ENCINITAS — Lisa Shaffer chuckled when asked about the recent change in her life.
And it wasn’t her impending retirement from public office — it’s her hair.
The councilwoman recently had her hair dyed shimmering shades of purple and royal blue, quite the contrast from her trademark silver bob.
“It symbolizes nothing,” Shaffer said, putting to bed any rumors of some deeper meaning to the hairdo. “I wanted to be audacious for once, and I decided that before my last substantive city council meeting would be a good time to do that.”
Shaffer colored her hair three weeks ago, just before the aforementioned “last substantive City Council meeting.” She will officially step down from the dais Dec. 13, replaced by Tasha Boerner Horvath, whom she endorsed during the recent campaign.
For Shaffer, the upcoming departure from public office is a consummation of a promise she made four years ago when she was elected after receiving the most votes in city history: she would serve one term, and accomplish as much as she could during that four years.
“I feel good about what I’ve done, I never intended to serve more than one term, so it wasn’t like I changed my mind about how long I would serve,” Shaffer said. “There is always some frustration that things don’t go as fast or as fully as you hoped they would have, but I think the city is in good shape, it was in pretty good shape when I got there, it’s in better shape now and I think the next council will continue to keep it that way.”
As part of the first liberal voting bloc in recent memory in Encinitas, Shaffer said she was proud of her accomplishments, a list that ranges from everything as small as a change in the City Council meeting format to boost public participation to as large as the $10 million purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School site.
“I felt like we had an impact,” Shaffer said.
A voice to the voiceless
Shaffer, who was previously a lecturer at UC San Diego Rady School of Management, said she ran for council because the previous council majority stifled the voices of people that didn’t share their political views.
That majority, composed to Jerome Stocks, James Bond and Kristin Gaspar — who essentially replaced former Mayor Dan Dalager in 2010 — was in some cases disrespectful to divergent viewpoints, Shaffer said.
“People were tired of the tone at City Hall,” Shaffer said. “They were very disrespectful to the public, and if you weren’t friends with the majority then you had no influence.”
Shaffer said she applied multiple times for seats on various commissions, including the environmental commission, a group she said felt the brunt of the council majority’s dismissive tone.
In 2011, the commission presented a detailed and ambitious environmental action plan, and the council majority dismissed it and its goals as unattainable. Stocks in particular mocked it, Shaffer said.
“I just felt like I had no voice,” she said. “And I know other people felt that way.”
Then, in 2011, longtime councilwoman Maggie Houlihan, who was part of the voting minority with then-councilwoman Teresa Barth, died after a five-year battle with endometrial cancer. Houlihan filmed a video three weeks before her death in which she endorsed Shaffer’s candidacy in 2012.
The City Council opted to appoint her replacement rather than host a special election, and the council majority voted to appoint Mark Muir to the post, despite more than 100 people who attended the meeting and urged the council to appoint Shaffer, who they dubbed “Maggie’s choice.”
Muir’s appointment might have been the final straw for many residents who felt voiceless like Shaffer. In 2012, they not only voted in Shaffer with the highest number of votes in city history, they also voted in Tony Kranz, who ran unsuccessfully in 2010, and ousted both Stocks and Bond, essentially flipping the balance of power on the council.
“I don’t think it was so much about Mark being appointed,” Shaffer said about the 2012 election results. “I ran a platform of working hard, telling the truth and playing by the rules…but part of it was that people were tired of the incumbents. It was almost as much of an anti-incumbent vote as much as it was a pro-me vote at the time.”
Shaffer said one of the new council majority’s first priorities was to give the public more of a voice during council meetings. They did this through a series of subtle changes to the agenda format that continue to have a profound impact on meetings.
First, they voted to expand oral communications from a hard-capped 15-minute time limit to 30 minutes with a mayoral option to extend the comment section to give people a chance to speak at the beginning of the meeting. Previously, residents would have to wait until the end of the meeting to speak if the 15 minutes expired.
They also changed a policy that required items removed from the consent calendar agenda to be heard at the end of the meeting.
“Obviously, people don’t want to stick around to the end of the meeting to do that,” Shaffer said of oral communications and consent items.
They also put term limits on commission seats, which gave an opportunity for the council to infuse the boards with fresh perspectives.
“It is very hard to fire someone who is doing good in their community, but imposing term limits gives them an opportunity to take a break, and I’ve had several commissioners who said they were glad we did it because they felt obligated to keep serving,” Shaffer said. “But it also gives us a built-in opportunity to bring in new people.”
Shaffer for her part also explained her decisions every week in a detailed newsletter, a format that several of her colleagues have also emulated.
“I don’t expect everyone to agree with me all of the time, but I tried to educate people and to help them understand what happens at the local level,” Shaffer said. “I am a political scientist by trade and I admit that I was pretty ignorant as to the local process, so I felt it was necessary to share that information in an open format with the public.
“I hope the public will hold other people to the same standards of open and honest information exchange,” she said.
Decisions draw controversy
At times, however, Shaffer and the new council majority staked out positions that drew opposition, in some cases to the people who voted for them.
Shortly after election, Shaffer and the rest of the council announced they would be opposing Proposition A, the land-use initiatives which voters ultimately approved.
The proposition called for giving the public the right to vote on major land-use or zoning changes, and placed a 30-foot cap on the height of any structure built or installed in the city.
This was problematic for Shaffer, who voiced her support for Measure A before she was elected.
Shaffer said that she supported Measure A in concept, especially the elimination of a city rule that allowed the council to change a zone of parcels five acres or smaller with a four-fifths majority vote. But once in office, she said she learned that much of the initiative would constrict development and land-use decision making beyond any practical measure.
