ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council removed Bruce Ehlers as chairman of the city’s Planning Commission on Wednesday night in front of a chamber full of exasperated residents strongly opposed to his sudden dismissal.
During the meeting, the council unanimously voted to immediately terminate Ehlers from the position citing his public opposition to city housing policies. Ehlers’ term was scheduled to end in March 2023.
Last week, Mayor Catherine Blakespear phoned Ehlers asking him to resign, but he refused and requested a public hearing.
The vote to remove Ehlers came after Blakespear and Councilman Tony Kranz released an official report on April 8 recommending the chairman’s dismissal.
Ehlers’ public statements on the issue of housing development, combined with his alleged association with Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development, a local grassroots organization currently suing the city over the controversial Goodson project, were cited as justification to unseat the Olivenhain resident.
“Through statements and actions, Mr. Ehlers has demonstrated a consistent bias that prevents him from performing the core functions that are required of him, and he is unable to be an impartial adjudicator of the projects that are submitted to the planning commission,” Blakespear said at the meeting. “To me, it is a step too far to have a planning commissioner who is involved in suing the city, who rejects compliant housing projects, and who creates conflicts that require recusal.”
In comments made to The Coast News and in public remarks at the meeting, Ehlers, who is running for City Council in District 4, repeatedly hammered the council’s decision, which he called a “political hatchet job.”
Far from protecting the city’s interests, Ehlers said his removal suppressed opposing viewpoints in city government while hurting his chances as a candidate for political office.
“This is purely political. They’re taking me off of the commission, claiming that I’m violating policy, but they haven’t shown how I’ve violated city or state law,” Ehlers said. “What they’re doing is they’re trying to tarnish my reputation, and they’re completely wrong in doing so.”
Ehlers also heavily criticized the format of Wednesday’s meeting, which he says stifled public criticism of the council’s decision. In particular, he argued that he should have more than two minutes to defend himself against the accusations made by Blakespear and Kranz.
“They gave me two minutes to respond to a two-page staff report that charged me with ‘unlawful’ things. Not only did I not get time to respond, but it wasn’t even clear what the charges were,” Ehlers said. “It was one-sided, and the issue really isn’t about me, it’s about them silencing anybody that disagrees with them, that doesn’t fall in line. It’s about the suppression of free speech and of differing ideas.”
At the meeting, residents overwhelmingly voiced support for Ehlers, including 18 public comments and more than 35 written statements submitted in opposition to the council’s decision.
Encinitas mayoral candidate Cindy Cremona decried the council’s vote, which she said was politically motivated and directly opposed the residents’ wishes.
“Tonight, you are set to fit Planning Commissioner Bruce Ehlers with the hangman’s noose,” Cremona said. “Firing Bruce, with such flimsy cause, is reflective of a like-minded City Council, consolidating power and eliminating an annoying enemy…Bruce deserves better, and Encinitas deserves better.”
Cremona criticized the council for not giving Ehlers more of a chance to defend himself and expressed that little or no evidence of the chairman’s alleged wrongdoing was presented.
“Does he [Ehlers] have opinions? Of course. Are his affiliations unlawful or even untoward? No. They’re just not the same as yours,” Cremona said. “More importantly, have Bruce’s affiliations precluded his neutrality on the planning commission? Of course, they haven’t. And tonight, you have presented no evidence to the contrary.”
Former planning commissioner Ruben Dario Flores delivered a scathing set of remarks toward the council, calling Wednesday’s vote “one of the most outrageous political crimes that I’ve ever witnessed in Encinitas.”
“As a member of this public and a former planning commissioner, I strongly condemn the proposal to remove Commissioner Bruce Ehlers as chairman,” Flores said. “Your proposed rationale in the [report] fails to articulate how Mr. Ehlers has not conducted his duty on the planning commission with the utmost care and recusing himself from any conflicts with his personal views.
“Bruce has always been very clear and open about his approach to respecting our local city codes, development standards and relevant plans. Singling out a public servant and dedicated commissioner for your political maneuvering is another example of how tone-deaf and exclusive you all are.”
Gene Chapo, another former planning commissioner who worked extensively with Ehlers, touted the chairman’s exemplary record of public service and accomplishments, calling his displacement a “petty and childish political gesture” on the part of Blakespear and Kranz.
“Bruce has been, in all of the years that I’ve known him, a tireless volunteer in service to this city, and he has done so much for this city longer than any of you have been in political service,” Chapo said. “I’ve served on the planning commission as long as I’ve known Bruce, I’ve always known he has always listened and made decisions based on the evidence presented in front of him. Bruce is a person of great integrity, great intelligence, and great honesty, and I think that you’re making a big mistake by letting him go.”
