San Diego Had it not been for his wife, Harry Mathis says he never would have known about ESPN's plans to use La Jolla Shores Drive for a high-speed X Games skating demonstration - plans that were abandoned earlier this month due to overwhelming community opposition.
The councilman, fingered by constituents for having, in the words of one, "cooked a deal" with the sports channel, told a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter he had no prior knowledge of ESPN's plans to turn the steep thoroughfare into a racetrack until his wife heard about it at a Republican women's meeting in mid-March and passed the information along. Sure, he conceded, his staff had mentioned the possibility back in October, but "I frankly had forgotten about it."
And thus Harry Mathis, the retired navy captain who is now one year into his second term as council representative from the 1st District, countered a claim by X Games organizer Jack Weinert that he and Mayor Susan Golding had known all along about ESPN's plans and had promised their support for nearly a year, long before any public hearing or polling of constituents.
Jan Smith, a veteran La Jolla activist, says she wasn't surprised. "This is his whole modus," she says. "He feigns surprise, and it's always after the fact. Harry Mathis has never taken the pulse of this community; he goes to meetings and goes through the motions, but you can tell he's already got his mind made up. If we had a sense he was listening, that he was keeping an open mind, that he weighs the pros and cons, we could almost respect him. But he doesn't - and that's what drives us batty."
Mathis would not come to the phone for an interview. But Scott Tillson, the councilman's chief of staff, bristles at this criticism of his boss. "To say he comes into any given situation with a preconceived notion is absolutely contrary to the facts," Tillson says. "I think you would find any number of instances in which Harry has bent over backwards to work with two competing factions to achieve a true compromise, and I think he has been extremely adept at actively listening to the various interests and groups involved in particular issues."
Regarding the X Games, Tillson says he and a fellow Mathis staffer met last October with members of the International Sports Council, "at which point they mentioned they were looking at that site, and our response was, 'We're not sure. You have to get out into the community before we can make any decision.' That process began in February, and Harry didn't get involved with it until then."
Mathis's district stretches from the beaches of La Jolla north to the Del Mar border and east through North City West to Rancho Penasquitos. From old money to new, Mathis's core constituency is affluent, conservative, and pro-business, which observers say is why he easily triumphed over slow-growther Peter Navarro in 1993 and faced no opposition when he ran for reelection in the March 1996 primary.
City hall observers paint Mathis as a throwback to San Diego's city councils of the 1960s and early 1970s, in the days before managed growth and district-only elections. He's an old-style Republican, a champion of Golding's "business friendly" dictate who is keen on anything that will pump money into the city coffers.
Critics say Mathis is so convinced of his own rightness - which generally coincides with the agendas of the business and development interests that support him - that he tends to disregard dissenting voices.
Hence the nascent recall drive targeting him and neighboring councilor Barbara Warden by residents angered that their elected representatives didn't side with them in their battle to keep marine helicopters out of the former Miramar Naval Air Station.
And hence the growing chorus of dissent among community activists in La Jolla who blame Mathis for the many oversized "trophy houses," like Union-Tribune publishing heir David Copley's still-expanding Foxhole estate, going up throughout the community. "Harry has intentionally undermined the efforts of his constituents," says Evalyn Drobnicki, a Rancho Penasquitos resident and head of the Committee to Recall Harry Mathis. "At a time when thousands and thousands of people were behind the move to send the helicopters to March Air Force Base, just north of Temecula, instead of Miramar, Harry wrote a letter to Washington, stating that we're just a handful of crazy people who don't mean anything and not to listen to us. There's a big push by business to bring the marines here because they think it will be an economic boon, and business is what got Harry elected."
"Harry is very pro-development," adds Matthew Welsh, a La Jolla architect who has sparred with Mathis over a lavish rebuild near his Lookout Drive home. "I don't think he's concerned about the quality of life and certainly not the coast as a public resource. Harry is concerned primarily with the developers who support him, who elected him."
Tillson defends his boss's pro-business stance. "This town lives on business," he says. "For years we lived on the navy and tourism, but now, for this region and this city to thrive, it has to be perceived, not only in the business community but in the community at large, as friendly to business."
Tillson adds, "But that does not mean Harry is interested in sacrificing the quality of life. Just recently a serious quality-of-life issue occurred in the La Jolla area in which we became aware that a storm drain runoff that was going across beaches was in fact hazardous because of contaminants. We moved the city manager to notify the public, and secondly, together with Byron Wear, the other coastal councilman, we worked with the city manager to identify and fix the problem."
The recall drive against Mathis has been dismissed by U-T editorial writers, who in a March 14 editorial praised Mathis as "honest and effective" and took issue with organizers' claims that Mathis and Warden "didn't do enough to stop helicopters from coming to Miramar."