CARLSBAD — Since the city shifted to district elections in 2018, District 1 leadership in Carlsbad has been in a constant state of flux, producing three representatives over the last four years.
Now, a trio of candidates has emerged to run for the District 1 seat on the Carlsbad City Council in the November general election. The candidates include Melanie Burkholder, Tracy Carmichael and Sam Ward.
Each of these contenders is seeking to replace Councilman Peder Norby, who was appointed by the City Council last year after the resignation of former Councilwoman Cori Schumacher. However, Norby is prohibited from seeking re-election after serving less than 16 months on the council.
In separate interviews with The Coast News, each candidate discussed several of their top priorities for District 1.
Burkholder, a former Secret Service agent with a background in mental health, said she was asked to run to take on some pressing issues in the city such as homelessness, public safety and increased costs of living.
Burkholder also expressed concerns with the San Diego Association of Governments and how the city’s next SANDAG representative will approach the $172 billion regional transportation plan and its funding mechanisms, including a controversial road-user charge for motorists.
While it remains unclear if the board will eliminate the half-cent tax when staff brings the item back this summer, a coalition of labor unions and special interest groups, independent of SANDAG, is currently working on a citizen’s initiative seeking to raise sales taxes for transit projects. (According to the Voice of San Diego, the group’s initiative may have enough signatures to make the November ballot.)
“SANDAG being out of control is a huge issue,” Burkholder said. “The mileage tax is a huge issue.”
Carmichael said her top three priorities are taxes, homelessness and public safety, and preserving residents’ quality of life. Due to the uncertain economy, Carmichael said this isn’t the time for the city to raise taxes and questioned whether removing the burden from developers to provide initial infrastructure projects is a smart move, citing the College Boulevard extension and its minimum $30 million price tag.
Additionally, Carmichael said she would like to re-examine some capital projects dependent on the health of the city’s budget. If the budget remains in jeopardy, Carmichael said issues such as public safety, homelessness and preserving residents’ quality of life will suffer.
Ward, a securities attorney in San Diego, said housing, commercial development and traffic, and quality of life issues are three of his top priorities. The lone Democrat in the race said he decided to run to help his community by addressing housing, job creation and traffic impacts on the city.
Like his two challengers, Ward said homelessness is another issue with local, county and state components — many of which haven’t “worked correctly.”
Ward acknowledged the benefits of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team as an exception to addressing homelessness on the local level. Ward also said he’s hopeful Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court proposal, which would expedite conservatorships for those suffering from mental illness, will move forward.
Carmichael said the city’s priorities and goals cannot be achieved unless the council makes tough decisions regarding its budget. The council held an April 20 meeting discussing potential tax increases and legalizing cannabis but did not approve any decisions.
City staff reported expenditures are projected to outpace revenue by the Fiscal Year 2024-25, thus making any new spending unlikely without putting the city in debt, Carmichael said.
Carmichael has warned the council of its deficit spending for several years and criticized an estimated $85 million in unfunded capital improvement projects as “unrealistic.”
Adding to the city’s mounting financial pressures, according to Carmichael, is the current negotiations with the Carlsbad Police Officers’ Association and the upcoming negotiations with the Carlsbad Firefighters’ Association after its contract expires on Dec. 31, according to city staff.
“In the next several weeks, we’re going to know a little more about the budget,” Carmichael said. “It’s a huge concern. If you don’t have the money, and we don’t have a foreseeable future for the services we provide, something’s going to give.”
Ward said it was frustrating to see the city push out a survey to gauge residents on tax increases or legalizing recreational cannabis. Ward suggested a “thoughtful” audit of all programs would help determine if any money can be saved before cutting services, as was just one possibility from City Manager Scott Chadwick.
Ward criticized the city’s more than $60 million investment into The Crossings golf course roughly 15 years ago, calling it an example of the city “not staying in its lane.” Ward also pointed to the city’s failure to use the Farmers Insurance building after purchasing it 20 years ago, which he called another example of passing on a potential income stream.
Before cutting city services, Ward, like the other two candidates, said the city should first consider a review of the recent new hires, specifically senior staff. The city has hired 89.5 full-time employees over the past four years, which has cut into the city’s surplus.
“(Full-time city employees) cost a lot of money in terms of salary and pension obligations, and we need to be conscious of that,” Ward said. “Carlsbad, for the most part, is a well-functioning city. We need to maintain those services and make sure the money we’ve spent is well spent.”
Burkholder said it is not the time to raise taxes, which will disproportionately impact lower-income residents in the Village and Barrio. Burkholder said she has concerns about deficit spending over the past several years, noting unfunded projects could be a disaster for the long-term financial health of Carlsbad.
Burkholder agreed with Ward and Carmichael about the city’s series of recent hires, saying the city must first determine if there is both a true need and money available. Burkholder championed a review of all positions to determine the level of “pork” and to see if employees have the capacity to take on more responsibilities.
Burkholder said if the council continues on this trajectory, the city will enter deficit spending in two years. She questioned whether the council is spending money on pet projects or doing what’s best for the city.
Former Councilwoman Barbara Hamilton was elected in 2018 but resigned in 2019 due to family health reasons. Schumacher, who won a special election in 2020 to replace Hamilton, resigned after facing a recall stemming from filing a restraining order against three individuals, which a judge ruled violated the residents’ constitutionally protected free speech rights.
Since Norby’s appointment to the District 1 seat, the council has experienced a measure of stability while avoiding public confrontations with residents.
To continue this recent stability, Ward said he is focused on tackling projects specific to the district, such as the Barrio Lighting, traffic concerns and Monroe Street pool renovations.
“I am running to represent the entire city and District 1,” Ward said. “I’ve been talking to folks who feel we’ve been kind of left out and there are concerns that this is just a stepping-stone for people who have aspirations for other things.”
Burkholder said putting the city’s needs ahead of political parties, focusing on the city’s future, working collaboratively with fellow council members and identifying short-term priorities to better accomplish long-term goals will be a stabilizing presence on the council.
Carmichael echoed the comments of both Ward and Burkholder, adding she was committed to being that voice since she lost to Hamilton in 2018. And since then, the current turmoil on the council has only solidified her determination to be the district’s representative.
According to Carmichael, residents have grown tired of unstable representation and she said she has no conflicts that would force her to recuse herself from any decision in the district.