San Diego 'I've often pondered why anyone would run for public office.... So what's it all about? Power, plain and simple." "Sometimes people's quest for power is not a healthy one. And more often than not, the people who might be most responsible with public power are not those likely to be the most aggressive in obtaining it."
-- Carolyn Chase,
San Diego Earth Times, February 18, 2004
The minutes of the August 12, 2004, meeting of the San Diego Planning Commission were matter-of-fact: the vote was 6-0 for "677 market-rate housing units at the maximum density allowed by the Pacific Highlands Ranch Plan" in the North City Future Urbanizing Area of Carmel Valley. The project is owned by Pardee Homes. Planning commissioner Carolyn Chase, self-proclaimed "Earth Day Mom," former San Diego Sierra Club chair, and now District Two council candidate, was one of the six.
In 1998, San Diego voters approved Propositions K and M, which unleashed development in the future urbanizing area. Pardee Homes and Black Mountain Ranch LLC will eventually build a combined total of approximately 10,000 new housing units in San Diego's North City, east of Del Mar and west of I-15.
The San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club supported the developments. Carolyn Chase, then chair of the Sierra Club, led the negotiations, which included numerous conditions laid out in legal memorandums between the developers and the environmental group. Chase signed the contracts on behalf of the club.
One of the commitments Pardee and Black Mountain Ranch made to the Sierra Club was to co-fund a "local not-for-profit foundation for the purpose of establishing a not-for-profit advocacy organization dedicated to the development of alternative transportation solutions." Each developer was to provide seed money, a "one-time payment of $50,000." That funding commitment was fulfilled after the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt corporation, was incorporated on July 20, 1999.
In the spring of 2004, Chase filed Form 700, a statement of economic Interest, with the San Diego City Clerk. This statement, required of all planning commissioners, covered the period from January 1, 2003, through December 31, 2003. Chase listed the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices as a source of income and then checked the box indicating she had received from the coalition between $10,001 and $100,000.
In an interview, Chase said she was hired in April 2000 to represent the coalition and to "monitor regional transportation issues, including the Regional Transportation Plan" and the proposed TransNet extension, the one-half-cent sales tax for transportation projects in San Diego. Over the years, Chase became a ubiquitous and forceful presence at numerous mind-numbing transportation meetings and public hearings.
Chase stated she received "$2000 to $2500 a month" as a consultant for the transportation coalition "from April 2000 through 2003." Based on her figures, she earned at least $90,000 in consulting fees from the developer-funded coalition.
When asked if she thought it was a conflict of interest to vote on the Pardee project in August 2004, Chase said, "You either believe evidence of influence or you don't. If I had problems with the [Pardee] project I would have voted against it." That straightforward response is vintage Chase.
From L.A. to San Diego
Blunt, intelligent, outspoken. All adjectives that describe environmental activist Carolyn Chase. But to her enemies, and she has many, terms like "abusive," "hypocritical," and "unethical" are more apt terms. What friends and foes alike would agree on is that Carolyn Chase is one of San Diego's most powerful political players.
"I've moved sort of into the inside in a lot of ways in the city, but I'm not quite inside. I've got this weird sorta -- I am an outsider and an insider, but as far as politics is concerned, I'm definitely an insider," said Chase. But her comments seem to apply more to Chase as a person than to Chase the political actor.
Physically, Chase is like her personality. She is plus-sized and has a "don't screw with me" persona, but she has a somewhat cherubic face and she laughs readily. She dresses either beach-community grunge or occasionally hippieish, sometimes in large colorful caftans. And now council candidate Chase is seen donning a politician's business attire. Her round straw hat has become her trademark. Never hatless, she's stopped by citizens in the supermarket who ask if she is that "planning commission lady" they see at the televised commission meetings.
In a four-hour interview in a PB eatery, Chase sported two bandaged broken toes, the result of a late-night run-in with a couch. Her bearing makes one feel she could commit acts of physical violence, but in reality she uses verbal barbs to assault the numerous fools she does not suffer well.
"When I...say people have style problems, then I have to think that I got some style problems too," says Chase.
