Above: The Breezeway Southern Conference Room at Del Mar City Hall. Officials and residents alike are concerned that family members serving on separate city bodies could result in actual bias, or at the least, an appearance of bias. Courtesy photo/City of Del Mar
DEL MAR — Six hours into the May 20 City Council meeting, residents and officials resumed a contentious dialogue over whether significant others should be able to serve simultaneously on two of the city’s three quasi-judicial bodies.
The discussion has revealed a growing divide in the community, with some public speakers arguing that the “overwhelming majority” of residents are looking to prohibit such concurrent service, and others calling such efforts “a fool’s errand.”
In response to the dialogue, Councilwoman Ellie Haviland proposed an amendment to Del Mar’s council policy 200, to bar a council member from participating in the appointment process when a spouse or significant other is an applicant, to require recusal from a council member when a household member is the subject of a decision or benefits from a decision, or when there is “actual bias or unacceptable probability of actual bias.”
“Any concerns over conflict of interest or bias should be evaluated on a case by case basis with reference to common law conflict of interest,” the proposed amended policy reads.
It further states that “applicants to advisory committees, boards and commissions are not prohibited from serving based upon their relationship to a city council member or other advisory committee member, board member or commission member.”
She also proposed releasing email correspondence with the city attorney on the topic in order to be transparent and show the questions and concerns of councilmembers.
“My hope is that by doing so, will help to clarify the situation and will protect Del Mar’s long and proud history of citizen involvement,” Haviland said. “It was a desire for transparency that started this conversation, so let’s be transparent in how we end this.”
Worden called the proposed policy a “middle ground.”
However, many speakers seemed to disagree. Resident Suren Dutia called it a “pro-nepotism policy.”
But for the most part, what ensued during public comment was largely a conversation over who represents the majority position in Del Mar.
Greg Rothnam spoke on behalf of the local group Moving Del Mar Forward, urging the council to adopt a policy prohibiting concurrent service in order to “help rebuild trust.”
“If you choose to ignore this opportunity … I guarantee you lack of trust is going to come up again,” he said.
Many cited a survey conducted by the group — of the 391 residents who took the survey, 83% supported a policy barring a significant other or spouse of a council member from serving concurrently on either the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission. Del Mar’s population is in the realm of 4,300.
Joel Holliday called the 83% a “flakey, bogus number,” and argued that those speaking on the side of Moving Del Mar Forward “do not speak for the lion’s share” of the community.
The discussion kicked off in early March, when Mayor Dave Druker and Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland brought forward an item to consider prohibiting significant others of sitting councilmembers from serving on one of the city’s other quasi-judicial bodies — the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission.
Both bodies make decisions on matters that are sometimes appealed to the City Council. Officials and residents alike were concerned that family members serving on the separate bodies could result in actual bias, or at the least, an appearance of bias.
The process was largely prompted because Tim Haviland, the husband of Councilwoman Ellie Haviland, was soon up for reappointment to the Design Review Board.
Haviland has since removed himself from consideration.
With the clock ticking down to midnight after an 1.5-hour discussion, council members opted to reassess the topic at a later meeting. However, council did vote to release the emails, with added clarifying notes on the part of council members.
Although the council has remained polarized over the topic since it was first raised, council members began to discuss an ideal potential policy. In March, the topic had been dismissed outright because the majority of the council opposed a policy.
Gaasterland said that “at the very least,” near relatives should not be able to vote on the same matter in the case of an appeal.
Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, who previously opposed adopting a policy, said she would be willing to open up a discussion on a policy regarding significant others.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.