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."
Mention that editorial to Drobnicki and she sees red, pulling out a copy of the February 1996 letter to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Pirie that Mathis cowrote with Warden and 7th District councilwoman Judy McCarty. The three local pols maintain that popular support for the citizens group Move Against Relocating Choppers Here (march) is based on "wishful thinking" and conclude, "The marines at Miramar represent an enormous economic benefit to the city of San Diego, and we are quite anxious that march not create the erroneous impression that the marines are not welcome."
"We're his constituents, but he totally turns his back on us," Drobnicki says. "Prior to that letter, various local planning groups and important community leaders asked him to place on the city council agenda a Senate bill that said for safety reasons, send the helicopters to [the] March [base]. It would have been very easy to do. But instead, Harry Mathis drafted his own motion for the city to oppose that bill. When it comes down to the chamber of commerce people or his constituents, it's always business."
Tillson says Mathis's letter was not meant to "degrade or denigrate" march members, but rather to amplify his contention "that among the march group was a significant element with another agenda, which was to see Miramar closed to free it up for a civilian airport."
Critics in La Jolla also say Mathis doesn't listen to them. When community groups challenge the new development of mansions, critics say, Mathis invariably sides with the builder, refusing to bring the matter up before council the way his predecessors did.
Tillson admits that his boss doesn't like to go to council to solve problems. "Bringing something that still needs to be resolved to the full council sometimes doesn't render the best decision," Tillson says. "So his style is to have potentially controversial issues discussed at the community level and worked out. There will always be disagreements on any specific project, because the spectrum of opinion is so broad. What Harry attempts to do is encourage sides to work out differences among themselves, because he believes the community knows best what it can do, what it can support, how its community atmosphere is best preserved."
That's all well and good, counters Welsh, but it just so happens that the community planning groups in La Jolla that approve developments on an advisory basis to the city are controlled by architects and developers, "and these are the people who supported Harry [in his two elections]." A September 13, 1995, fundraiser for Mathis's upcoming reelection campaign was held at the home of Martin McGee, a trustee of the La Jolla Community Planning Association. Two weeks earlier, McGee had sent a letter to association "supporters," urging them to come to the party and "bring at least a $25 check. Many of us will give more. The rules limit contributions to $250 per person." McGee added, "Harry hopes that if he has raised some significant money this year, it will discourage opponents and ease the grind of another campaign."
Welsh's own battle with Mathis took place two years ago. Developer Marc Kaye - son of Peter Kaye, formerly a high-ranking editor with the San Diego Union and currently editorial director of NBC-owned Channel 39 - had bought a lot at 7764 Lookout Drive. He tore down an old structure - built in 1894 as La Jolla's first general store - and an accompanying guest cottage, realigned the lot into two, and constructed two new residences. Welsh didn't mind the construction so much as the size, noting that while the original structures totaled about 1000 square feet, their replacements were 4000 square feet and 5000 square feet - and on lots significantly below the hillside neighborhood's average.
Welsh and other neighbors fought the project for more than a year, finally getting the city to charge Kaye with failing to get a coastal development permit prior to demolition as well as a second permit for a density calculation to ascertain if the new lots were no more than 300 square feet smaller than the average lot size (according to the city, the new lots measure 8407 square feet and 6795 square feet, while the average is 13,116 square feet). But in a September 1995 memo to the La Jolla Shores Advisory Board, senior city planner Ron Buckley said that because the errors were not discovered within the 90-day review period, "the matter cannot be revisited or overturned."
Welsh and his neighbors tried to get Mathis to bring the Kaye project up before the city council, but no dice. "Harry decided not to hear it," Welsh says. "But I wasn't surprised. Back when the project was first proposed at the La Jolla Shores community hearing, Marc Kaye said that both Harry Mathis and Susan Golding wanted him to get his permit. And later, when I appealed, Harry specifically said he would not limit the size of anyone's ability to develop houses in the hillside area."
Mary Frances Smith, member of the La Jolla Community Planning Association and chair of its Coastal Development Permit Review committee, defends Mathis as a champion of private property rights. "I think he's great, I really do," she says. "There's a fight here in La Jolla over community rights versus property rights, and when a person's property is taken, that's against the law. Does the community have the right to tell a person how large a house they can build? What really has caused big problems in La Jolla is the fact that larger homes tend to replace older, smaller ones - and when you purchase a piece of land that you pay the price for in La Jolla, you are not going to pitch a tent. People demand more space. And I know if I was told I must build a smaller house, I would probably sue the city."
Critics say Mathis's pro-development stance is not limited to the residential side. Activists are still angry about the new Vons Plaza on Pearl Street, in which the supermarket chain is razing its existing 27,000-square-foot store and installing a Safeway measuring more than 50,000 square feet.
"The town council urged Harry to support the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance and make it more pedestrian-friendly, but we were dismissed," says Joanne Pearson, who was president of the La Jolla Town Council in 1995 when the project came before it. "The problem that many people in La Jolla are having with Harry is that he is taking positions contrary to our community plan and adopted zoning ordinances. Everyone knew when Harry first ran that his major support was from the building and development industry. But we all thought, or hoped, he would be able to represent all interests in the district."
Mary Frances Smith again springs to Mathis's defense. "We don't have a nice modern supermarket in La Jolla," she says. "And we deserve that."
Prior to his 1993 election to the city council, Mathis was a highly paid lobbyist for the Classic Building Owners, which represents owners of the estimated 746 unreinforced masonry buildings, many of them downtown, in San Diego County. He successfully petitioned the city council to water down a proposed law that would have imposed tough structural retrofit requirements on these old brick buildings to make them safer in the event of an earthquake.
During his campaign for council, Mathis received hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from his former clients and prominent land-use attorney Paul Peterson, who also lobbied on behalf of the Classic Building Owners. The summer after his election, Mathis fought a proposed state law that would have tightened the local ordinance. He asked the city attorney to investigate the law, designed to bring all local seismic safety ordinances in compliance with a much tougher state "model" code, and championed an 11th-hour amendment exempting San Diego from the tougher restrictions, which would have cost building owners thousands of dollars in structural reinforcements.
At the time, James Libby, a past president of the Structural Engineers Association who for seven years chaired the city manager's committee that developed San Diego's original ordinance, blasted Mathis for his continued involvement. "It seems to me that if he's a councilman," said Libby, "he should not be an advocate of some group."