Former Encinitas mayor Sheila Cameron described the council’s actions against Ehlers as nothing more than a political stunt that will deprive the city of one of its most upstanding public servants.
“As a former city council member and Encinitas mayor, I know that the commissions created to serve citizens of Encinitas, the planning commission’s primary purpose is to know and interpret the land use municipal code,” Cameron said. “Well, I doubt there’s a council member or staff as knowledgeable as the current chair of the planning commission, Bruce Ehlers.
“Yes, there is a phrase that the planning commissioners serve at the pleasure of the council, but that does not give the mayor or the council member right to abuse that privilege. This evening you’ve made accusations against a longtime planning commissioner that as it turns out are based on a false premise. You have no cause for requesting his termination.”
Julie Thunder, a longtime Cardiff resident and District 3 council candidate, called Ehlers’ firing hypocritical, noting the chairman’s well-documented opposition to high-density housing policies hadn’t prevented his appointment to the commission.
“Bruce Ehlers has been an opponent of the mayor’s pro-high-density policies. But that didn’t stop this council from appointing him to the Planning Commission — not once, but twice,” Thunder said. “Bruce brings knowledge and experience to the table, and for months, you were comfortable with the presumption that he makes decisions based on the law, not his own preferences.”
Thunder also criticized the council’s effort to stifle Ehlers’ opposition to the city’s “failed” housing policies.
“Appointed commissioners do not give up their right to speak on public matters,” Thunder said. “So statements made by Bruce can’t be a proper basis for dismissing him.”
Reasons for dismissal
Blakespear, Kranz and the other council members pointed to several actions and statements from Ehlers that they said contributed to his termination.
The council reiterated several times that Ehlers had financially supported the city’s opponents in litigation matters and made public statements in direct conflict with the city’s efforts to comply with state housing mandates.
A significant reason for the chairman’s dismissal, according to the report, was his association with Encinitas Residents for Responsible Development, or ERRD, a local group currently suing the city to prevent the development of the 277-unit Goodson housing project in Olivenhain.
Ehlers’ position as the treasurer for the nonprofit group North County Advocates, which made donations to ERRD, links him to the lawsuit against the Goodson project and puts him directly at odds with the city’s long-term housing interests, the report states.
However, according to current group members, Ehlers stepped down from his role as treasurer with North County Advocates in September, resigned from the group and voluntarily recused himself from all deliberations and policy determinations related to the Goodson project on the commission in order to avoid any semblance of a conflict of interest.
Also at the center of the chairman’s dispute with the council was his support for Proposition A, a 2013 voter-approved initiative requiring a public vote for any major zoning and density changes.
In March 2020, the City of Encinitas filed a lawsuit attempting to override Prop A, arguing the voter-approved initiative unduly restricted the city’s ability to meet state housing density requirements. A judge ruled against the city, reaffirming the voters’ right to have the final say on development proposals that fall outside of certain land-use parameters and policies outlined in the city’s general plan.
Ehlers, principal author of Prop A, publicly opposed the city’s lawsuit and gave a public declaration in the case in which he reaffirmed his support for the initiative, which he maintains is important to preserving local control over housing and density requirements. In a recent op-ed and in comments made to The Coast News, Ehlers reiterated his opposition to the council’s efforts to undermine Prop A.
Kranz said that while he personally supports Prop A, Ehlers’ declaration and subsequent comments in The Coast News were “inappropriate” given the council’s stance on these policies.
“The problem that [Ehlers’] has is that he fundamentally disagrees with the policies agreed upon by this council, and then he goes on his campaign and blasts a whole bunch of policies that this council has adopted,” Kranz said. “How can you carry out your duties as chairman of the planning commission when you’re running on a campaign explicitly aimed at undermining policies that the council has adopted?”
But Ehlers pointed to his record of maintaining high ethical standards, consistently recusing himself from cases when a potential or actual conflict of interest may exist.
“I have no problem being fair, impartial, and unbiased,” Ehlers said. “It’s because I’m extremely careful with the cases in front of me that I’m free to take positions for or against the council policy.”
Blakespear said both Ehlers’ statements about Prop A and his purported ties to the Goodson lawsuit render him unable to impartially handle matters of policy concerning similar high-density projects that fall under the commission’s purview.
