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Friday, June 8, 2007 | They’ve already voted once, and on Saturday members of the Peninsula Community Planning Board may have to vote again … and again … and again, until four vacant seats are filled. Most of the candidates voted in during March 14’s election were disqualified following an electoral dispute. Now, members must repeatedly cast ballots until each candidate receives at least 51 percent of the vote.
“We’ve never had an election like this,” said board member Maggie Valentine said. “We all thought that plurality was an election. We’ve never required a majority before. We could be there all day and still not have four people to seat.”
Planning Takes the Stage
This spring, problems with Point Loma’s board and La Jolla’s planning association, boards in two of the city’s most active neighborhoods, have demanded the ear of a sometimes-irritated City Council. The La Jolla Light reported that during an April meeting when the La Jolla community Planning Association faced a vote on its decertification, Council President Scott Peters and Jim Waring, the mayor’s deputy on land use and economic development, “expressed dismay that [they were] demanding so much attention from city staff.”
Planning boards are made up of volunteers who have an interest in the development of the community in which they either live or own a business. Board members emphasized that their function is to advise the City Council on developments proposed in their area, and that they have no real power. Many expressed their frustration with the City Council, which they said tends to ignore their suggestions.
But despite their feelings of powerlessness, community members have been fighting tooth and nail for the rights to serve on these boards. Running up to the Peninsula’s March 14 elections, divisions between the board’s factions crystallized. A group of self-described development-cautious activists went up against a group that leaned toward being more development-friendly. Results had former board Chairwoman Cynthia Conger missing one of the five open seats by one vote, and newcomer architect Darrold Davis garnering the second-highest number of votes.
Davis said that, in his mind, he complied with candidate requirements, and it was only later, after the election were made public, that people started digging and tried to “rewrite the bylaws.”
Post-election, Conger reviewed each elected board member’s qualifications and discovered Davis was in violation of a disputed bylaw amended in 2000 that required people running for board seats to have attended at least one board meeting in the previous six months. She sent Davis a letter asking him to verify his attendance. What one member described as a “radioactive” war of words broke out between the activists and development supporters, played out in vitriolic e-mails and on online message boards. Rumors have swirled, with each side crying foul about the other’s motivations in trying to get like-minded people elected, as concerns that the in-fighting will deteriorate the board’s legitimacy.
Board Vice Chairman Gregg Robinson, also chairman of the elections committee, said he had overlooked the 2000 bylaw because it was tacked onto the end of the document rather than included in the section headed “elections.” He therefore neglected to inform board candidates of it. “That was my mess up,” he said. “I thought I had checked the bylaws thoroughly, and I thought I was conducting the election according to them, but our bylaws are a mess.”
Board members brought their disputes to the City Attorney’s Office. During the April 19 planning board meeting, Deputy City Attorney Alex Sachs said his office had determined the bylaw didn’t specify that the required meeting had to be a monthly board meeting, so Davis’ attendance at the March 14 candidate forum would satisfy the bylaw requirement under open-meeting provisions of the Brown Act. Board member Maggie Valentine “totally disagreed” with the city attorneys’ assessment. “It was nowhere near a board meeting,” she said.
Members suggested increasing the number of board seats so both Davis and Conger could participate. But Sachs unearthed another overlooked bylaw: In order to be elected, each candidate needed to receive at least a majority vote. In the March election, only top vote-getter Jay Shumaker garnered the required 51 percent.
On Saturday, the board will ensure that only those elected by a majority fill the four remaining seats, no matter how long it takes. The first order of business after elections? Revising the election bylaws so a plurality vote suffices, members said.
While the Peninsula planning board was trying to disentangle its bylaws, another planning board faced disbandment altogether. The City Council sent each of the city’s 42 planning groups a Brown Act-compliant bylaw shell that would unify each board’s bylaws, leaving blanks for them to personalize it. In what some saw as a challenge to the city, the La Jolla Planning Association filled in the blanks and then some, passing a provision to enact them immediately.
It held an election in March in accordance with the new bylaws, said their author and board member Rob Whittemore. The Mayor’s Office caught wind of the fact that the board was operating under bylaws the city hadn’t yet approved, and told the association to invalidate the vote, reject the new bylaws and re-adopt the old ones. When it didn’t comply, the Mayor’s Office threatened decertification.
In an April 24 meeting, the association escaped that fate when the City Council voted against its decertification. “We went outside the box as far as the approval process,” Golba said. “We were basically there asking City Council to ignore their own written policy, which they did … I think this is sort of the culmination of years of perceived neglect, or perceived indifference, or even perceived lack of caring for the community voice in La Jolla.”
Whittemore characterized the controversy as a power struggle over very little. “We’re only trying to give advice from the community. That’s all it is.”
Golba said he was concerned the planning boards’ behavior this spring would hurt their relationship with the city. “The worst thing is that we’re being viewed as nuisances rather than the assets we should be viewed as,” he said. “We’re out there doing the work in the trenches for free, and it’s a shame when a couple of these things blow up like they have. I’m afraid that then the people downtown say, ‘Those darn community planning groups, what a strain on our time and resources they are.’”
Please contact Nina Petersen-Perlman directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.