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Over two dozen community members waited several hours into the March 4 City Council meeting to hear an item addressing whether significant others should serve simultaneously on the city’s quasi-judicial bodies. Photo by Lexy Brodt.
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City officials, residents discuss conflicts of interest

DEL MAR — Should significant others be able to serve on two decision-making, quasi-judicial bodies, concurrently?

This was the question at hand at a March 4 Del Mar City Council Meeting, where 23 residents waited several hours to unpack the issue and weigh potential policies for council to pursue. The staff report suggested the discussion of either a policy to prohibit the significant other of a council member from serving on the Planning Commission or the Design Review Board, or a policy to prohibit a council member from voting to appoint a significant other to said bodies.

Mayor Dave Druker and Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland requested in January that the item be added to the agenda.

Ultimately, after nearly two hours of polarized public comment and discussion, council opted to drop the issue.

“I can count,” Mayor Dave Druker said, after council members Dwight Worden, Sherryl Parks and Ellie Haviland expressed their dismay toward the item. No policy decision was made.

The Design Review Board looks at questions related to design, whether it’s deciding if the second story balcony of a multi-family home impedes on the privacy of a neighbor, or if a commercial development is disharmonious with the surrounding neighborhood. The Planning Commission presides over issues related to land use, such as the consideration of coastal development permits. Members of both bodies are appointed by the City Council.

If an applicant is dissatisfied with a decision brought forward by either of the two bodies, an applicant may appeal the decision to the City Council.

Although council requested the situation be discussed in the abstract, Druker said toward the end of the meeting that the item was brought forward because Design Review Board Chair Tim Haviland’s four-year term on the board expires at the beginning of April, and he is up for reappointment by the council. Tim Haviland is the husband of Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.

“I think we owe it to the citizens of Del Mar to very thoroughly vet this issue and be able to say with a straight face after he is appointed or not appointed that we have discussed that and we have decided X, whatever that is” Druker said. “It’s just as simple as that.”

The council and speakers faced the ethical question of whether an individual could vote in an unbiased matter on an appeal item, if their spouse had already voted on it. In a phone call with The Coast News, Gaasterland said the potential result creates a “perception conundrum” – whether he or she opts to vote with their spouse, or against them to escape public perception of bias.

 “Let’s recognize that this is not black and white,” she said.

The existing de facto policy is to address these circumstances on a case by case basis. When asked to weigh in on the issue before public comment, City Attorney Leslie Devaney compared the situation to answering for jury duty. She said a council member faced with a vote must assess whether or not they can be “fair and impartial” when a significant other, or a close friend or family member also weighed in on the same issue.

“That is not a conflict imposed on you,” she said. “It’s a choice for perception to remove yourself from that situation, but there is no standard.”

A sizeable camp of residents believes the current approach isn’t sufficient: about 50 residents submitted red dots requesting that the city at least discuss the topic, if not prohibit outright the appointment of spouses of City Council members to quasi-judicial bodies.

For resident Tom Grindle, pursuing a policy that requires recusal in the case that one might have to vote on an item on which a spouse also voted is “kind of a no brainer.”

“You should not be forced to make a decision contrary to what your significant other or spouse might have done,” he said.

However, some believed that a council member having to recuse themselves would be less than ideal for applicants — and therefore preferred that spouses or significant others should be disallowed from taking on those positions.

“This situation would not be in the best interest of the people, since we deserve and expect to have a full, non-conflicted council listening to us on appeal,” said resident Debbie Church.

The other camp — which submitted about 20 red dots — found the item to be “offensive,” or “a solution in search of a problem.”

Resident Ed Yuskiewicz was concerned that prohibiting spouses from serving concurrently on quasi-judicial bodies would “eliminate a lot of people from making a lot of decisions in a town of 4,000 people.”

Several speakers argued that the current ethical training in place is enough of a safeguard. Don Mosier, who served on the Design Review Board for six years and on the City Council for eight years, called the issue a “once in a decade problem (that) doesn’t deserve the kind of onerous solution that’s being proposed.”

Parks said the Council Retreat in January would’ve been a good time to raise the concern, and called the item a “gotcha.”

Worden said that setting a “blanket rule” that would disqualify spouses or significant others from serving concurrently on quasi-judicial bodies is “a bad rule and a bad policy.”

“The politest thing I can say about that, is that is really retrograde,” Worden said.

Ellie Haviland — whose name was at the center of the dialogue despite efforts to speak abstractly — assured those present that only the person most qualified to enforce the city’s design review ordinance would win her vote.

“To suggest that I would let a family member influence my vote is not borne out by my record on council over the last two plus years,” she said. “I have both recused myself in the past in order to avoid a public perception of a problem and I’ve voted to overturn a Design Review Board decision on appeal.”

Council discussed briefly whether other cities in the state had adopted a similar policy. Bell Gardens, in L.A. County, has a policy related to whether a council member can participate in the appointment of a significant other to a quasi-judicial body. According to former Solana Beach City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, the issue was previously discussed in Solana Beach, when a spouse of a City Council member served on the View Assessment Commission. After discussions with the City Attorney, it was decided the council member would recuse herself in the case of an appeal.

1 comment

Debbie Hecht March 17, 2019 at 2:03 pm

I can see both sides of this argument. It might be less of an issue if there were more people on the City Council and the Planning Commission. For example, it could be a problem if a Council member needs to recuse themselves and the vote goes to 2-2. If there were 7 people on the City Council the recusal would not be quite as important, although it could end up at 3-3, but with more people you might have a more balanced vote. I wonder how this would play out on a really big issue that would affect the entire city, like the Del Mar Resort?

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