ENCINITAS — Just weeks after longtime resident Bruce Ehlers announced his candidacy for the District 4 seat on the Encinitas City Council, the same governing body announced its plans to remove him as chairman of the city’s Planning Commission at its April 13 meeting.
According to a report prepared by Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Councilman Tony Kranz, the mayor phoned Ehlers on March 28 asking for his voluntary resignation due to his alleged “inability to remain neutral and without bias in evaluating projects and programs that come before the Planning Commission.”
“Mr. Ehlers is actively working to subvert the city’s efforts to be compliant with state housing laws by financially supporting lawsuits against the city and using the Planning Commission position to propose unlawful approaches to housing,” Blakespear said in a written statement to The Coast News. “Planning Commissioners need to be unbiased and objective in evaluating projects and he is not. We need to have commissioners working in good faith.”
Ehlers, who confirmed receiving the mayor’s phone call last week, refused to voluntarily resign from his position, instead requesting a public hearing on his term scheduled to end in March 2023.
“I told (Blakespear) it’s her right to take me out,” Ehlers told The Coast News. “But I am a strong advocate for conducting public business in the public forum and (the mayor) took offense to that. I’m glad she made it public. The people deserve it. I have ultimate faith in the people to watch the council and make their own decisions accordingly.”
Recently, city staff started canceling a number of Planning Commission meetings, which Ehlers presumes was to prevent him from contributing to any development proposals before he was removed from his position.
For Ehlers and others, the timing of his ouster from the commission amounts to nothing more than a politically motivated attempt to scrub opposing viewpoints from local governance and hurt his chances as a candidate for political office.
“Purely political positioning,” Ehlers said. “It’s a political hatchet job.”
Pam Slater-Price, a former Encinitas mayor and county supervisor, called the move “outrageous.”
“It’s obvious what they’re doing,” Slater-Price said. “They don’t want Bruce on (the council) because he’s a strong, intelligent candidate for Olivenhain. It’s a political witch hunt. (Ehlers) understands the public and citizens and he’s not afraid to speak up. What we have on the other side is a bunch of charlatans. All of them are charlatans. They are trying to spin the truth until you can’t recognize it. They don’t want any dissent on their kangaroo court.”
Encinitas mayoral candidate Jeff Morris called the mayor’s removal of Ehlers at the start of the election cycle “another example of poor judgment.”
“It shows a mayor out of touch with her community, a lack of leadership, a lack of open communication, and a blatant disregard for a committee volunteer who doesn’t share her views on uncontrolled growth and the citizen’s need to define their community vision or neighborhood character,” Morris wrote in a statement. “Instead, she wants to increase growth and state’s ability to densify our cities with more development.”
Cindy Cremona, a candidate for Encinitas mayor, also voiced her concerns about the mayor’s decision to remove Ehlers.
“Just like our last president, the mayor stacks the deck with her cronies, fires her enemies and does everything she can to keep the public from participating,” Cremona said. “She and her mostly-handpicked colleagues are laying the groundwork for division when Bruce is elected in November.”
Blakespear and Ehlers have long been at odds over land use and zoning density issues in Encinitas, including Proposition A and two failed ballot measures (Measure U, Measure T) related to the city’s Housing Element.
Ehlers is the principal author of Prop A, a voter-approved initiative requiring a public vote on certain zoning density and height increases, which survived city-backed legal challenges during Blakespear’s council tenure.
“We’ve been on different sides of many issues, especially having to do with overdevelopment in Encinitas,” Ehlers said. “(Blakespear) has been on the losing side of Prop A. When I talked to her before she got into office, clearly, we were on different sides. But in all three cases — Prop A, Measure U, Measure T — my side prevailed with the voters.”
The agenda report also states that Ehlers’ role as treasurer for local nonprofit North County Advocates was in direct conflict with the city’s long-term housing interests due to the group’s financial contributions to Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development, a resident group suing the City of Encinitas over a 277-unit apartment complex in Olivenhain.
“(Ehlers’) decision to become involved with the opposition to a local housing project necessitated his recusal from the job of being a commissioner who could impartially advise and make recommendations to the City Council,” the report states. “The Planning Commission is a quasi-adjudicative or recommending body overseeing discretionary permits and Mr. Ehlers’ actions are not consistent with the goals and policies of the City of Encinitas.”
However, Ehlers resigned from North County Advocates in September and voluntarily recused himself from all discussions and decisions related to the Goodson project on the commission to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Howard Krausz, a member of North County Advocates who currently serves as the group’s treasurer, confirmed Ehlers left the group in September and hasn’t been associated with its meeting or business dealings.
“(Ehlers) stepped down quite a while ago to avoid any appearance of conflict and I took over as treasurer,” Krausz said, who said he was shocked to learn of the mayor’s decision to remove Ehlers from his municipal planning role.
“(Blakespear and Ehlers) may have some political differences about how to satisfy the state’s housing requirements, but Bruce is absolutely doing the business of the residents of Encinitas,” Krausz said. “He takes his planning commission role very seriously. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the rules. It smells fishy to me that they can try to remove someone from the planning commission that wants to scrutinize projects properly.”
Councilman Tony Kranz, who was the lone voice on the council in support of the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative, said he supported the decision to remove Ehlers and believes it was overdue.
“It’s unfortunate but probably should have been done a while ago due to his involvement with (Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development) and their litigation with the city,” Kranz said. “Bruce has done some great work as a planning commissioner and, before that, as a member of the Housing Element Task Force. I have no doubt he will continue his strong advocacy for land-use policies that he and many others in the community favor.”
Blakespear also told The Coast News “the city’s goals are to provide housing for all income levels and to be compliant with the law.”
“If someone is unwilling or unable to work within this framework then the appointed planning commission is not the right place for them,” Blakespear wrote. “We have many community members who seek to serve the city on our commissions and would operate in good faith.”
But Ehlers and the Planning Commission had previously argued for more affordable housing while reducing developers’ profit margins when drafting recommendations for updates to the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance.
In June 2021, based on the analysis of Commissioner Kevin Doyle, the Planning Commission recommended a 50% inclusionary housing rate requirement (25% very-low-income, 25% low income) for residential developments in R-30 overlay zones, significantly higher than the rates ultimately adopted by the council.
Additionally, under the Housing Element Update, developers were getting a free increase in land value, so the commission felt they needed to give up something extra for the public benefit.
Despite the stated reasoning behind his pending dismissal, Ehlers said he looks forward to addressing the council and residents publicly about the matter next week.
“I have the ultimate trust that the people will figure this out publicly and vote accordingly in November,” Ehlers said. “I just don’t see how it serves her purposes. I was going to term out in March. If I got elected, I would be off the commission sooner than that. (Blakespear) is sending a message: If you don’t toe the line, I’m going to punish you. It’s pure political punishment.”
The council will vote on the agenda item during its April 13 meeting.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include comments from Encinitas mayoral candidate Cindy Cremona.