We sat down with retired Fire Chief and current Encinitas City Councilman Mark Muir at E-Street Cafe on 10/17. Here’s how it went…
RH: Mark, how many years have you been living in Encinitas for?
MM: I’m a native San Diegan. I’ve lived in North County for over two decades.
RH: Do you have a favorite local artist, restaurant in town and favorite place to catch live music?
MM: We have such a diverse arts scene in Encinitas; probably Mark Patterson because of the Surfing Madonna. That was the last piece of art that caught my eye as a really good piece of work.
My favorite restaurant is La Especial Norte.
Music—I like this place for music [E Street Cafe] and I like catching the concerts on the beach in the summertime.
RH: I’d like to hear about your background, your education and careers. Tell us what has prepared you to continue on city council.
MM: I’ve been in the fire service for over 35 years, worked my way up the ranks. I was a chief officer for almost 20 years. I was a fire chief for 6 years and the last few years I was the Fire Chief for Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar. It was a part of the consolidation of management services we provided to be more cost effective (over 1 million savings annually) and to provide more efficiency in operations, so we did that and it’s worked out well. Also during this time I was elected to Olivenhain Municipal Water District, San Diego County Water Authority and appointed to Chairperson of North County Fire Departments, SANDAG and the North County Economic Development Council. As a current Encinitas Council Member, I’m currently on 11 boards (San Dieguito Water District, North County Fire Communications JPA, Encinitas Union School District Liaison, Encinia and San Elijo Waster Water, Encinitas Tourism, etc.).
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Planning and I’m close to completing my Master’s in Public Administration from SDSU.
RH: Since you’ve had the opportunity to serve on city council for a little while now, how has your current career [I understand you are retired] allowed you enough time to devote to city council? Would you say you’ve been able to keep a good balance?
MM: Well now that I’m retired, it allows me a lot of time to be able to serve on the council, to take the time to look at the issues, be informed on the issues, research issues, do my own self analysis, do outreach to find out what people think. It gives me the time. My wife and I are both retired.
RH: A couple of questions from people on my blog. I’m paraphrasing here. Encintas is a town overflowing with artists. There’s been a lot of controversy over public art over the past few years (the Kook, the Surfing Madonna, the Artist Colony banners). What’s your perspective on how all these things were handled? Would you have done things any differently in hindsight? I guess you weren’t around for all of these things. What’s your vision on improving the role of the arts in the Encinitas Community?
MM: Well I think the city has more artists per capita than any other city in the county. That’s part of our community character. I think the ideas and conversations about an arts center are great, it’s a great idea. But it’s one of those things where you have to balance out what you can afford. Are there opportunities such as grants? Are there opportunities such as donations? Del Mar’s built some great facilities [with grants and donations]. You’re a lifeguard; you’ve seen what they’ve built down there for their lifeguard facility. So there are opportunities like that where we can embrace the culture we have in Encinitas. But, we can’t lose track of our core services that we provide the city. As it relates to issues in the past, a lot of it has to do with freedom of speech. And the artist communities have to deal with that: questions of ‘where’s that line you can’t cross?’. I feel like we’ve done that and had some of good conversations. The Surfing Madonna is one thing, where I thought, ‘that was way cool’. But then the State Attorney General says ‘No you can’t do it’. So that’s the conflict you have in the community when you’re talking about public property, you have limitations. Then you have the banner ordinance. I thought that we as a city could have been more proactive rather than reactive to that issue. I thought honoring a past council member was nice and wasn’t that big of a deal. I was appointed to a subcommittee to update our banner ordinance. It was very open, participatory and transparent with different groups. I think it was a learning process for all who participated. We can eliminate the risk by saying no more banners or we can assume a lot of risk by saying put whatever you want up there, but I think that we did the right thing by accepting some risk and saying, what we’re looking for is to carry on doing what we’ve done from the beginning. I don’t want to say it was blown out of proportion on either side, I just think it could have been handled differently.
RH: More proactively, you were saying.
MM: Did we need to deal with it then, vs deal with it after recognizing Maggie? I don’t think there’s problem with recognizing someone like Maggie who’s done so much for the community, but I understand that issue as it relates to ‘where do you draw the line?’. But I think that this issue probably could have been dealt with at a later time, after the banner was flown. We could have waited and said OK, let’s deal with it after this banner was allowed vs making it an issue by trying to stop it. I guess it’s not being proactive because you’re waiting for the process to go through because it wasn’t an issue until then. But I think had we let it go through, [that would have been a better way to deal with the policy and not make it a personal or political issue].
RH: This was another question from the same guy. I know you probably know the exact answer to this question, but I want to know more. He asks why aren’t Yerts allowed in Encinitas? I’m changing the question. Could the city change the fire codes or make some kind of accommodations if they decided that this sort of structure is important to the Yoga community?
MM: The reason it wasn’t allowed was that the building didn’t meet state or local fire codes. The State of California says, a city can be more stringent, but not less stringent in adopting building and fire codes. That’s really a state issue as it relates to what the state fire code says. I guess you could go up to Sacremento and lobby for some changes in Health and Safety Code adoption. That’s why they call it the State Uniform Fire and Building Codes. As an example the City of Encinitas can’t make their exit requirements less stringent than the State of California.
