Planners adopt election debacle fix in La Jolla

Editing Note: An earlier version of this story stated that LJCPA board candidate Peter Ovanessoff stepped aside so that Michael Morton could take his seat. Both Morton and Ovanessoff said this is not the case. Ovanessoff said he did not want to be elected by a "technicality" that allows candidates with far fewer votes to be elected over returning trustees elected by a wide majority.

During an at times heated special meeting Oct. 29 at La Rec Center, members and trustees of the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) seemingly settled the group’s protracted election controversy by voting to adopt a remedy strongly recommended, if not mandated, by the city.

The proposed solution was hammered out between staff from the planning department, the offices of the city attorney and mayor, and the LJCPA’s executive committee.

The resolution involves amending the LJCPA’s bylaws to create a temporary 19th seat on the association’s board of directors, to be filled by La Jolla architect Michael Morton. Morton will serve until March 2015, when his seat will be eliminated and the association will return to having an 18-member board (Morton may run for re-election at that time).

The challenge, filed by La Jolla Shores resident Bob Whitney and his La Jolla Association group, centered on whether Morton was duly elected in March. LJCPA trustees said he was not, although the city later opined Morton was elected, and advised the LJCPA to seat him (which LJCPA trustees initially rejected, spurring the city to threaten the group with decertification and loss of its legal indemnity).

The question of whether Morton should have been elected centered on ambiguities in LJCPA’s bylaws and inconsistencies between those bylaws and City Council Policy 600-24, which governs the city’s 40 community planning groups, including the LJCPA.

During the March election Morton received the fewest votes (14), compared to termed-out candidates Joe LaCava and Jim Fitzgerald (each running for a third term and receiving 68 votes apiece). Termed-out candidates are permitted to serve an additional, consecutive term as long as they are elected by two-thirds of the group’s general membership, as LaCava and Fitzgerald were. Fitzgerald resigned soon after being elected, citing his interpretation of Council Policy 600-24 guidelines, which state that new board candidates should receive precedence over termed-out candidates. LaCava remained on the board, and was elected its president.

At the beginning of the LJCPA’s April meeting, candidate Peter Ovanessoff, who received 26 votes, stated his intention to step aside because, he later told La Jolla Light, "I did not believe it was appropriate to allow myself to chance being seated on a default basis due to some technicality," when other candidates received more votes.

LJCPA trustee Janie Emerson said Lesley Henegar, who then served as city’s designated community planner for La Jolla, stopped by the La Jolla Rec Center during the March election and was shown a copy of the ballot, which she took with her without comment, later stating that its language was not sufficient.

“I find it unconscionable that we’re being asked to change our bylaws to cover up a mistake that could have been solved that night simply and easily,” Emerson said during the Oct. 29 meeting, stressing, “I have no problem with Michael Morton. I’ve sat on committees with him. I’m happy to sit on a board with him again.”

During the special meeting, several trustees disagreed that the City Council would actually vote to revoke the LJCPA’s status as the city’s officially recognized planning group for La Jolla, and strip its legal indemnification.

“Decertification is not on the table — that’s capital punishment for jaywalking,” trustee Rob Whittemore said. “We’re talking about reasonable people disagreeing about a bylaw interpretation. You take that up to the City Council, where we’re doing their work, they’re not going to decertify us. They might, say, ‘hey, fix your bylaws,’ which is what we’re doing.”

Both sides of the issue concurred that numerous mistakes were made by trustees and city staff.

“La Jolla CPA made errors, unquestionably. The city, in an attempt to resolve the issue, made additional errors,” LJCPA treasurer Nancy Manno said, opining that the city’s solution, “while not perfect, is equitable, and will allow the La Jolla CPA to continue its valuable service … and return to civil discussion.”

Whittemore expressed vehement opposition to adopting the city’s remedy, stating his belief that the general membership elects trustees; they are not appointed by the LJCPA board or city officials.

“Our bylaws are our constitution — and the bylaws state … trustees shall be elected by the members of La Jolla Community Planning Association — that’s you, that’s everybody in this room with a card,” Whittemore said, adding that his belief is the city’s proposed remedy is “not an appropriate use of our bylaws.

“The purpose of bylaws is to direct how the organization is to be governed,” Whittemore said. “They should not be used to solve a temporary or unique situation.”

Whittemore contended that letting the city tell the LJCPA membership who should serve on its board establishes a slippery slope by which the city could dictate future aspects of the LJCPA, such as the number of appeals it is allowed to file with the City Council.

“I just don’t think there’s an end to it,” he said. “This is where we ought to draw the line.”

However, LJCPA president LaCava countered that the city spends a great deal of time concerned with the business of community planning groups, revising proposed changes to the LJCPA’s bylaws, which he said, “invite the city in when we have a problem.”

City Council President Pro Tem (and LJCPA general member) Sherri Lightner underscored the importance of the LJCPA making recommendations on land-use issues to the City Council, adding that the threat of decertification and loss of legal indemnity is real.

“I hope all of you care about preserving the standing of the La Jolla Community Planning Association as the city’s officially recognized planning group for La Jolla as much as I do, and recognize how critically important it is that the La Jolla CPA be able to continue to function and provide input to the city,” Lightner said, acknowledging the “confusing and sometimes contradictory information” the group received from the city.

Lightner said the proposed solution was created to prevent any current trustees from having to step down from the board.

“This solution also prevents a potential lawsuit challenging the election results,” she said. “Please be aware that if you choose not to accept this proposal and the CPA trustees are sued the city will not indemnify or defend the CPA. That means you, the trustees, would need to pay your legal costs to defend the board against any litigation that might result.”

LaCava said the loss of the group’s indemnification concerned him most. “I signed up for a lot of things when I came before you,” he said. “I didn’t sign up to dig in my pocket to defend lawsuits from people who don’t like what we do and how we do it.”

Trustee Fran Zimmerman said she felt the LJCPA could avoid such problems in the future by working harder to recruit enough viable candidates to run for the board.

“That has been sadly lacking,” said Zimmerman, adding that the association needs adopt the remedy so that it can “get back to the business of dealing with ugly houses being built all over town, hanging over our sidewalks, looking like battleships.

“This is what counts here,” she said, “not all this stubborn, ‘The city can’t tell us what to do; we’re La Jolla!’ ”

In the end, 46 out of 80 general members voted to adopt the city’s remedy, followed by trustees voting 11-4-1 to adopt the city’s resolution (with Whittemore and trustees Cynthia Bond, Phil Merten and Mike Costello in opposition).

Later that evening, Whittemore tended his resignation from the board, via e-mail.

“Regrettably, the systematic corruption of planning groups has taken hold and I prefer to watch the debacle from afar,” he wrote.

The LJCPA will fill the remainder of the roughly two years left in Whittemore’s term during its March 2015 annual election, at which point six standard, three-year term seats will also be up for grabs. Lightner promised the city would more closely monitor that election.

The LJCPA has established an ad hoc bylaws committee that is currently working on revisions to clear up any gray areas in regard to election procedures, including how much priority should be afforded to write-in candidates. lajollacpa.org

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