North County Report: Encinitas Makes Its Case to Newsom - Voice of San Diego

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North County Report: Encinitas Makes Its Case to Newsom

The union representing Palomar College workers invited the school to sue it, police records in Oceanside and Carlsbad are still tied up in court and more in our biweekly roundup of news from North County.

Homes in Encinitas. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

An invitation from the California governor is typically considered an honor. Not last week. A feeling of dread washed over Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear.

“At the risk of sounding flippant,” she wrote in an email to supporters, “this event feels a bit like, ‘Hello! We might sue you. But now let’s have lunch!’”

We, in this case, was the state of California and lunch was a souffle of shame. Encinitas is one of 47 municipalities — the only in San Diego County — that has failed to submit a plan to the state identifying sites for housing production of all income levels.

At the governor’s instruction last month, the California attorney general filed suit against Huntington Beach for failing to comply with state housing laws. It was widely seen as a warning shot to Encinitas and others, as state officials increases pressure on local lawmakers to lay the groundwork for denser development that can accommodate the next generation.

On Tuesday, Newsom encouraged local officials to consider that the state’s housing crisis is bigger than one block or one neighborhood. “You can’t just see the world through the lens of your own city,” he said at a news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Representatives from more than a dozen municipalities joined the governor in Long Beach, Blakespear included. Newsom offered administrative support to cities and counties that were having difficulty producing a legally adequate housing plan because of the costs.

“He wanted to send a message that he doesn’t want this to be adversarial,” Blakespear told me Wednesday.

At one point in the meeting, Newsom asked the group for a sense of what was holding up the process.

“I wanted him to know it’s not through obstructionism or elected defiance,” she said. “The elected leadership in Encinitas is trying to comply with state housing laws.”

The dispute is primarily one of local control, interpreted by some residents as an assault on their right to self-determination. The Huntington Beach City Council feels that way too. The situation is considerably more complicated in Encinitas, where the City Council has been stripped to a large degree of its ability to make land use decisions.

More than five years ago, residents gave themselves the authority to veto any major changes to zoning or development standards (like height limits) through a 2013 popular initiative known as Proposition A. That means state-mandated housing plans — due every eight years — require a vote of the electorate.

But after housing plans twice failed at the ballot in Encinitas, a judge late last year temporarily suspended Prop. A and gave the city 120 days to comply with California’s demands or suffer penalties.

Earlier this month, the Union-Tribune reported that the state Department of Housing and Community Development had followed up the ruling by demanding that the city “amend or invalidate” Prop. A, effectively turning the screws. The comments below that U-T story are brutal.

“There is no shortage of housing in California,” one person wrote. “There’s an excess of people who can’t afford to live here.”

(Those comments also lack critical context. Research shows that the majority of Californians are natives — in 2010, more than 90 percent of children under 10 were born here — and that figure is expected to rise.)

It makes sense, then, that despite the judge’s ruling, some Encinitas residents are not giving up so easily.

In court papers, a group calling itself Preserve Proposition A contends that a judge should not have suspended the local law. They asked the court to intervene in cases brought against the city by low-income tenants and developers on the grounds that officials haven’t done a good job representing their interests.

Prop. A’s proponents were offered an opportunity to join those lawsuits in the past, but they declined. They changed their minds when the city conceded in November that Prop. A is an obstacle. If a judge lets them intervene in the case, they intend to argue that state housing laws and local land use laws are not in contradiction.

It’s always seemed to me that Blakespear is caught in the middle of competing forces. Her sense of foreboding over the governor’s invitation mirrors her frustration over the way things are playing out locally.

“In concept, maybe Prop. A is functional, but as applied in our city, we have put forth two plans that are quite different from each other, and we used a 100 percent transparent process,” she said. “There could not have been a more engaged process to educate, to invite the opponents to the table.”

For instance, the main architect of the local law is now on the city’s planning commission.

“There’s a point when you have to recognize reality, and the reality is we’re not making it,” she said. “I’m trying to do the best I can in a situation that’s untenable.”

Faculty to College: Sue Us, Please

The disputes in North County really do feel at times like they exist on another level.

In October, I drew attention to a lawsuit out of Palomar College. The staff and faculty union alleged that trustees had violated state law by deliberating over the terms of the president’s new contract — which included a 27 percent raise and guaranteed lifetime benefits — without properly notifying the public. While the case makes its way through the court system, the union is trying to organize a series of “meet and greets” with trustees this spring.

Teresa Laughlin, co-president of the Palomar Faculty Federation, compared the gatherings to a listening session — a chance for the community college’s workers to voice their “triumphs and challenges in a social setting,” she wrote in an email.

Regina Petty, an attorney for Palomar College, was unfazed. She urged the union to make the meetings with trustees public, otherwise she said staff and faculty would be violating the same state law they accused college leaders of violating over the president’s contract.

The union’s response was something to behold. Attorney Ricardo Ochoa said the college was effectively arguing that its employees couldn’t lobby trustees individually. He also contended with the college’s interpretation of state law and invited “the District to file a lawsuit against PFF to test its assertion.”

Nina Deerfield is the only trustee to accept the invitation thus far. If it stays that way, the whole debate over whether the board is being improperly influenced is moot.

Police Misconduct Records: We Want Them

I didn’t intend to dwell so much on legal disputes in this newsletter, but here we go.

Voice of San Diego and several other media outlets are attempting to intervene in a court case to ensure police misconduct records see the light. A new law, SB 1421, requires law enforcement agencies to make some investigatory files public. That includes shootings and substantiated allegations of sexual assault or lying by on-duty officers.

Of course, police unions would prefer those files not get out. Eight of them are suing their respective agencies, including Carlsbad and Oceanside, arguing that the law should not apply retroactively — meaning any records created before Jan. 1 should be exempt.

For whatever reason, the California Legislature didn’t anticipate this question. We teamed up with KPBS, the Union-Tribune and others to argue that all releasable files, regardless of date, are in the public interest.

The Sheriff’s Department, which oversees most policing efforts in North County, is not fighting the release of the files and is promising to release them free of charge after media outlets, including VOSD and KPBS, complained of high fees (in the $300,000 dollar range). That would have created a chilling effect on the public’s right of access, as the U-T’s editorial board argued.

As KPBS noted Wednesday,  records for a couple individual cases are already available online.

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