DEL MAR — A questionably legal effort urging some short-term rental property owners to change their voting status and potentially impact the Nov. 8 City Council election has seemingly ended — barely a week after it began.
An email dated Aug. 31 was sent by blind copy “for privacy” to an undisclosed number of people who apparently do not live in Del Mar but own property there and rent it to visitors for less than 30 days.
People have been renting out their homes in the beach city for decades, especially during the summer, when the county fair and horse racing season take place at the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds. Many say they depend on the income.
Problems were few and far between until the recent proliferation of websites such as Vacation Rental by Owner and Airbnb that have resulted in a sharp increase in the number of short-term rentals and associated negative impacts such as traffic, noise, parking and a general loss of community character.
To address resident complaints city officials adopted a moratorium on the addition of any new short-term vacation rentals to give them time to decide whether to regulate and continue allowing them outside of the commercial zone.
Zoning districts don’t currently define or list short-term rentals as an allowed use in Del Mar. Residential zones don’t expressly prohibit them either, which means they aren’t allowed there.
The Aug. 31 email, which was addressed publicly at the Sept. 6 City Council meeting, notes that three of the five council seats are “up for grabs.”
The email goes on to state:
“We’re losing one supporter (Don Mosier, who chose not to run again) and Al Corti (swing vote in our corner, for now) is going to run again.
“The Mayor, Sheryl Parks (opponent), is running for re-election and two other candidates, Ellie Havilland and Dave Drucker (both opponents of STVRs) want outright bans of STVRs along with sitting council member, Dwight Worden.
“Good News: There are two additional candidates that are more like-minded for change and open to our message with some caveats. They are T. Pat Stubbs and Jim Benedict. Both are supporters of the Village Merchants’ Association, have similar backgrounds in marketing and understand the importance of tourism to the city.
“We have Terry Sinnott returning (our guy) and coupled with Al Corti, T. Pat Stubbs and Jim Benedict, we have a real shot at changing the composition of the City Council to be a bit more progressive. …
“The opposition is counting on the fact that many STVR owners live (and vote) elsewhere and we need to change this. We can. And it’s pretty easy. I’m one of those and changed. …
“Many Del Mar property owners are not registered to vote in Del Mar elections: You can change this to make sure your voice is heard on key issues and elect right-minded candidates in Del Mar that affect your property there: This applies to out of state, out of county and out of country as well.”
The email gives step-by-step instructions on how to change one’s voting location.
It was signed Share Del Mar Alliance, with the name of the sender redacted in early circulated copies.
“The object, as I understand it, of the campaign is to vote for candidates who they think will overturn Del Mar’s prohibition against short-term rentals and go for a more lenient period of time,” former Mayor Jan McMillan said during oral communications at the Sept. 6 council meeting.
“What they’re advising people to do is essentially to lie,” she added. “It’s fraudulent to register yourself …where you don’t have primary residence.”
Council members couldn’t discuss the issue because it was not on the agenda but agreed to address it at the next meeting Sept. 19.
“We need to do whatever is appropriate for us as a city to follow up and probably (that) is refer it to the agencies that do enforce election rules to determine, has something wrong happened,” Worden said. “As a city I think we need to protect the integrity of our elections.”
On Sept. 8 another email was sent rescinding and retracting the Aug. 31 request. It stated:
“Please do not rely on my August 31, 2016 email concerning voter registration. Please do not take any action in response to or reliance on my email. If you took any action in response to my email, please immediately take action to reverse, undo and rescind your action.
“Please do not change your voter registration based on my August 31, 2016 email. I regret any inconvenience my August 31, 2016 email may have caused you.”
An unredacted copy of that email shows Bruce McDermott, a Laguna Nigel resident who owns property in Del Mar, as the sender.
The California Elections Code states that people can only vote in the precinct in which they are “domiciled.”
“I appreciate support for my candidacy wherever it comes from, but I know nothing about this email and, further, I support lawful voter registration,” Stubbs stated in an email. “Regarding short-term vacation rentals: With appropriate leadership, this is an issue that already should have been resolved, and I hope will be resolved before the election.”
“I am finding, with much entertainment, people representing my thoughts without even contacting me,” Benedict wrote in an email.
“Let me be clear,” he added. “I am not ‘their guy.’ I will always listen to all sides of an issue before making a decision. … Regarding people fraudulently wanting to register to vote in Del Mar, I hope that prosecution is swift and appropriate.”
Sinnott said his approach has been to work with all sides on the short-term rental issue.
“Now if one group or another likes some of our proposals and supports them, that is progress,” he stated. “The final recommendations for STRs will probably not make all groups happy. In fact, if effective, all groups will be slightly disappointed. But that is the nature of compromise and consensus.
“Whether one of us deserves the title of ‘our guy,’ you will have to ask the authors,” he added. “I do know that sometimes the labels that are assigned to City Council members are far worse, and not very complimentary. This label doesn’t mean much, but at least it is positive.”
Corti said he was “surprised, disappointed and appalled” by the actions suggested by the Aug. 31 email. In regard to the “their guy” comment, Corti said he sent the group an email Aug. 7 stating that he appreciated the support, “but please be clear that I do not consider myself as a swing vote, especially since I have made no decision yet on the issue.
“Currently I lean toward serious regulations that are enforceable and right for the community but I will remain open to hear all sides of the issue,” Corti told the group. “I also saw some recent emails from your group regarding voter registration. I have indicated that I want a fair and legitimate voting system and I am in full support to uncover and correct any practices that do not follow proper voter registration.”
McDermott has not yet responded to email requests for comment.