“It is simply not acceptable to have a Planning Commissioner who proposes unlawful solutions; rejects housing projects without an adequate basis; has had financial and leadership roles in community groups that sue the city; self-creates conflicts that required his recusal from considering the only project sited in his district of Olivenhain, and uses the legitimacy of his title as Planning Commissioner to undermine and subvert the city’s goals,” Blakespear said. “In summary, Mr. Ehler’s presence on the Planning Commission is a liability to the City of Encinitas.”
Ehlers disputed the notion that his declaration or statements made to the media presented any conflict with his duties as chairman. On the contrary, since Prop A is the law in Encinitas, Ehlers felt it was appropriate and obligatory for him to defend the voter-approved initiative in court since the city refused to do so.
“As the prime author of Prop A, I was one of the people forced to ‘volunteer’ to defend Prop A because we knew the city would not defend it,” Ehlers said. “At the end of the day, Prop A is part of our general plan whether they [the council] like it or not, whether they support it or not, they have to follow it.”
Ehlers said the accusations leveled by the mayor and Kranz were overly vague and did not specify which specific statements ‘compromised’ his role as chairman.
“The report implies but does not detail, that I acted outside of the bounds of the objective standards,” Ehlers said. “It further clarifies that I “demonstrated through public statements and actions” my opposition to implementing the objective standards. No specifics are given. How can I respond to vague allegations without a reasonable public hearing?
“I believe that this was absolutely a deliberate orchestration by the mayor to minimize my ability to respond to any valid charges, to the point where she didn’t even detail what statements I had made that were improper — she called what I did unlawful and then never explained what I did that was unlawful.”
Councilmember Joe Mosca said that he ultimately voted yes to terminate Ehlers because he felt as though there were simply too many outstanding concerns about the chairman’s ability to remain unbiased when presiding over the city’s various housing projects.
“It is so incredibly important that the city is well represented on the planning commission, that the planning commissioners are absolutely unbiased…but the statements that you’ve made and the actions that you’ve taken really demonstrate that you have a bias and that you fail to meet these duties of how a planning commission member needs to operate,” Mosca said.
“I’m not hearing the answer to Kranz’s question—how do you resolve the statements that you’ve made and have objectivity and fairness when it comes to the permits that are coming before you?”
From the outset, the meeting was a contentious affair and the chamber grew increasingly turbulent. On several occasions, Blakespear unsuccessfully tried to calm down the crowd, asking residents to respect meeting decorum and refrain from clapping after comments.
But in defiance of the mayor’s instructions, the room full of residents, many of whom were waving signs that read “We Support Bruce Ehlers,” repeatedly clapped and cheered for each public commenter throughout the meeting.
The crowd grew particularly incensed when Blakespear repeatedly attempted to cut off public speakers at the 2-minute mark of public comments, prompting attendees to rain down jeers and boos on the assembled body.
Another moment that drew groans and objections from the crowd occurred prior to the council’s vote when Councilwoman Kellie Hinze said she would be “joining the majority to remove Commissioner Ehlers from his role.” Despite Hinze being the fourth council member to share her intentions to vote in favor of removing Ehlers, some residents at the meeting questioned her comment as having improper foreknowledge of the council’s decision.
“You’ve already decided,” someone from the crowd yelled.
Hinze defended her remarks in a written statement to The Coast News: “As the fourth council member to provide comments regarding my position to support removal of Mr. Ehlers from the Planning Commission, I articulated my support for the majority of council members who had already publicly stated in deliberations during the April 13 meeting, and in the written report for the meeting, their intent to vote to remove Mr. Ehlers from his volunteer position serving the city as an appointed planning commissioner.
“The written recommendation for his removal had two authors, Mayor Blakespear and Councilmember Kranz, thus establishing in the public record their intent. Only one additional vote was needed to remove Mr. Ehlers. Councilmember Lyndes spoke ahead of me to state her approval for removal. Thus making clear a majority of three votes had been established. My comments were fourth in line to add to the established majority in the public record for his removal.”
The mayor ultimately had to call multiple recesses during the meeting to restore order to the chamber.
When asked if he expected such a visceral reaction from the community to Ehlers’s dismissal, Kranz said he was unfazed by the proceeding.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Kranz said. “I like Bruce, a lot of people in the community like Bruce, and they took it personally that their friend was removed from the planning commission. I expected a big turnout, and nothing about the testimony or the number of people here surprised me at all.”
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to clarify reporting on Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze’s remarks during the meeting, as well as including a response from the councilwoman. While some residents alleged a potential Brown Act violation based on her remark, there is no evidence to suggest a violation occurred.