Her adversaries are brutal in their assessment of her. Democratic assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who was an active Sierra Club member for over a dozen years and served as chair from 1995 to 1997, said that Chase would often "intermingle" her Sierra Club activities with her paid consultant activities.
Another longtime Sierra Club member, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that Chase "struts around like some self-anointed Queen of the Environment."
Chase, however, has her fans, including current Sierra Club chair Richard Miller. "Carolyn has been an extremely active environmentalist and...is an extraordinary person."
Chase, 47, was born in Los Angeles. Her father worked for the phone company, "when there was only one phone company." Her mother was a teacher. Chase migrated to San Diego in 1975 to attend UCSD. After earning her degree in computer science, "because I knew if I was trained in computers I would always be able to get a job," she worked as a quality assurance manager at NCR in Rancho Bernardo, then for various software start-up companies, many of which, says Chase, did not succeed. One that did was where she met her husband, Chris Klein. Klein is a web designer and occasionally, Chase says, does "some political consulting." The couple, according to a Chase website, "own and operate Earth Media, Inc., a multiservice consulting firm incorporated in 1993."
Chase and Klein's PB house, which is also currently home to Chase's 88-year-old ailing mother, could be featured in an environmental magazine. In addition to solar water heating, "The entry deck we've replaced with recycled plastic. The remodel we did used recycled-content lumber," Chase proudly states. It also has an "energy-efficient washing machine and lighting and bulbs...low-flow toilets, low-flow showerheads, drip irrigation."
The airy wooden house shapes the hillside and has a slight view of Mission Bay. Unruly native plants surround a terraced vegetable garden and an environmentally de rigueur compost heap. Southwest-facing front windows, which run the length of the house, open to a large, sunny deck. Outside and inside become one. The childless couple share their home with six cats.
According to city financial-disclosure records, the couple also own a nearby rental property and have a diverse and robust stock portfolio, including a "$2000 to $10,000" stake in the not-so-environmentally friendly Weyerhaeuser lumber company.
Chase's first act of environmentalism was an Earth Day poster she made in seventh grade. She later decided she wanted to make a difference in the environment, saying she "could see the great damage being done in the late '80s and early '90s." She joined the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation.
Her introduction to San Diego's environmental community was a talk by environmental designer and perennial mayoral candidate Jim Bell. "He's still giving the same speech today," says Chase, laughing. "Actually, it's gotten a lot better."
"Earth Day Mom"
Chase's first major environmental involvement was in 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, when San Diego environmental activists held an EarthFair in Balboa Park. Chase said that her husband was the volunteer "production manager," and she helped coordinate activities.
"It was such a success, the following year people approached [us] to organize it again," said Chase. "Sixteen years later we are still organizing Earth Day.... I think it was [only] two years ago -- three years -- that we started receiving any payment for it. I am the 'Earth Day Mom.' "
Assemblywoman Saldaña said that she worked closely with the couple on that first EarthFair, which later became an indication of Chase's "intermingling" of volunteer and business ventures. Chase's "approach was to take what traditionally was a volunteer activity and make it a career endeavor," said Saldaña.
Ruth Duemler, a former Sierra Club chair who had long been active when Chase first got involved in the club in the late '80s, had a similar assessment, calling Chase "a very determined woman [who] seemed to have her own goals."
Tax records show that in 2003 Chase and Klein earned $60,000 from Earth Day. According to Chase, this is on a par with what they bring in annually for the event. "In other words, not very much," said Chase.
Duemler, who now lives in Oregon, said Chase took ownership of the annual EarthFair. Said Duemler, "I was concerned about it when she took the Earth Day name."
Records filed with the California secretary of state show that "San Diego Earth Day" was incorporated April 7, 1992, as a tax-exempt corporation, with husband Cletus C. Klein as the registered agent and the couple's PB home as the corporation's address. The 2003 tax return shows Klein also acts as the organization's treasurer and bookkeeper. Chase said the new corporation was formed because the "event used to be run through Jim Bell's nonprofit." Once it started to make over $25,000 a year, tax returns would have to be filed and "Jim did not want to do the paperwork."
Chase, reiterating that it was "ten years" before the couple started being compensated, said, "He [Chris] could not afford to [manage the event] anymore without being paid."
