ENCINITAS — In a 3-1 vote, with Councilwoman Teresa Barth opposed, the City Council chose Encinitas Fire Chief Mark Muir over 12 other applicants to fill the vacancy on the council left by the death of Counciwoman Maggie Houlihan.
The special council meeting on Nov. 2 was well attended as public speakers made their opinions known. Foremost, Ian Thompson, Houlihan’s husband implored the council to let Houlihan’s dying wish, an endorsement of UCSD lecturer Lisa Shaffer, become a reality. Further, Thompson said that by appointing Muir “you’ll be collectively dismissing the wishes of the citizens of Encinitas.”
He cited Muir’s involvement in various political action committees that supported both Mayor James Bond and Deputy Mayor Jerome Stocks in various elections. He also said Muir’s “pro-development stance” was antithetical to Houlihan’s record of environmental stewardship.
Anticipating a nomination, Bruce Ehlers, Houlihan’s former campaign manager provided more background and examples of Muir’s involvement in local city politics before the council began discussion.
He cited the “Encinitas Coalition of Homeowners” a PAC run by Muir that endorsed Stocks and Bond. Ehlers showed emails Muir sent from his city email address during normal business hours regarding the 2002 campaign.
“He both directly, and indirectly endorsed candidates in his position as Fire Chief,” Ehlers said referring to Muir. He said he supports Muir’s right to run in an open election, but not to be appointed. The term ends December 2012. Muir said last week that he has not decided whether he will see election at that time.
Livia Borak, an attorney at the Coast Law Group told the council that the seat should go to an individual with similar qualifications to Houlihan. “I urge you to choose somebody who represents Maggie’s voice,” she said. Borak said that voters would remember the choice made by the council in the next election and vote accordingly.
“We are strangely silent up here,” Bond said as the public speaker portion of the meeting came to a close. “Nobody wants to speak or nominate anyone,” Bond said.
He nominated Muir and listed his accomplishments and cited the 24-year firefighter’s long service to the community. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be involved in politics,” Bond said, dismissing the charges that Muir was a driving force in any local election.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar seconded the nomination and said Ehlers’ presentation “appalled” her.
However, Councilwoman Teresa Barth said Muir’s political activity while a city employee is an inherent conflict of interest. “Maggie always believed that diversity of opinions lead to better dialogue,” she said. Her motion to nominate Shaffer was not seconded.
“We are each representing the entire city on a spectrum of things,” Stocks said. “I don’t want to make this a political decision,” he said. “I’m going to support Mark Muir.” He said their friendship was irrelevant. He said his decision was based on qualifications.
Steve Meiche, a local resident and firefighter in Los Angeles County said the vote came as no surprise.
“They had an opportunity to take city government to a level of fairness and be objective in having a diverse City Council,” he said. “They threw it to the wind by picking Muir.”
Meiche said Muir’s conflict of interest, lack of integrity and ethics violations, all-the-while a city employee involved directly in the campaigns of City Council candidates, was enough to disqualify him. “City policy doesn’t allow him to participate at that level in city politics,” he said. “This is a complete violation of the philosophy of ethics.”
“It’s total favoritism and cronyism at it’s most obvious,” Meiche said. “I don’t think he’s any more qualified than any of the other applicants.”
Muir will be sworn in Nov. 9.