RH: This is another one from a reader. What would you do to preserve the beauty charm and integrity of Encinitas?
MM: I think we’re doing that, we’re listening to what people have to say. We definitely have distinct communities. I think the general plan process allows the communities to maintain their character and have that conversation. I don’t think anybody wants to it to change. I think people like Leucadia being funky, and like the other entirely unique characteristic each community offers to Encinitas as a whole. I think it all works well together. I think it’s what makes Encinitas what it is.
RH: Some of us in Leucadia are really excited about the Street Scape project. But it’s a project that’s been put on the backburner for a really long time—longer than I’ve been around—and so I wanted to know, do you see this project as a high priority and how would you help make sure everything stays on track with it?
MM: I think it’s a process. And I hear people saying that people don’t approve of it. So you’ve got that argument and internal issues within the community that says, ‘well they like it, but we don’t like it’, so you have that conversation. But that doesn’t delay the process from moving forward. We’re going through an EIR (Environmental Impact Review). Once we complete an EIR and find out what the environmental impacts are to the area, we’ll have a conversation with the community as it relates to that. I think it’s a great program. The number of roundabouts seems like a lot, but I’m coming into a conversation that I wasn’t part of earlier. I’m sure that we will have a comprehensive conversation on this matter. But as a conceptual layout or vision, I think it’s a great plan. It’s a very expensive project, but like the downtown 101 it’s mostly paid by Transnet and SANDAG money. I think down here (downtown Encinitas 101) the project was $5.6 million; I think $5 million came from Transnet and I think it’s the same thing up there (Leucadia 101). I like the project, I’m looking forward to the conversation, I don’t know what would delay it. I think part of its just government going through its process.
RH: Well I think now that people have seen money pulled from other projects to get the Hall Property and Moonlight Beach Improvements back on track, they fear that other projects could get sidelined. How would you strive to strike a balance with a limited budget and five distinct areas of Encinitas each with their own priorities?
MM: I have many favorite spots in the community, but I think that the most visited spot whether it’s our citizens or people from the outside, is Moonlight Beach. I’ve always thought that, it’s like a jewel to the city. Kind of like Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove. So I’m excited. The fact is that we were able to step up when the State couldn’t step up and fund that program, along with using grant money to get it all done. I’m looking forward to being able to get the lifeguard tower done too as part of that project, sooner than later. I think it looks funny to have this entire area look really nice and then to have that old tower out there. I’m optimistic that we can deal with that issue soon for the lifeguard facility. The community park: $19.3 million. Some of the money was already saved up, some money came from projects that were identified by staff as low priority projects, and the rest from low interest bonds. I know some people say we should do a general obligation bond verses a lease revenue bond. But from my perspective, I think a general obligation bond is a tax. You’re taxing people. You’re putting it on their property tax. I know Tony [Kranz] says you should consider a sales tax or a lease revenue bond. Well that’s a tax and I don’t think people today are looking forward to a tax. As a city we’re AA plus. As a city we’re doing great financially. I think our debt ratio is about 8%, when best management practices is about 15% so we’re looking good. I think it’s a great time to borrow money. So I think with that, we’re doing some major projects within the city. I it’s easy to say ‘where’s the money?’, ‘how do you separate the money?’. With some of these major projects you have to look at your core service and other major projects within the city. Everybody uses Moonlight Beach even if you’re in Olivenehain. Everybody’s will use the park so I think these are all community based projects—not just old Encinitas or Cardiff projects. I think getting these projects moving forward and completed is really important. I feel comfortable that we’re doing that and moving in the right direction.
RH: I think you’ve kind of answered my next question already in there. I’m a city lifeguard and I feel like Encinitas’ beaches are its greatest assets, with Moonlight Beach being the gem of Encinitas. So what’s your vision for keeping our beaches great and improving them in the future? Is there anything you wanted to add specifically about the beaches?
MM: Well I think you hit it right on the head there. I think it’s the jewel of the city. You talk about our parks; we have more people visiting the beach than all of the other parks. I think we’re starting that process. As a fire chief I was frustrated at not seeing that project done. So now it’s great to be on the part of the process where you can actually get involved with that, see it funded, moving forward. So we’re seeing it down there. Bringing sand to the beaches, that’s coming forward. Having safe beaches and clean beaches have to be an important part of the city agenda as it relates to the community—it’s a beach community. When you’re recognized by Surfer magazine and all these other ones [for having a great beach] you have an obligation to make sure it’s a top-notch beach.
RH: We’re a very environmentally conscious community. So I was wondering what is your vision for sustainability and environmental improvements for our community?