The purpose of Earth Day, whose motto is "Think globally and act locally," is, according to Chase, "to create a clean, healthy, prosperous future for everyone and everything."
But to some, the prosperity being created is Chase and her husband's, and it comes at the price of selling out the Sierra Club. Saldaña calls it the "green-washing effect." Chase's fund-raising from corporations has been controversial, resulting in "environmentalists fighting among themselves over whom they should accept money from," said Chase.
Duemler minced no words: "I am concerned when...people come in and take over and make friends with the polluters."
Chase recognized the controversy. "We host 250 different groups, took a very broad definition of who should be involved. It was controversial in the environmental community, but they have mellowed out over the years.
"Maxwell House is not offering to give us money," said Chase, "Exxon is not offering to buy us off, and while people were fighting over who to take money from, a bunch of us went out to organize the event."
So whom does Earth Day's EarthFair raise funds from?
The City of San Diego, for one. The 2005 city budget showed "San Diego Earth Works/Earth Day" receiving $11,995. "We are on the TOT [hotel tax] dole," admitted Chase. In addition, the City's "environmental services [trash] handles the waste management and recycling; the water department did a big display and provides volunteers." But most of the funds are raised from exhibitors and sponsors.
The Earth Day website shows that this year's major corporate sponsors included Sanyo, Starbucks, Target, and Kyocera. In addition, Chase said that Solar Turbines donated $5000. Chase admitted that Solar is "not exactly an environmentally friendly product -- they drop in [turbines] for natural gas pipelines and oil fields." But Chase contends that other factors should be at play as well. Solar is a "long-term company" in San Diego and, according to Chase, has many employees who volunteer for the event. And even though they are "owned by Caterpillar," they are "a local business with local employees."
Another controversial participant is the United States Navy, which Chase says also supplies volunteers. "Why do [we] have the Navy [when] the Navy is the biggest polluter?" asks Chase. "Well, the answer is, the Navy is strictly there [at Earth Day] to educate people about their management of endangered species on Navy land and sometimes about their hazardous-waste-management plan.
"It's important for Navy personnel to think of themselves as helping the environment, and another thing is, they're not going away. In the history of permanent institutions, they're right up there," said Chase.
Also, "We allow SDG&E in to talk about conservation programs."
But according to Saldaña, the criteria for selecting EarthFair participants should be a consistent commitment to the environment. "What we should look at...is what type of ongoing involvement they had, not just once a year."
Recently, longtime liberal activist John Falchi sent out an e-mail. In it, Falchi wrote of Chase, "I do not see her as a true progressive," using her Earth Day role as evidence.
"Back in 1990," Falchi's e-mail continued, "discussions were held in Jim Bell's office related to the possible renewal of the original Earth Day." Later, the person elected to chair the event had to resign. Chase's husband had been storing event data on his computer. "Chris Klein was instrumental, then, in his wife assuming the Chairmanship of Earth Day.... It was anything but a democratic way of transitioning the responsibilities for this major environmental event.... Little did [we] know that the whole philosophy of Earth Day would undergo a switch in the process.... No longer would it be emphasizing the need for corporations to be more responsible in the way they treated the land, the water, the air, and above all the people who would suffer from all of the pollution that was extant in our society.... I remember going as a clown [on Earth Day] in protest of the shenanigans that had been pulled to bring this all about."
"It's capitalism," says Chase with a chuckle. Chase considers the EarthFair "the marketplace of environmental ideas. Everything is connected. Are they part of the larger picture? And if you do not have a relationship with somebody, it is hard for them to want to be a good actor."
Props K and M
In the late 1990s, as Chase was becoming one of San Diego's most powerful environmental leaders, political events would give her ample opportunity to exercise that power. "Timing is everything in politics," says Chase.
After Pardee and Black Mountain Ranch failed in 1994 to achieve passage of Proposition C, which would have opened the barn door to unfettered development in the North City, they pursued a new strategy to persuade voters to lift development restrictions that voters had first imposed in 1985. The result was Propositions K and M on the November 1998 ballot.
Chase, as Sierra Club chair, played an integral role in the negotiations with the developers, maintaining that it was the "brutal" Sierra Club process that resulted in a fair agreement.
