DEL MAR — The kid gloves came off Monday night as proponents of a ballot measure giving voters veto power over major downtown development proposals challenged City Council actions and warned council members "to stop using city staff to do your political dirty work."
Charles Newton, spokesman for the loose-knit residents group that circulated initiative petitions for the ballot measure, chastised the council for spending public money on a negatively worded staff analysis of the initiative proposal and for taking advantage of a loophole in state law to postpone a vote on the measure until April.
Newton criticized the city staff report as "a thinly disguised and amateurishly written propaganda tract" against the downtown initiative.
"If your council opposes the initiative, admit it publicly and stop using taxpayer funds to campaign against the measure," Newton said as part of a response by his group to the city staff analysis of the proposed measure.
The action came during a public debate Monday night--one of the hottest in recent city history--on the merits and weaknesses of the ballot measure, which was signed by more than one-fourth of the city's registered voters. Residents, businessmen and businesswomen packed the small studio from which the City Council meetings are broadcast to the community over a public access channel.
The debate centered on the sharply opposite analyses--one by the city staff and one by former City Atty. D. Dwight Worden, done for the citizen group.
The city staff analysis, which was ordered by the City Council several weeks ago, warns that the initiative measure, if implemented, would be costly and would add delays to the development approval process through its requirement for a citywide vote on projects on sites larger than 25,000 square feet.
Worden, in an opposing analysis submitted Monday night, said the initiative's financial impacts would be minor and could, under state law, be passed on to the affected developer.
Worden said the proposal for a citywide vote on major downtown developments would affect only two properties at present--proposals for a large commercial center on the former site of the old Del Mar Hotel and renovation-expansion plans for the Del Mar Plaza. Both projects are in the city's commercial core--at 15th Street and Camino Del Mar--and "will, in nearly every respect, be unprecedented in the city's history in terms of magnitude and impact on the city," Worden said.
The initiative will allow the voters to ratify specific plans for the developments after they have gone through normal city processes and have been approved by the City Council, Worden explained.
"This simple process will avoid potential impacts on the town which a majority of voters would disfavor without unduly encumbering the (normal city) process or delaying developers," he explained.
Giving the final say to the voters, City Manager Bob Nelson warned in the city analysis, could put the City Council in the position of having to violate state law by delaying approvals of projects past state-mandated time limits.
Worden pointed out that the council, by delaying a vote on the initiative until April 8, "already has caused a much more burdensome delay on the affected developers than any part of the initiative could cause."
The pro-initiative group's attorney said the city's analysis of the initiative "is wrong in many important respects, is politically biased, and presents misinformation as fact."
Retired Superior Court Judge Louis M. Welsh, who said he was neither for nor against the initiative, expressed concern over the "serious and genuine legal precedents" the ballot measure poses.
If adopted, Welsh said, it would turn "the electorate into a planning commission" and would bring "expensive and time-consuming litigation."
He said it will be years before any decision could be made, threatening disruption of local governmental processes. He suggested that a respected judge from another county be brought in to rule on the constitutionality of the initiative before voters decide on it.
Several other speakers, including Chamber of Commerce President Sam Borgese and Del Mar attorney Patricia A. Smith, also raised constitutional questions about the ballot proposal.
Smith predicted that the initiative "will be struck down on its face" if it is challenged in court because it violates "the basic concept of representative government."
Borgese called the initiative "a spider web of legislation" that would stop development in Del Mar.