ENCINITAS — More than 120 residents squeezed into the halls of the historic American Legion building on Thursday night in Encinitas for an introductory mayoral debate, highlighting a local sense of urgency to get informed before the November general election.
“Some say it’s too early, I think it’s about time,” said Ralph Bettencourt, CEO of the American Legion Post 416 Foundation.
The event, the first of several planned debates hosted by the San Dieguito American Legion Post 416, featured mayoral candidates Michael Blobe, Councilman Tony Kranz and Jeff Morris, who went head-to-head on several issues for the first time in public.
The filing deadline for candidates is Aug. 12, which means the field of prospects could change in the coming weeks.
Cindy Cremona, who is also running for mayor, was not in attendance, but said she looks forward to participating in debates come fall. Specifically, Cremona said she felt the June 23 debate was too soon.
“A June debate for a November election is premature,” Cremona said in a statement. “Election-weary voters are still decompressing from the June primary which won’t be certified until July 15. We might have a dozen more people join the race — the filing period for candidates doesn’t open until July 18 and closes August 12.”
However, many attendees were eager to hear from some of the candidates last week at the nearly century-old building located on West F Street.
From the audience, Olivenhain resident Stephen Lord was intrigued by the mayoral-hopefuls and is looking forward to new leadership in Encinitas after Mayor Catherine Blakespear announced her bid for state office.
“They’re just not very imaginative,” Lord said of the current Encinitas City Council.
Lord said the council is boxed in and readily prepared with excuses when the public has expressed concerns regarding housing and other issues.
“They do everything in secret,” Lord said, later noting the council’s recent shift to virtual-only meetings. “(As a resident), you don’t really have an impact.
Residents are presented with strikingly different candidates that seek to address the same hot-topic issues in the city. Based on the audience response, which included both booming applause and heckling, many residents are ready for a change.
Moderator Neil Hokanson took questions from the audience for over an hour. Each of the candidates outlined their intentions for improved public safety, better project management, a plan to address homelessness, and other issues.
While the Goodson project — a highly-debated apartment complex near the Olivenhain neighborhood — officially has the green light, residents questioned candidates on the application of that project.
Kranz said he felt blindsided by the controversial project, as it evolved from a complex for seniors to 250 apartments. However, he said the city needed to move forward with the development to avoid a lawsuit from the state.
Morris, who continuously goes back to community involvement, said he would have gone to the residents years ago before the city’s Housing Element debacle.
“I’ve been told that (as mayor) I can go to Sacramento and fight for our community and that’s something that I will do,” Morris said.
Morris said he knows there will be ebbs and flows of the job, but he intends to provide the public with full disclosure with each new development.
“I will let you know the bad things and say, ‘We have to come up with something,’” Morris said, speaking on other recently-approved projects in Encinitas. “I think it could have been done better and the residents should have been involved but weren’t.”
Blobe, who is against large developments, said the city should fight the state on safety measures regarding the Goodson Project and other large developments. While fire evacuation measures in that specific project have been disputed by the city, Blobe said he wants to take another look.
“[The state is] just looking at paper,” Blobe said. “Let me look deeper into this for approval because I’m not comfortable doing that because it’s on me if anything does happen. It’s not on the state.”
In terms of projects, one commenter asked what type of project the candidates would support on the former Pacific View Academy. After a failed contract with a nonprofit several years ago, the City Council moved forward this year with plans to transform long-shuttered property into a public arts center.
Kranz said he’s proud that he’s a part of a council leading movement at the site, located on Third Street in downtown, which he called a “legacy project.”
“The alternative would have been houses there,” Kranz said. “And I don’t think that would have been all that beneficial to our quality of life in our community. So, I am glad we have that.”
Morris and Blobe both agreed that a public art center for the community is a great fit for the currently unused site.
Blobe, a former Valley Center resident who previously ran for the city’s Community Planning Group in 2016, added he would expand the use of the site to other town activities outside of the arts, helping fill the void of a town center in Encinitas.
Residents also wanted to know how the candidates would handle utility franchise agreements that leave negative impacts on the town. Asking what actions could have been taken to limit issues following the laying of fiber optics by Ting Internet.
Morris said those actions “are just more of the same.”
“[The council] makes a decision and they come back to us and tell us after the fact that it seems like everybody’s angry,” Morris said, adding that he would have forced the project to slow down and consider community input.
Kranz, who was part of the council during the agreement, said state-control overrode the community wants in the project and the council is working with Ting.
“They initially blamed it on their first set of subcontractors who were doing the work,” Kranz said. “They have new subcontractors that still aren’t doing a great job. And the reality is we will hold their feet to the fire.”
Blobe is all-in with connecting residents to infrastructure, saying he would consider fees for construction projects that lag in clean-up time.
“Anybody who damages public property will be fined daily until they get it fixed,” Blobe said.