"The art of the deal is knowing when you have the best deal."
The deal the Sierra Club ironed out with Pardee and Black Mountain Ranch focused on "preserving habitat [and] storm-water run-off issues" and even had a "green building clause," which Chase said "was my personal idea." Subsequently, Pardee "started exporting [it]...to other projects," and that is "one of the things I am proudest of, is finding a way to work with commerce to make them do the right thing. It is better for business. It is better for the environment when you can have these win-win things."
The 13-page "Agreement for the Protection of the Environment," in addition to creating the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices, also required the Sierra Club to sign the ballot arguments in favor of K and M, which Chase did, and to testify in favor of the projects at public hearings.
So far, says Chase, the developments resulting from K and M have been consistent with what the developers promised the Sierra Club and the voters. "My experience with both Pardee and Black Mountain Ranch is that they were honorable to keeping their word."
Chase Meets John Kern
It was also during the K and M campaigns that Chase first met John Kern. Kern, who later became Dick Murphy's strategist in his campaign for mayor and then became his chief of staff, ran the pro-Prop K campaign for Black Mountain Ranch.
Kern is "very smart, with a good political and cultural understanding," said Chase. "There is no substitute in politics for having been there. I consider him a great bank of cumulative wisdom about politics in San Diego."
Chase Hired by Transportation Coalition
But it is Chase's financial relationship to the developer-funded San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices that raises the most questions.
Paul Blackburn, who was the local Sierra Club's conservation coordinator in 1998, when the agreements with Black Mountain Ranch and Pardee were negotiated, said that the idea of creating the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices was his. "There are approximately 70 similar organizations in other cities. San Diego was just behind the curve.
"The higher-density neighborhoods that would be more transit friendly would not be built for 15 years," he added, prompting the need for a mechanism to focus on traffic issues sooner. After Black Mountain Ranch and Pardee paid the initial $50,000, each developer would ultimately donate an additional $500,000 to trust accounts to be used for "transportation-improvement activities mutually agreed to by the club and the developers," said Blackburn. Although, according to Blackburn, the terms of the agreement with each developer have some differences related to the specific development projects, the monetary commitments of both developers were the same. "Neither one wanted to feel like they were being screwed in relation to the other one."
After the transportation coalition organized as a nonprofit corporation on July 20, 1999, Blackburn helped set up the board, but he left soon after to work in Washington, D.C. When he returned in the summer of 2003, "Most of the money was spent, and there was only about $20,000 left." The seed money had been spent on consultant Chase.
While not critical of Chase's work, Blackburn says, "My opinion is that the money would have been better spent getting the organization in place."
In 2003 the coalition retained Blackburn to "prepare a proposal to help it become sustainable." This included creating a new nonprofit, Move San Diego. "One of the things we have done was a ride-share website," said Blackburn. The website was funded by a grant from the transportation coalition in 2004. Blackburn said Move San Diego hired Chase's husband, Chris Klein, and paid him "approximately $15,000" to undertake the highly technical aspects of the "programming and coding" of the site.
Klein's web company, I Contact, is, according to its website, "a service of Earth Media, Inc.," Chase and Klein's business, of which Chase serves as president.
Longtime Sierra Club activist Kathryn Burton says contracts that resulted from the Sierra Club's support of Propositions K and M demonstrate that "Carolyn works first and foremost to advance Carolyn. She simply uses environmental causes to advance her personal ambitions rather than the public good. Everything she touches is a vehicle for that purpose."
Chase was also in the middle of controversy during the 2000 mayoral race. After Supervisor Ron Roberts and Judge Dick Murphy emerged from the primary, the Sierra Club considered whether to endorse one of them in the November run-off. As political committee chair, Chase said she started "calling around...[to] shepherd the process and do due diligence" on Murphy and Roberts.
Assemblywoman Saldaña said of the mayoral endorsement, "The process was rigged in favor of Murphy by Chase."
Chase said it was the candidates themselves who made the difference. "The one thing that struck me about Dick Murphy is that there was not anybody who would rat him out and say he would lie to them or that he did one thing and said another. That impressed me." She said she was equally unimpressed by Roberts.
