ENCINITAS — Longtime councilwoman Maggie Houlihan, 63, lost her battle with cancer on the evening of Sept. 16. Her death has a community mourning the loss of a powerful figure who lived the ethos “the personal is political.”
Just before her third successful bid for the council, Houlihan clarified some of her platform and the issues she was passionate about. Houlihan said she was motivated to continue serving the community to maintain her strong record of accomplishment in encouraging citizen participation, transparent government and fostering partnerships between community groups in the city’s best interest.
Houlihan’s primary issues in that race, which proved less contentious that her 2004 bid, centered on development and on community. “Preserving the quality of life and the character of our five distinct communities is paramount,” she said.
Houlihan could be seen at many of the public workshops for the General Plan update over the last year-and-a-half. She said she believed the path to community character leads through good planning. “We’ve got to close development loopholes and review our ordinances to make sure the kind of development that overwhelms the community isn’t allowed.”
The specific plans of Cardiff North Highway 101 and Downtown Encinitas need to be updated to allow for more pedestrian-friendly orientation, according to Houlihan. “Citizens don’t want lot-line to lot-line developments,” she said. “They want landscape, ambience, a blend of old and new.”
Always a champion for the environment, Houlihan called for acquisition of open space for parkland and habitat preservation. She remembers purchasing the Hall property for a “community park.”
“We are moving through the process and that involves public opinion,” she said during her last campaign. “I think we’re going to end up with a community amenity.”
Indeed, Houlihan lived long enough to see several of her predictions come true. The council in fact named the former Hall property “Encinitas Community Park.”
Houlihan was adamant about preserving the community character of the city by ensuring that habitat corridors were maintained to provide traffic relief and serve as a part of the high quality of life in the city. “Environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand,” Houlihan said.
Houlihan promoted transparency in government. “It is important that when you are doing the public’s business it’s done in the public arena,” she often said. Houlihan supported the live webcasts of City Council and Planning Commission meetings that began in 2008.
“I’ve said we have to minimize the amount of closed sessions the council has,” she said. “Now we have occasional closed sessions on potential litigation, personnel issues and land purchase negotiations.” The City Council had been criticized in the past for holding sessions not open to the public almost weekly. Some saw it as a violation of the state’s Brown Act that requires a transparent municipal government.
“Leaders need to focus on bringing people together, to facilitate civic participation,” she said. “That’s something I’ve always championed.”
In fact, Ian Thompson, Houlihan’s husband and friend of nearly 30 years, described her as a natural facilitator. “She had a huge and very vibrant network to employ politically to discuss issues,” he said. “She had an amazing ability to bring people together.”
Despite being one of the most visible council members, Houlihan was often the driving force on many projects that she didn’t take credit for, said Thompson. “She was very effective behind the scenes,” he said. “She would never just say ‘no’ to people or an idea. She would always do research, talk to people. She didn’t claim credit for it, but was often a support vehicle in that she would get the right people in the right places to come together, and then she would step back and get out of the way.”
Councilwoman Teresa Barth, who often voted in alignment with Houlihan, said her colleague will be missed. “Maggie and I always felt that a diversity of opinion and a place to air them in a civil fashion would lead to a better result,” Barth said. “I think that’s the thing that I’m going to miss the most. That desire for superior dialogue, which was Maggie’s favorite word, not only at the council level but with the community.”
Thompson said Houlihan moved at a brisk pace to serve the community. “She pursued all of her interests in the same capacity. Everything was always a hundred and twenty-percent,” he said.
Despite her failing physical heath, Houlihan remained committed to her family, friends, work and community until the end, Thompson said. She phoned in on Sept. 7 to attend the council meeting. “She was essentially immobile at that time but she was still very astute,” Thompson said. “She would not give up her contribution to the council and to serving the public.”
“She always got the greatest satisfaction from fighting for causes, it was as much the process as the victories that she enjoyed,” Thompson said. He cited a smoking ban on the beach, downtown improvements, purchasing open space as well as the Hall property and addressing issues impacting seniors as some of her major achievements. “She was definitely one for the underdog. Unfortunately, the environment and the ones most vulnerable are the ones at risk. Those are often the ones she would fight for,” Thompson said.
The council will hold a special session Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. to discuss the filling of Houlihan’s seat.
At this time no plans have been announced for a public memorial.