San Diego 'I've often pondered why anyone would run for public office.... So what's it all about? Power, plain and simple." "Sometimes people's quest for power is not a healthy one. And more often than not, the people who might be most responsible with public power are not those likely to be the most aggressive in obtaining it."
-- Carolyn Chase,
San Diego Earth Times, February 18, 2004
The minutes of the August 12, 2004, meeting of the San Diego Planning Commission were matter-of-fact: the vote was 6-0 for "677 market-rate housing units at the maximum density allowed by the Pacific Highlands Ranch Plan" in the North City Future Urbanizing Area of Carmel Valley. The project is owned by Pardee Homes. Planning commissioner Carolyn Chase, self-proclaimed "Earth Day Mom," former San Diego Sierra Club chair, and now District Two council candidate, was one of the six.
In 1998, San Diego voters approved Propositions K and M, which unleashed development in the future urbanizing area. Pardee Homes and Black Mountain Ranch LLC will eventually build a combined total of approximately 10,000 new housing units in San Diego's North City, east of Del Mar and west of I-15.
The San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club supported the developments. Carolyn Chase, then chair of the Sierra Club, led the negotiations, which included numerous conditions laid out in legal memorandums between the developers and the environmental group. Chase signed the contracts on behalf of the club.
One of the commitments Pardee and Black Mountain Ranch made to the Sierra Club was to co-fund a "local not-for-profit foundation for the purpose of establishing a not-for-profit advocacy organization dedicated to the development of alternative transportation solutions." Each developer was to provide seed money, a "one-time payment of $50,000." That funding commitment was fulfilled after the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt corporation, was incorporated on July 20, 1999.
In the spring of 2004, Chase filed Form 700, a statement of economic Interest, with the San Diego City Clerk. This statement, required of all planning commissioners, covered the period from January 1, 2003, through December 31, 2003. Chase listed the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices as a source of income and then checked the box indicating she had received from the coalition between $10,001 and $100,000.
In an interview, Chase said she was hired in April 2000 to represent the coalition and to "monitor regional transportation issues, including the Regional Transportation Plan" and the proposed TransNet extension, the one-half-cent sales tax for transportation projects in San Diego. Over the years, Chase became a ubiquitous and forceful presence at numerous mind-numbing transportation meetings and public hearings.
Chase stated she received "$2000 to $2500 a month" as a consultant for the transportation coalition "from April 2000 through 2003." Based on her figures, she earned at least $90,000 in consulting fees from the developer-funded coalition.
When asked if she thought it was a conflict of interest to vote on the Pardee project in August 2004, Chase said, "You either believe evidence of influence or you don't. If I had problems with the [Pardee] project I would have voted against it." That straightforward response is vintage Chase.
From L.A. to San Diego
Blunt, intelligent, outspoken. All adjectives that describe environmental activist Carolyn Chase. But to her enemies, and she has many, terms like "abusive," "hypocritical," and "unethical" are more apt terms. What friends and foes alike would agree on is that Carolyn Chase is one of San Diego's most powerful political players.
"I've moved sort of into the inside in a lot of ways in the city, but I'm not quite inside. I've got this weird sorta -- I am an outsider and an insider, but as far as politics is concerned, I'm definitely an insider," said Chase. But her comments seem to apply more to Chase as a person than to Chase the political actor.
Physically, Chase is like her personality. She is plus-sized and has a "don't screw with me" persona, but she has a somewhat cherubic face and she laughs readily. She dresses either beach-community grunge or occasionally hippieish, sometimes in large colorful caftans. And now council candidate Chase is seen donning a politician's business attire. Her round straw hat has become her trademark. Never hatless, she's stopped by citizens in the supermarket who ask if she is that "planning commission lady" they see at the televised commission meetings.
In a four-hour interview in a PB eatery, Chase sported two bandaged broken toes, the result of a late-night run-in with a couch. Her bearing makes one feel she could commit acts of physical violence, but in reality she uses verbal barbs to assault the numerous fools she does not suffer well.
"When I...say people have style problems, then I have to think that I got some style problems too," says Chase.
Her adversaries are brutal in their assessment of her. Democratic assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who was an active Sierra Club member for over a dozen years and served as chair from 1995 to 1997, said that Chase would often "intermingle" her Sierra Club activities with her paid consultant activities.
Another longtime Sierra Club member, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that Chase "struts around like some self-anointed Queen of the Environment."
Chase, however, has her fans, including current Sierra Club chair Richard Miller. "Carolyn has been an extremely active environmentalist and...is an extraordinary person."
Chase, 47, was born in Los Angeles. Her father worked for the phone company, "when there was only one phone company." Her mother was a teacher. Chase migrated to San Diego in 1975 to attend UCSD. After earning her degree in computer science, "because I knew if I was trained in computers I would always be able to get a job," she worked as a quality assurance manager at NCR in Rancho Bernardo, then for various software start-up companies, many of which, says Chase, did not succeed. One that did was where she met her husband, Chris Klein. Klein is a web designer and occasionally, Chase says, does "some political consulting." The couple, according to a Chase website, "own and operate Earth Media, Inc., a multiservice consulting firm incorporated in 1993."