By Kristina Houck
In an unanimous vote, the Solana Beach City Council on Oct. 9 decided to explore its options and order a report rather than adopt an initiative for a use policy for Fletcher Cove Community Center they don’t support or spend about $200,000 on a special election. Still, council members indicated voters would ultimately have their say.
“The people have spoken,” Councilman David Zito said. “This is a very contentious issue, and the right thing to do is to let the people have their voice.”
For more than two years, city officials and residents have attempted to develop a policy that would satisfy Solana Beach residents who want to rent the center for private events and community members who fear adverse impacts from parties.
The building was used for private functions in the 1980s and ’90s before it fell into disrepair. Some residents asked to once again use the facility for parties after the renovation of the 1,100-square-foot center was completed in 2011. Other residents expressed concerns about noise, traffic, parking and public safety.
After months of debate and negotiations, the City Council on Aug. 28 adopted a use policy that made the facility at 133 Pacific Ave. available for no more than one event every two weekends, no more than 50 attendees, and no more than two glasses of beer or wine for each guest, during the trial period, which ends Dec. 28, 2014.
Zito admitted the policy “wasn’t ideal.” In fact, he said he didn’t completely agree with it, but council members tried to avoid a costly special election by adopting a policy they saw as a compromise.
According to members of the Friends of the Fletcher Cove Community Center, however, the use policy still has too many regulations. The group filed a voter initiative with the city on Aug. 27 to establish less restrictive rules for the site.
The group had to collect 1,311 valid signatures from Solana Beach voters, which represents 15 percent of registered voters in the city, within 180 days to prompt a special election on the measure. In about a month, paid workers and volunteers collected more than 2,000 signatures, said Solana Beach resident Mary Jane Boyd, who backed the initiative along with former Solana Beach Mayor Thomas Golich and resident James Nelson. The Registrar of Voters verified a sufficient number of signatures on Sept. 25, and the petition was certified.
If the group waited about a week, the measure could have been included in the June 2014 primary election, which would cost $10,000 to $15,000. However, the petition missed the deadline for the June election by four days, according to the staff report.
Boyd said her group was not aware of the timeline. She and a few of the initiative supporters urged council members to adopt the initiative to avoid a special election.
“I ask you again to adopt the language of the initiative without change and not incur the cost of a special election,” she said. “At least give it a try as a trial period. If it doesn’t work, then come back at a regular election and change whatever is not working. You need to call for a special election only if you want to create special regulations to restrict the use of the community center.”
Several community members asked the council not to adopt the group’s initiative.
“Given the history of this issue, the pattern of deception by the sponsors of the party policy initiative, and the confusion of our residents about what is what and who is who, we respectfully ask the city council to refrain from adopting the initiative tonight,” said Solana Beach resident Kelly Harless, a member of the Friends of Fletcher Cove, a community group she said formed out of concern about the misinformation being spread to the community.
If adopted, the initiative could only be modified by a public vote. Therefore, council members agreed to not adopt the initiative because they would have little ability to adjust the policy for public safety concerns.
Deputy Mayor Thomas Campbell said he believed the group intentionally submitted their signatures early to trigger a special election.
“During the signature-gathering process, the initiative sponsors and their financial backers and their paid representatives told the Solana Beach citizens and voters that by signing the petition, the matter would go to a vote of the people,” said Campbell, as he pointed to the top of the petition that read, “An initiative measure to be submitted directly to the voters.”
“Now the Friends of the Fletcher Cove Community Center’s founders and members are saying they do not want an election, and they want the city council to adopt the initiative without a vote of the people,” Campbell said. “It sure seems to me that they misled the signers of the petition and projected deceit to get their way.”
Campbell said he believes in the democratic process, but the initiative sponsors and their financial backers “decided to play Washington-style politics” by using “deceit, lies, misinformation and intimidation” and hiring James Sutton, a political and election law attorney of the San Francisco-based The Sutton Law Firm.
Sutton sent a letter to the council on Oct. 3 that stated the group would be sending mailers to Solana Beach community members, asking residents to contact council members and urge them to adopt the initiative into law rather than spend money on a special election. The mailer, which included a picture of the center and the question, “Who wants a costly special election?” on the front, led residents to send dozens of emails and 260 postcards to the council.
Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said signers of the petition were “used as pawns in a political game.” In an email to the email and postcard authors, Heebner explained that the council is not responsible for the cost or the calling of the special election.
She added that she is “thoroughly disgusted” with the initiative backers and supporters, including Boyd and Marion Dodson, a former Solana Beach mayor, who now lives in Rancho Santa Fe.
“Those people want political power,” she said.
“We’re being blackmailed by the proponents of the initiative who lied to the public and lied to us — when some of us up here were trying to compromise and bring together factions on both sides.”
Following the meeting, Boyd confirmed that Solana Beach resident Peter House, who was a major benefactor in the $350,000 renovation of the center, paid for the mailers. Boyd said the Friends of the Fletcher Cove Community Center did not misrepresent the facts or coerce people into signing the petition. She added that she did not contribute any funds to the campaign and she was not aware the group hired an attorney.
“The council has disappointed me that they stooped to a level where they would name people from the dais,” she said.
Staff will now compile a report that will include any effect, including fiscal impact, the proposed initiative could have on the city’s general and specific plans, housing element, planning, zoning and land use. It will also include impacts on funding for infrastructure, traffic congestion, existing business districts and any other issues council members request. The report must be presented within 30 days, which is when council members can adopt the ordinance as it is written, call for a special election or wait another 10 days to make a decision.
The council also briefly discussed establishing an ad hoc committee to craft a competing initiative. Zito volunteered to sit on the committee and be the contact person for public comment on the matter.
“I look at it more as doing what’s right versus trying to save a lot of money,” Zito said. “And what’s right is to let the people have their say.”