1/25/15: Inside the City Council

Eight weeks into my new role as Deputy Mayor on the Encinitas City Council, my overriding feeling is that this job is time-consuming and challenging, yet satisfying.

Challenging, because strongly held opinions from council members and city staff on nearly every issue sometimes make consensus and forward progress difficult. Satisfying, because I feel like I’m doing important and meaningful work on your behalf. My appreciation of my four Council colleagues grows as I know them better and understand what motivates them.

It’s clear to me that it really matters that the people we elect to office have their own creative ideas. Last week’s meeting was a good example — we heard three great concepts originating from the council members themselves, all of which I supported:

Community-Based Housing Map: Updating the “Housing Element” will be the City’s most controversial and significant issue for at least the next two years. State laws say that Encinitas must rezone properties to allow the owners to build high-density, affordable housing.

It’s important to me that we do everything we can as a city to ensure that what’s built is actually affordable, and not just high-density. The city staff has been doing a great job with a massive, sustained, comprehensive and professional outreach effort to gather input from residents on where this housing should go, or not go.

Despite this, there are still grumblings about the process being unfair. Council Member Mark Muir came forward with a proposal to allow a community group to essentially bypass the city staff process of information-gathering and come straight to the City Council with a proposed map. (Click here for his proposal). In my mind, there’s no harm in throwing the doors wide open and seeing what emerges. Any community proposal has to meet all the legal requirements and timelines, and it might help to avoid feelings of disenfranchisement.

Urban Forest: Council Members Lisa Shaffer and Tony Kranz have been working for many months on the Urban Forest Subcommittee. Among other things they proposed to change city policies that prohibit fruit trees from being planted in public places, such as parks. They also requested approval for the city staff to work with community groups on a pilot project to plant a small number of edible trees — a “woodlet” or “grovelet”– in Glen Park to honor former Mayor and Council Member Teresa Barth, who just retired from the City Council after eight years. (Click here for their report).

From my perspective, the subcommittee’s proposed changes are sorely needed and, in fact, relatively modest. Tony and Lisa did a great job listening to the community at the meetings, which I attended before being elected, and they did a lot of hard mental work to distill the wide ranging ideas into workable proposals. To get the pilot project in Glen Park going, the community groups are generously volunteering to do all the work (clean-up, maintenance, harvesting, expertise) and to buy all the trees, which minimizes city costs and commitments. Changing the list of approved plants provides flexibility and the possibility for edibles to be planted in the future. I was happy to support this proposal and grateful for their vision in proposing it.

There were more significant suggestions from the subcommittee, for instance that the city hire a City Arborist, but those ideas will have to wait until the city hires a new City Manager.

Mediation: As a lawyer who has seen mandatory mediation work in the court system, I think the city would benefit by having its own mediation program. The City Council acts as the judiciary when we hear appeals, and there are times when the parties before us have never actually sat down and talked to each other privately before they appear in front of the City Council. The appeals can be highly confrontational disputes resulting in long-term resentment and anger among neighbors and toward the city in general. Mediation might prevent the break down of neighborhoods that I’ve seen occur and allow neighbors to reach their own solutions. The worst that would happen is the parties would spend an hour talking to each other and then the City Council would hears the appeal. So there’s not a lot of downside to having mediation.

Council Member Tony Kranz had earlier requested that a mediation plan be developed and presented back to the Council by the city’s staff, but several months had passed and nothing had progressed (there are many competing projects that demand staff attention).

To help with some of the heavy lifting and contribute where I have some expertise, I put together a specific mediation proposal. State sunshine laws prohibit me from talking to my colleagues in private to see what they think (which is the natural way one might approach making a proposal in the private sector), so I wrote a report and presented it at the City Council meeting. You can read the proposal here.

After much discussion, Tony and I were appointed to a subcommittee to work on it. What is clear is that my original idea will probably be very much diluted if it ever gets adopted. The ultimate mediation program may only involve code enforcement disputes, not development projects; it likely won’t be mandatory but optional; it won’t be cost-neutral, which was a central tenet of my proposal, and the proposal will involve hiring a law firm or providing training for citizen mediators.

Policy making is about compromising, and I have no doubt that the final proposal will be an improvement over the current process, even if it’s not as bold as I had envisioned.

In other news, Mayor Kristin Gaspar and I recently attended a conference in Sacramento for newly elected council members and mayors. (See picture at top) The cross-pollination of ideas that happens when a thousand elected officials across the political spectrum get together in one room was fascinating. I’m grateful that the city invests in its newly elected officials by budgeting for this conference.

I’m frequently asked how much Council Members and the Mayor get paid and how much time it takes. We’re paid about $13,000 yearly. The time commitment seems to vary, but for me it’s about 6-10 hours of official meetings a week (i.e. City Council meeting, Water Board, etc.), another 10 or so hours in meetings with staff members and constituents to get up to speed on issues and hear from people about their concerns and then 6-10 hours of preparing, which involves reading the Agenda and reports, responding to city emails, understanding proposed changes to code sections.

From my perspective, Mayor Kristin Gaspar is doing a bang-up job as our first elected Mayor. She routinely gives informative speeches, for instance at the grand opening of the Encinitas Community Park (see picture from that event with my daughter), that represent our city well. She also gave a really nice tribute at our last meeting to our outgoing City Manager Gus Vina, who has taken a new job as City Manager in a northern California city.

Maybe I’m naively optimistic about human nature and the American political system, but I continue to feel committed to building relationships with everyone individually on the City Council, with the public that elected me, and with the city staff. The five of us on the City Council span the political spectrum, but make decisions on many issues that are decidedly non-partisan.

Is mediation a partisan issue? I don’t think so. I want my four colleagues to listen to my ideas and give them a chance, and I aim to always extend the same courtesy and good will to them. We make better decisions when we collaborate. And besides it’s simply more fun.

My own particular approach is to authentically and with honesty engage with others whenever possible, and build on the beliefs we share. I hope I still feel the same way four years from now!

Thank you again for electing me to serve the people of Encinitas. I feel enthused and grateful to have been chosen to make big decisions about our city.

With sincerity,
Blakespear Signature- Catherine

P.S. If you would like to receive periodic updates on the workings of the Encinitas City Council, please send me an email at catherine@blakespear4encinitas.com saying “Add me” and I’ll put you on the list.