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City split on issue of spouse appointments, conflicts of interest

DEL MAR — The interview and appointment process for a seat on the city’s Design Review Board endured for almost two hours at the Apr. 15 City Council meeting, drawing over 20 public speakers and ending in a stalemate vote.

The Design Review Board is a nine-member body that evaluates proposed structures — whether of homeowners or larger development projects — to ensure their designs are in spirit with the character of the city.

The reappointment process comes in the wake of a continued discussion over whether the spouses of council members should be appointed to either the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission.

The dialogue first took off at a March 4 City Council meeting, after Mayor Dave Druker and Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland proposed the consideration of a policy to prohibit a council member’s spouse from serving concurrently on the other quasi-judicial bodies.

The two council members and several residents expressed concern that spouses’ simultaneous service would create a perception of bias or actual bias, particularly if a decision made by the board or commission is appealed to the council for a De Novo hearing. They argued that such perceptions could create potential for liability.

Others called the item a solution in search of a problem.

Although the discussion was mostly limited to the abstract, the item preceded and was largely prompted by the potential reappointment of Design Review Board chair Tim Haviland — the spouse of Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.

Four candidates applied for the position and interviewed in front of the council on April 15: Haviland, Gala Yayla, Karen Lare and Terri Pavelko.

Lare won the vote of Druker and Gaasterland, while council members Dwight Worden and Sherryl Parks supported Haviland’s reappointment: a 2-2 vote.

The split vote left the council with the option to either resubmit their votes or leave the window open for three months — with Haviland still seated as chair. They opted for the latter, in the hopes that other candidates might come out of the woodwork.

Of the 21 residents who addressed the item, all but one spoke in support of Tim Haviland’s reappointment.

Some residents lamented that recent dialogues on conflict of interest would impact said reappointment.

“I think there’s some effort being made to politicize this and I think that’s too risky, to play politics with something that’s so vital to this community,” said resident Bud Emerson.

Laura DiMarco, who spoke in support of a potential policy at the March meeting, said the city has long had an “unwritten rule” of prohibiting spouses from serving concurrently on City Council and one of the quasi-judicial bodies.

“The reason why this unwritten rule was so important is because it would prevent the kind of hard feelings that could develop with the City Council, within the community, because you’re forced into … a very personal decision about whether you should vote for or against the relative of a colleague,” she said.

About 70 residents submitted red dots on the item in March, with approximately 50 supporting at the least a consideration of a policy prohibiting the appointment of significant others.

In April, an anonymous local newsletter titled the Woodpecker conducted a survey on the issue, and reported that of the 391 respondents, 83% believe Del Mar should adopt a policy prohibiting a significant other of a council member from concurrently serving on the Design Review Board or Planning Commission.

The newsletter asserts that the City Council ought to consider the majority take: “City council members do not serve our city well by ignoring a voice that offers a valid or majority point of view,” it reads.

In early April, City Attorney Leslie Devaney released a memo in response to the topic, saying that the lack of a policy does not expose the city to liability, but that the presence of two household members on two quasi-judicial bodies does “(present) special challenges to ensure that due-process rights of parties subject to quasi-judicial processes are preserved.”

“Even where actual bias cannot be avoided, due process can be preserved through recusal,” the memo reads. “For this reason, there is no requirement that a City prohibit concurrent service.”

Several community members pointed out at the March 4 meeting that recusal might pose an issue for a small city like Del Mar, where a recused council member might mean a 2-2 vote during a De Novo hearing.

With the issue reigniting an ever-present, but often dormant divisiveness in the coastal city, Worden said the council bears some responsibility in mending the divide.

“I think we will get through it,” he said.

Although he laments the way the policy was brought forward, he said he would be willing to discuss a policy that deals with recusal in the case of a De Novo hearing. However, he said prohibiting significant others from serving simultaneously on two decision-making bodies would make for “a bad policy.”