Strawberry Field Owner’s Campaign Donations Revealed
By Richard Riehl
It must have been quite a shock for L.A.’s Caruso Affiliated executives to see the stack of signed petitions delivered to the Carlsbad city clerk’s office last Thursday. The 9,000 signers of the referendum petition are calling for a public vote on the developer’s plan for a lagoon-view shopping center, as promised in the title of the initiative, Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters.
When the Carlsbad city Council unanimously approved his plan on August 25, Caruso had already spent nearly $3 million on signature gatherers and a blizzard of glossy, full-color mailers to persuade 20,000 Carlsbadians that his plan to build a shopping mall was all about saving the Strawberry Fields.
The day after the council voted, a grassroots group, Citizens for North County, announced its plan to launch a referendum drive. Caruso had to redouble his marketing campaign. But this time his mailers, accompanied by daily prime time TV ads, featured headshot photos of and quotes from all five city Council members, as well as the owner of the Strawberry Fields. Each repeated the lie that signing the referendum would destroy the Strawberry Fields, despite the promise of Prop D to preserve them, passed by voters in 2006. The Caruso mailer included a detachable, postage-paid card to return to the city clerk for signers of the referendum to have their names withdrawn.
About 700 signers chose to do so. Caruso relied on the confusion caused by his two dishonest campaigns to “Save the Strawberry Fields,” the first by signing an initiative, the second by refusing to sign a referendum, to keep residents from signing anything. Heads he wins, tails we lose.
While the strange bedfellows of big-money and elected officials urged us to turn down our right to vote, the citizen-led referendum drive soldiered on, relying on social media to generate hundreds of volunteers to station themselves in city parks and other public places to collect 9,000 signatures in 30 days on a paltry $9,000 budget. That’s 300 signatures a day at a dollar apiece.
It took 90 days for Caruso’s professional signature gatherers to snag 20,000 signatures. With a $3 million budget, that amounts to only 222 signatures a day at $150 each.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the city Council not only refused to put the Caruso plan up for a vote in a special election, but even to delay their decision for 30 days to enable residents to be more fully informed. The August 25 meeting was packed with dissenters. You’d think elected officials would be more responsive to their constituents.
That made me curious about campaign contributions, so I went to the city’s website, where I found, among Mayor Matt Hall’s financial supporters, the name of James Ukegawa, the man you see posing in the Strawberry Fields on Caruso’s mailers and in his TV ads. He’s identified as a “Carlsbad Strawberry Company Farmer” on the mayor’s filing form, stamped by the city clerk on July 30, 2014. Ukegawa’s $5,000 contribution is dated June 7, 2014.
The “Strawberry Company Farmer” is identified on Michael Schumacher’s campaign finance filing as the “Owner of Aviara Farms.” He made two contributions to Schumacher’s campaign, one for $2,500 on September 12, 2014, the other for $1,760 on October 29, 2014.
Mayor Hall and Council member Schumacher had $9,260 good reasons between them to support their favorite constituent.
As I perused the many other contributions to the campaigns of these two candidates, I noted the number of out of town real estate companies, building and construction firms, and for some unknown reason, the special generosity of the executives of the Rancho Santa Fe Grand Pacific Resorts. I’ll leave that mystery to an investigative reporter, if there are any left after the collapse of print journalism.
The willingness to accept significant contributions from out of town businesses shows the hypocrisy of elected officials who blame “outside interests” for the success of a referendum drive. Click here to find the city’s web page disclosing campaign contributions.
The San Diego County Registrar of Voters has 30 days, not including weekends, to validate the referendum’s signatures to see if there are 6,523, the magic number that will force the city Council to either hold a special election or put Caruso’s plan on the ballot in the 2016 general election.
A few years ago, Carlsbad boasted of a $50 million reserve fund, I’m guessing it’s grown substantially since then. The city says the cost of a special election would be $500,000. Mayor Hall says it would be a waste of money. Considering what’s at stake, I’d say it’s a bargain.
Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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