental violations. I think this makes me have a fresh, unbiased perspective.”
Ziegler was a staunch advocate for Proposition A, which he says he helped collect 1,000 signatures to get it placed on the ballot, a move he said he believes ultimately cost him the backing of the county Republic Party, which has endorsed Lerchbacker.
His first action on council would be to publicly resolve to protect Prop. A and request a citizen’s committee be created to vet the forthcoming Housing Element update.