MM: Well we have the state as it relates to AB 32 and SB 375 and stuff like that. But for our local area, I think that you need to set the example. You need to encourage people to be more sustainable. One example we did recently was to eliminate the photovoltaic fee on people with residential houses who wanted to put them in. We’re not going to charge anything. That’s encouraging people to do that. We have two charging stations there. Our fire station is LEED. Our City hall is LEED. That’s that leading by example, moving forward and walking the talk. But I also think we need to engage all of our commissions, but in particular the environmental commission and listen to what they have to say. We have a lot of resources and talent that sit on these committees and we need to task them with showing us what are we doing, bringing us reports and looking at the impacts of these things so we can continue working on sustainability issues.
RH: In your opinion, what is the most important or best thing you have accomplished with the city council so far? And what are some decisions that you didn’t like or thought could have been handled better?
MM: In the last 10 months I’ve been in the hot seat for a lot of votes. Pension reform is one thing. We did that. I think that was an important thing to do—not a popular thing to do. A balanced budget, moving forward on the Moonlight beach Improvements, moving forward with the Hall property/Encinitas Community Park. One of the things I brought forward that I was proud of was with spice and bath salts (synthetic over the counter drugs), I was able to get the council to accept a legislation that would make it illegal to sell spice at our stores. On the budget process, I asked to tag performance measurements along with the budget so that we can track where we are in the departments and our measurements and if we’re not [on target], why not and be able to shift money that way.
RH: Anything significant you felt should have gone another way?
MM: I didn’t like the Mayor process at the very beginning because I thought that it became a ‘it’s my turn’ or ‘I like you best’ selection process. So I didn’t like that, but I like what we’ve done to change that. To say listen, let’s let the people decide. Let them pick who their mayor is, whether it’s two years or four years. That was something I didn’t like, but the outcome is something I liked, allowing people to make that decision.
RH: What do you think sets you apart from the other candidates?
MM: Probably my experience. I don’t think anyone can match my experience. Not that I have the more experience but I have different experience. Over a quarter of our budget is public safety and I’m very familiar with public safety. I know those issues. Water is a big issue. I’ve been a representative from San Dieguito water district and I have the experience at Olivenhain Municipal Water District and San Diego County Water Authority for eleven years, I’ve been on the chair of imported water at the county water authority, and so I’ve been in some high profile positions. I think I understand those issues better than most people would. Then there’s my experience as it relates to different boards, the current boards I’m on now. Being a public servant for so long I understand some of the issues within the bureaucratic process that I think can be better. An example of that is the consolidating of the management, to make that more efficient and better service. Like contracting out management for the fire department when we did that. Here’s one of the conversations I’m having right now, because I sit on two different waste water district boards (Encina and San Elijo JPA): I submit a letter to them about consolidating services or resources–or not consolidation but like a JPA kind of opportunity. Both general managers like it and see the potential for saving a lot of money and making it a better and more efficient operation, so we’re moving forward with that. That’s something that I brought forth from a different perspective I had. I think one of the biggest things I have, is now that I am retired I have time. And time is probably your most valuable commodity you can offer for a position like this because it’s not a high paying job, so you’ve got to be able to want to volunteer. And I’ve learned that it takes a lot of time: the meetings, reading the packets and making phone calls and talking to people. So I think I can offer that not only with the experience, but with the time I have to commit to the position.
Now that I’m retired, I have the time. I may be the only candidate that can commit the amount of time required to make good informed policy decisions.
RH: Last one comes from a reader. This is the only tough question you’re going to get and I promise you it doesn’t relate to signs.
MM: I’m ready for the sign question.
RH: If you want to speak to that you can go there. Our reader wanted to know how will you prove to stay fair and balanced? And not be someone that, I guess as he perceived, goes with the majority or usually votes with the mayor.
MM: I think that’s not a fair perception. I know it’s a perception and perceptions are people’s realities. But I think for me you have to look at votes and not only my votes from the last 11 months, but the last 11 years. And if you look at my vote and you look at where I’ve been, you’ll see that I’m a very fiscally conservative individual. At the water authority I was the only one out of 24 agencies who voted against the budget because of an increase in water rates. So I’m not afraid to go against people. I’m not going to be a potted plant. I’ve told people that. There’s nothing in it for me to make sure the mayor likes me or make sure somebody else likes me, if that’s the case, I wouldn’t even run. For me, I am who I am, I vote the way I think is best for the community.
RH: I guess that’s about it unless you want to address anything going on with the signs. I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now.
MM: The sign issue is interesting in itself. It was a quick thing I added up wrong and it was a day ahead of time. Other candidates had their signs up a week ahead of time. And they’re out in the right of way. They don’t have permissions from those areas. So why is it such an offense for me to go out early, and say ‘my bad’, but then none of this other stuff matters. I think we have bigger and better things to talk about. I think any of those issues right here we can have some conversations about: people say we need three fire stations, we need to fund the liability of our pension, we need to fix all the roads. Let’s have a real conversation about that. If we can have a real conversation about that we can find out how different we really are on the issues that matter. Not a conversation about somebody who had a sign up a day early or in the public right of way or had a sign up a week early. Really? We’re gonna have that conversation? I think it’s kind of silly. If that’s the biggest thing someone can come up with then I think we’re looking pretty good as a city.