"It did not take me more than two or three phone calls that I heard about Ron that he was...well, vindictive. That was the number-one thing that came back on Ron Roberts."
Chase admits that the "main rap on Dick Murphy was that he was a supporter of Jackson Drive." The proposal for extending Jackson Drive through Mission Trails Regional Park included a 1600-foot-long bridge over the San Diego River.
"This is environmental heresy," said Chase, "but a bridge, in the bigger scheme of things, is not the biggest environmental issue in the world one way or the other." But "he [Murphy] saved Mission Trails and raised a significant amount of money to save that park...the largest urban park of its kind in the western U.S. He stopped the Navy from putting housing inside what is now that park."
And what about Roberts? "Ron has done some nice pocket parks," said Chase.
According to Saldaña, Chase made changes to the political committee to consolidate her power. "Carolyn suddenly turned it into a difficult committee for anyone to participate on."
In fact, the San Diego Sierra Club has a very formalized process for participating in its political committee. Prospective members must fill out an "Application for Voting Membership on the Sierra Club, San Diego Chapter, Political Committee Board." The application includes questions such as:
* Why are you seeking appointment to the political committee board?
* What would be the three top political items that are of most concern to you?
* What expertise or special skills do you possess that you would bring to this board?
* What has been your role in past political activities, both accomplishments and failures?
Saldaña, who said she attended meetings during that time but was not "allowed to be" a member of the committee, felt the Sierra Club should have taken a pass on the mayoral race. "Neither Ron Roberts or Dick Murphy had outstanding credentials for an endorsement." She said that after the political committee interviewed Murphy and Roberts, Chase moved on to other matters. When Saldaña asked, "When are we going to discuss this?" Chase said they would discuss it later by e-mail. "Carolyn is big on e-mail. It all got done internally," Saldaña said, and the "next thing I knew the recommendation goes from the political committee to the executive committee."
Chase said the political committee first interviewed the candidates in June 2000 and voted to endorse Murphy on July 12, 2000, the day after a "public forum" featuring Murphy and Roberts was held at UCSD. Two absent members were polled, and they voted to support Murphy subsequent to the meeting.
In late July 2000, the executive committee, which acts as the governing board of the local Sierra Club, was unable to muster sufficient votes to make an endorsement. But then the Sierra Club took what Saldaña called the "unprecedented step" of taking up the Murphy endorsement a second time on October 3, 2000, when it passed.
Chase said it is "routine for it [an endorsement] to be reconsidered" and elaborated upon the controversy in an e-mail.
"Some people were taken by surprise because they thought that when the motion to endorse Murphy failed that it was over. They didn't seem to understand that in political campaigns, it's never over till it's over and the rules are set up that way. So in essence they got caught flat-footed when Murphy requested to have the endorsement considered again at another Meeting."
The state Sierra Club subsequently approved the endorsement despite an appeal from Saldaña, activist Lisa Ross, and former Sierra Club chair Peter Andersen.
Andersen, an SDSU communications professor who does on-air commentary for Channel 10, said he appealed Murphy's endorsement on two grounds. "Murphy wasn't an environmentalist. I spent four years fighting Murphy over [his support for] Jackson Drive. That was the content of the appeal." Andersen also said he objected to the process: "Whether or not you can conduct phone or Internet polling...and whether individuals who did not attend the meeting would be allowed to vote. I chaired the political committee previously.... During those times, if you were not present for the discussion, you were not allowed to participate." He said that if those not in attendance had been precluded from voting, Murphy would not have been endorsed.
Andersen said he "lost that battle" but still objects to Internet voting by individuals not present.
The endorsement of Murphy "was the right thing to do," said Chase.
Planning Commission Quid Pro Quo?
Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña and club activists say there were other factors at play, that Murphy promised to appoint Chase to the City of San Diego's Planning Commission as part of a deal to get the Sierra Club endorsement.
"I heard speculation that there was a deal," said Saldaña. "I find that reprehensible."
"I have a problem with Lori," said Chase, "because she wrote a letter to the paper falsely accusing me of engineering the Murphy endorsement in exchange for the Planning Commission appointment, and the record shows I got it on the merits."