Take for instance, Shaffer said, the former site of Fire Station No. 2 in Cardiff. An architect wanted to purchase the property and convert it into a house, but the council opted against it because it would have required a special election under Prop. A.
“Fortunately, we were able to find a tenant and they’ve done a beautiful job with the landscaping, but we were really limited with what we could do with it and it was ridiculous to have an election for one parcel,” Shaffer said.
The council majority further widened the rift between some supporters when they voted in favor of a density bonus development in Olivenhain called Desert Rose. The council said that their hands were tied by state law, and the community sued the city and developer and won at the Superior Court level before the appellate court overturned the decision.
Opponents of the project, including former council candidate Julie Graboi, said that many of the supporters of the majority felt betrayed by their stance and felt the council should stand up for the community, which opposed it because it would alter the character of the semi-rural enclave.
The council later would attempt to reflect the community’s wishes with how it handled density bonus development by adopting as series of policy changes that were aimed at closing several loopholes that have been popular among density bonus developers, including how the city calculates the base density of a project if the number of units was a fraction. City officials traditionally rounded down, but developers sued arguing that state law required them to round up.
That stance drew the ire of developers and set off a series of lawsuits and settlements that has cost the city nearly $1 million in legal fees. The settlements have further drawn the ire of residents who wanted the city to fight the legal battles, regardless of cost.
Shaffer and the city council also came out in support of the city’s proposed update to the housing element, Measure T, an unpopular stance with many community advocates, including many who supported Proposition A.
Voters ultimately rejected Measure T during the most recent election by a 56-44 margin. Shaffer doubled down on her criticism of the campaign ran by the “No on T contingent,” which she said was full of misinformation.
“Frankly, I don’t think there is any housing plan that is going to win a majority of support in the community, because there is always going to be the ‘no growth’ people who will campaign against it,” she said. “The ‘No on T’ people were putting out false information, and there is no fact check…but some of the things in their flyers were plain wrong. I don’t think anything is going to pass on the ballot, no matter what.”
Shaffer said that she believes ultimately the courts will have to weigh in on whether state law supersedes Prop. A, which created the mechanism for the voters to decide land-use decisions such as the housing element.
“So to me, I think we should be finding the cheapest and fastest way to get this to a judge,” Shaffer said
“But just saying no is not going to be a legally acceptable option, especially since every other city in this county has managed to find a way to do this, and it is not really that onerous if you take away the ‘scary 4,000 condos,’” she said, referring to an argument made by opponents of Measure T.
“We’ve accomplished a lot”
But perhaps the signature moment of Shaffer’s tenure on the council came in 2014, when she, Kranz and Barth voted to purchase Pacific View from the Encinitas Union School District for $10 million with the intent to revitalize the site into an arts venue for the public.
The move drew criticism from the conservative council faction of Muir and Gaspar and others who argued the city purchased the property for far more than it is worth.
Two years after the purchase, it re-emerged as an issue on the campaign trail, as council candidates Phil Graham, Muir and Tony Brandenburg harped on the purchase, in an effort by some of the candidates to cast a pall on the campaign of Kranz.
But Kranz, who allied with Shaffer on their run in 2012, emerged as the highest vote getter and Boerner Horvath, her protégé of sorts, finished in second place. And in the mayor’s race, Catherine Blakespear, whom she endorsed, won a lopsided contest against Paul Gaspar.
Shaffer said she sees the vote of the people as validation of many of the council’s decisions over the past four years.
“I was pleased with the results of the election,” Shaffer said. “Tasha worked really hard, put a lot of time and effort into it and she had a lot of ideas and she had the experience on the planning commission, and she deserved to win.
“And I was really pleased with how strong Tony performed. He’s not the world’s best campaigner, but he is a really good council member. And the efforts to smear him by saying how Pacific View was a bad decision obviously backfired,” Shaffer said. “His strong first-place finish means they support the work he, I and others have worked on in the corridor and Pacific View, with the arts and environmental action. It also means the community is looking for real people with solid connections to the community and that you can’t just walk in and spend a bunch of money and buy a seat on the council.”
Shaffer said she is proud of the legacy she leaves behind, reading off a list of things the council accomplished during her four years: Increasing safe routes to school, the approval and current construction of the new Moonlight Beach lifeguard tower, banning plastic bags and polystyrene foodware, clarity on the closure of public streets and a defined public benefit attached to such closures the update of the urban agriculture ordinance, a ban on e-cigarettes, an overtime fund for the Sheriff’s department to help combat issues in the downtown area and a ban on the sale of commercially bred pets are just a handful of 27 bullet points on the page-long document.
And there are things that are in progress that she said she was proud to see progress made, including the collection of tax proceeds on vacation rentals, the decision to install solar panels on public facilities, a soon-to-be completed urban forest policy update, an at-grade crossing at Montgomery Avenue and the North Coast Highway 101 streetscape, which is scheduled to begin in 2018.
Shaffer said after she steps down, she is going to take time to “be still,” but said she wants to get involved with the process of helping the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance — the group the council picked to transform the Pacific View property into a public arts center — get through the entitlement process.
“I want to help get Pacific View across the starting line with their permitting,” she said. “I don’t know how or what role I can play in that but I do want to make that happen.
“Other than that, I am planning to not make any commitments for a while…I don’t want to be a nag to the next council, they chose to run for election, I did not, so I don’t want to interfere with their ability to do what they want to do,” Shaffer added. “I am sure I will find ways to engage at some point, but I don’t want to make any specific plans for a while.”
To those that voted for and supported her, Shaffer offered her thanks.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve,” she said. “I tried to set the bar pretty high and I worked really hard,” she said.