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The Riehl World: Citizen Activists Spawn Carlsbad’s Political Revolution

By Richard Riehl

While outsiders Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attack insider politics at the national level, a rapidly growing number of local citizen activists, who Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall once claimed were controlled by outside agitators, have launched a political revolution of their own. It began on August 25, 2015, when the City Council ignored the objections of an overflow crowd of residents calling for a special election to decide whether a billionaire L.A. developer would be entrusted with the future of the city’s pristine Agua Hedionda Lagoon for the next 30 years.

The Council had three choices that evening. They could put off their decision for thirty days to seek citizen input, they could call a special election, or they could approve the project. They voted unanimously to approve it. Outraged opponents gathered enough signatures to overrule the council’s decision and put the matter up for a vote. Measure A, supporting the council’s decision to allow the developer to build a shopping mall at the lagoon, was easily defeated, thanks to an army of volunteer political activists.

The defeat of Measure A turned out to be a watershed moment for city politics. The explosion of social media sites, packed city Council meetings, a proliferation of speakers at those meetings, the mayor’s attempts to silence audience applause for those speakers, the demand for an apology from the mayor for his support of the billionaire developer, all speak of the unrest facing city leaders.

To their credit, or maybe just because of the approaching election, the Council seems to be listening now. After Mayor Hall initially dragged his feet, the Council passed an ordinance banning the sale of puppy mill dogs. A decision was delayed on the Village and Barrio Master Plan until a parking study is completed next year. A promise was made not to seek any more advice from Dover, Kohl and Partners, the Florida consultants who developed the flawed $380,000 vision for the plan.

If Carlsbad’s political revolution is to succeed it will require the support of many who voted yes on Measure A. The ban on the sale of puppy mill dogs built a coalition of supporters from the opposing sides of that vote. Judging from the posts on social media, there’s also a growing consensus on the future of the village and barrio.

Take, for example, Thomas K. Arnold, a writer for the Seaside Courier and strong supporter of the Caruso lagoon mall project. He accused Measure A opponents of intentionally misleading voters. He’s now being praised by them for his May 31 article, Carlsbad, let’s remain a village. Maybe there’s hope for him to join those who seek replacements of the Council’s old guard.

The influence of outside interests on council members can be found in their statements of economic interests and campaign donations. The mayor, a major landowner in the city, stands to gain personally from the downtown’s economic development. Two other council members not up for reelection in the fall received substantial support from out of town commercial real estate investors in their last campaigns.

Mayor Matt Hall lists on his 2015 Statement of Economic Interests Form the eight Carlsbad addresses where he owns rental property. The first is the Senor Grubby’s building on Carlsbad Village Drive. The other seven are on Tyler Street. Five of them have estimated fair market values above $1 million.

Hall’s 2014 mayoral campaign received a $249 donation from Shopoff Real Estate in Irvine, the firm proposing a mixed-use development with commercial space, restaurants, and 191 apartment and luxury townhomes in south Carlsbad, east of Ponto Beach. He got another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, a San Diego firm that manages the Carlsbad Research Center Association.

Council member Michael Schumacher received $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet, $2,650 from Shopoff Real Estate, $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, President of Alps Group of Hotels, a San Diego based development/management company that brought the Holiday Inn Carlsbad and the nearby Staybridge Suites to Palomar Airport Road.

Council member Mark Packard got $1,500 from Sharad Khwandala, as well as another $1,000 from Meissner Jacquet.

I’m predicting the three will vote as one through 2017

There are already five declared challengers for the other two seats in the November 8 election, in addition to the two incumbents. Unfortunately, the three Council members who aren’t facing reelection until 2018 were the most outspoken supporters of the lagoon mall. But all five allowed their faces to be featured on the developer’s glossy promotional mailers. If the two running for reelection keep their seats, don’t expect change in the way the Council does business, at least not until 2018.

Incumbents Keith Blackburn and Lorraine Wood begin their campaigns well-funded by money carried over from their 2012 campaigns. Blackburn has a cash balance of $122,000. Woods has $12,400. The two share the services of an Oceanside resident, Mary Azevedo, as their campaign treasurer.

Their coffers were, no doubt, enhanced by a shared fundraiser on June 2nd at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa, hosted by Grand Pacific Resorts, whose executives contributed $4,000 to Mayor Hall’s 2014 campaign and another $3,000 to Michael Schumacher’s. Those attending the event were expected to donate $250 to each of the two incumbents.

With seven candidates running for the two at-large seats, and those seats going to the top two vote getters, the danger to the city’s political revolutionaries is that votes will be split among the five challengers, leaving the incumbents to get votes from their longtime supporters, plus those who recognize their names and don’t want to take a chance on newcomers.

The power of the city’s political establishment can be seen in the candidacy filing of Melanie Burkholder, the only candidate to list “Republican” to identify her political party for the non-partisan office. All others checked the “non-partisan” box.

More about all the candidates as election day approaches.


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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