San Diego First District city councilmember Scott Peters won't be recalled this year, but his cozy relationships with developers -- and their possible behind-the-scenes role in fighting the recall -- could provide anti-Peters fuel if he runs again in March of next year, as expected.
Although he ran the first time as a self-proclaimed environmental attorney, the year after his election, in 2001, Peters accepted more than $100,000 in gifts from developers with projects before the city council, say detractors, noting that he also voted for dubious developments in La Jolla, University City, and elsewhere in the district.
The most controversial of those developments is a proposed Barratt Homes project at 5450 La Jolla Boulevard known as the Inn at La Jolla Condominiums. It would be in the Bird Rock area. The project was approved last year by the La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Community Planning Association, the San Diego Planning Commission, and the city council.
But on July 10, La Jolla's Town Council unanimously voted to rescind its prior approval of the project. The council is concerned about possible concealment of violations of the 30-foot height limit. The council is also worried about possible misrepresentations on roof and elevation requirements. The La Jolla group only has an advisory vote, but its about-face has aroused the citizenry, partly because Peters was such a partisan champion of the project.
Peters's major foes, the leaders of the now-stalled recall movement, also strongly oppose this development. They are Chip Feiss and Don Schmidt, residents of Bird Rock, and attorney Steve Haskins, who grew up in Bird Rock and now lives a few blocks away.
The three tried to block the project by filing suit, claiming several law violations. Then they settled out of court, as a Barratt partnership paid them $51,175.
Earlier, "Steve Haskins showed up at city hall and said he wanted to talk with Scott Peters about recalling him," claims Clif Williams, legislative analyst for Peters. "He talked about the Bird Rock thing and said his group didn't approve of it. He said, 'Get a stop-work order or we will start a recall campaign,' " says Williams.
Haskins remembers the incident a bit differently. "I probably said something about a recall, but I said we were unhappy with many things he [Peters] was doing. One of the main things was cramming a high-rise project down the throats of neighbors of Bird Rock."
On June 19, after Peters refused to try to stop the project, the three filed recall papers, establishing the Citizens for Clean Government -- the Committee to Recall Scott Peters.
Peters immediately put his own spin on the action. "I've chosen to take on tough issues, some of which inevitably ruffle a few people's feathers," he said in a press release, claiming the voters had elected him to do just that. He said that the recall backers "threatened me if I didn't secure a stop-work order on the La Jolla Inn project on La Jolla Boulevard, which they opposed."
The group opposing both Peters and the La Jolla condo project unveiled a study by architect Steven Florman that punctured holes in the Barratt architectural plans.
Among many things, Florman's evaluation outlined how the roof plan is deceptive in many respects, there are discrepancies in property and setback lines, and elevations are misleading. Florman related his findings to the La Jolla Town Council at the July meeting. After a lengthy public question-and-answer session, the trustees yanked their prior okay.
The project's architect is the politically well-connected Mark Steele, who is on the city planning commission and is frequently named architect for any sensitive project that may draw citizen opposition. Steele has taken on other controversial projects, such as the Chargers' purported plan to develop the Qualcomm site and the desecration of the old Naval Training Center.
Another politically well-connected entity is in the picture: the law firm of Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace. Last month, representing La Jolla Views LLC, a Barratt partnership, the law firm sued Schmidt, Haskins, and their foundation, which had tried to block the project in court before the out-of-court settlement.
Two partners of the law firm had given the maximum $250 to Peters's campaign, along with three officials of Barratt and ten people related to Corky McMillin Cos., developer of NTC, according to the recall group.
Says the Barratt suit, "The settlement agreement requires the foundation, including its members, agents, officers and representatives and attorneys, from further opposing the project." The suit further charges that Haskins and Schmidt "have attempted to obtain a stop-work order on the project and have tried to intimidate and bully city councilmembers to try to stop the project."
This lawsuit has an unpleasant odor. The language it cites in the settlement agreement -- the foundation and the Barratt partnership, and their representatives, releasing claims against each other -- does not specify that the foundation's members will stop opposing the project. It's doubtful any such settlement could force individuals "to lose their constitutional right to talk to elected politicians," says Haskins. "For anyone to give up those rights, it would have to be a crystal-clear agreement."
Moreover, the line about the anti-Peters group trying to "intimidate and bully city councilmembers" (italics mine) has the smell of burning sulfur.
Haskins says the suit "may be motivated to make it difficult if not impossible to proceed with the recall -- it completely disrupted what we were working on with the recall. I wonder how much Scott Peters has to do with this lawsuit."
The suit "does not address the Scott Peters recall," says Jenny K. Chenoweth, one of two plaintiff lawyers. "This is just a simple breach-of-contract suit."
The other plaintiff lawyer, Sandra J. Brower, says, "I don't want to comment on Peters," although, she concedes, "He's on the record; he voted in favor of the project." She says that the anti-condo group "wanted to be paid money to go away and let the project go on; they all signed it. We're saying they are now barred from opposing it."
But, says former councilmember Bruce Henderson, the settlement agreement simply does not ban the group's members from continuing to work against the project. Also, "The only way you can intimidate and bully a councilmember is through a threatened recall." In the lawsuit, the use of the plural "city councilmembers" is also intriguing. Henderson adds, "The suit is one of the most ridiculous I have ever seen."
Peters's aide Williams claims he doesn't know about the lawsuit. He also says that the recall effort stumbled because the anti-Peters group had difficulty gathering signatures.
There may be something to that, because it takes a slug of money to collect signatures, and the City of San Diego, unlike the state, has made it quite difficult to gather recall signatures. Earlier, the recall group went to federal court, suing the City of San Diego, which, by a novel legal interpretation, decrees that people wanting to recall a city councilmember cannot take large donations to fund the signature-gathering process. Those pursuing a recall are restricted to $250 donation limits, as in a general election. This is not true under state law, as fundraising for the recall against Governor Gray Davis attests.
Last week, a hit piece directed at Haskins and Schmidt was published by the Encinitas-based Surf City Times and distributed in La Jolla. Among many things, it charged that the anti-Peters group used the $51,175 settlement money to gather recall signatures. "We absolutely never touched any of that money to gather any signatures -- it's a lie," says Haskins. He and Schmidt believe the hit piece was financed by the development industry.
"Based on other cases, including from the states of Washington and Colorado," says Haskins, "our strong opinion is that the city cannot insulate councilmembers from being recalled." The city won the suit in federal court, but the recall group is appealing the decision. Reversing that decision is crucial to the future of city-council recalls, says Henderson.