DEL MAR — City Council subcommittees have recently become the center of a “thorny” debate, with an anonymous newsletter raising questions about the significance of council member appointments.
At a Dec. 17, 2018, meeting, the 10-minute subcommittee appointment process left two council members –—Mayor Dave Druker and newly minted Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland — out of the subcommittee mix.
The process involved a few brief back-and-forths before council members decided to take the topic up again for discussion at the council retreat in late January.
A few weeks before the retreat, a newsletter called the Del Mar Woodpecker called out the issue, urging the council to have a “do-over” of the subcommittee appointment process. The newsletter is published by an anonymous group of residents called Moving Del Mar Forward.
“Whether intentional or by oversight, the council’s actions resulted in a lack of council member diversity on Del Mar’s subcommittees,” the newsletter read. “While treated as a mundane housekeeping issue, the truth is that these appointments by the Del Mar City Council could have significant impacts on same major issues in our community.”
So that raises the question — what exactly is a subcommittee, and what do they do?
Subcommittees are a group of two council members — appointed or assessed annually — that meet periodically with city staff to discuss various issues relating to both staff (the human resources subcommittee) and big Del Mar topics.
Under the Brown Act, staff cannot meet with more than two council members at one time without the meeting being open and public.
The city currently has five subcommittees, including the North County railroad right-of-way subcommittee, and an ad-hoc subcommittee with Solana Beach to address the North Bluff Resort.
All current appointments are split between council members Dwight Worden, Ellie Haviland and Sherryl Parks.
At the meeting, council members reached an impasse on how to move forward with the planning process subcommittee — which focuses on design review board and planning commission-related topics and is composed of council members Haviland and Worden. Said subcommittee communicates with staff on projects like the Watermark and the Del Mar Resort.
Druker said he thought the subcommittee should be divided, with two separate subcommittees for each large development.
“What it turns out to be is all the major projects are going through you two,” he said. “And I really don’t like that. I really think that is not appropriate.”
Haviland contested the point as a “mischaracterization of what goes on at those meetings.”
“Dwight and I don’t make decisions on behalf of the whole council on these big major projects,” she said.
Worden proposed the idea of having a planning subcommittee of three council members — which would require it to be open to the public. Gaasterland supported that position, citing community concerns about transparency.
Gaasterland said the subcommittee appointments reflect a lack of balance, but said the problem “runs deeper” than the subcommittees themselves.
“The real question that’s being asked here is do we have a council that is structured to speak together, and debate, and participate in discussions with staff in a way that’s balanced and yet informed, and arrive at good decisions and reasonable ways forward,” she told The Coast News.
“The issue is not subcommittees; it’s why subcommittees have become an issue.”
Active resident T. Pat Stubbs, who was a member of the city’s design review board for over eight years, identified with the newsletter’s arguments and felt that Gaasterland — who received the highest proportion of votes in the last election — should be appointed to “some of the more powerful or influential subcommittees.”
“It’s quite frankly an insult that Terry and Dave Druker are being pushed down while the other people are being raised up,” he said.
The Woodpecker newsletter said the subcommittees “have significant influence on the direction given to staff as well as policy implementation;” however, council members Haviland and Worden both said this claim doesn’t hold water.
“The subcommittees are information sharing,” Worden said, asserting that if there is a decision to be made, the city adds it to a future agenda.
Worden said that aside from Druker’s request to be on the HR subcommittee, each council member was granted their desired committee appointments.
“What’s bogus in my view is the story rippling through the community by some that there’s some kind of power play, and Terry and Dave were excluded,” Worden said, mentioning that subcommittee meetings have been “painted as two council members going into a dark room with a closed door and making deals.”
“That’s not happening,” he said.
Haviland said that subcommittee appointments are largely based on a council member’s past experience — for instance, she said she was appointed to the planning process subcommittee due to her past experience serving on the city’s Planning Commission.
In a phone call with The Coast News, Druker reasoned why the appointment of subcommittees has come under scrutiny.
“I don’t think some people have an understanding of how little power that the subcommittees have, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, is (subcommittees) are dealing with some very important issues. And people are looking to make sure the public as a whole is represented with those issues.”
Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said she thinks the issue of subcommittees has been “politicized.”
She worried that new planning process subcommittees would require staff to get new individuals “caught up on that issue,” and that staff time and resources could be better spent.
Moving Del Mar Forward could not be reached for comment.
In an email to The Coast News, a representative with Moving Del Mar Forward reiterated the group’s desire for more transparency when it comes to subcommittees, in the form of “greater public awareness, notification, recordation.”
“In reality, the public does not have visibility into the dynamics and decisions done at the working level with staff,” the email read.
At a Feb. 11 City Council meeting, council members will discuss the options of splitting the planning process subcommittee into three separate subcommittees, having an additional subcommittee to confront railroad crossing issues, or possibly having no subcommittees at all.
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.