In an October 21, 2000, letter to the Union-Tribune, Saldaña wrote:
"Carolyn Chase has been actively fund raising and volunteering for Murphy and lobbying on his behalf within the Sierra Club. Ron Roberts had no such influence at play.
"To ensure no quid pro quo has occurred here, I would ask Chase and all other members of the political committee and executive committee to promise not to serve as appointees of Judge Murphy on any future commissions, should he win the election. It would be sad indeed to see individuals benefit while Sierra Club policies are ignored."
Chase said there was no deal. "There was never any conversation [with Murphy] about...getting an appointment to anything."
However, a Sierra Club activist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that at the meeting, "Murphy said if elected, he would 'appoint someone from the Sierra Club like Carolyn Chase' to the Planning Commission."
Miller, the club's current chair, says he remembers Murphy's discussing an "environmental appointment" but does not recall his "mentioning any specific names."
Andersen says there was "no quid pro quo that I ever heard" on a Planning Commission appointment. However, "What Murphy said -- it pissed me off even more -- was, 'I will always be happy to work with you, and my door will always be open to you -- if you endorse me.' "
Miller said that Saldaña "had to be reprimanded...by the Sierra Club" for penning the U-T letter.
Saldaña disputes this, saying there was "no formal [reprimand] process" but more like "a tribal kick off the island." She said she was verbally attacked at Sierra Club meetings, receiving "personal assaults. Mean and ugly things were said."
Murphy, who was sworn in as mayor in December 2000, did, the next summer, appoint Chase to the Planning Commission. Murphy also created an environmental task force, which was chaired by Chase, to advise him on environmental issues. Saldaña said that the group "met behind closed doors" and was not "subject to the Brown Act," the state's open-meeting law.
Chase responded that she was "not in politics to turn down a two-hour session with the mayor to discuss environmental issues. I am flabbergasted to hear that someone would complain about setting up an environmental task force."
Today, Saldaña says that "to avoid any appearance of quid pro quo, they should avoid those types of appointments."
Chase Versus Saldaña
When asked about the Chase/Saldaña relationship, Miller laughed and said that the two had a "long-going, I do not want to say animosity, but differences. Lori lost her influence within the club, her leadership, and I think she kind of blames Carolyn Chase for that."
Saldaña said the problems with their relationship started much earlier, soon after Chase became active in the Sierra Club. "I sensed a resentment by Carolyn as I was appointed to various [environmental boards] and to the Sierra Club executive committee." Saldaña also said Chase was constantly "questioning her authority" when Saldaña was chapter chair.
Chase and Saldaña clashed more recently when Saldaña, running for the 76th Assembly District seat, navigated Chase's political committee in search of the Sierra Club endorsement.
Saldaña, who was competing against former Gray Davis aide Vince Hall in the March 2, 2004, primary, said that Chase had moved the political committee meetings from a "neutral location," the Sierra Club headquarters, to her home.
According to Saldaña, she attended a Sierra Club political committee meeting in January 2003 to inform the committee of her intention to run. That meeting was held at the Sierra Club headquarters in North Park. But when it came time for her to be interviewed by the political committee in October 2003, the meeting notice in the club's newsletter said to "call Carolyn Chase for the meeting location." (The 2005 Sierra Club newsletters also say that.) Saldaña said she assumed the meetings were still held at the headquarters but was unable to reach anyone there to confirm it.
In an e-mail to the Sierra Club's political and executive committees, Chase gave her view of what happened that evening:
"At about 6pm, in the middle of an interview with another candidate, I was pressed to field four angry and almost hysterical phone calls from Lori Saldaña complaining about the meeting location and demanding that it be changed back to the office."
According to Saldaña, the Sierra Club ultimately "split the baby" and did a "dual endorsement" of herself and Hall. Saldaña said that starting with the Murphy endorsement, Chase created a political committee that was "so closed-door."
Other active Sierra Club members echoed Saldaña's "process" concerns, but none was willing to go on the record, for fear, as one said, "of going to war with Carolyn Chase."
Chase responded that "everything she [Saldaña] is coming up with is twisted. Interpretations she made up because she doesn't like me. She has a history of accusing me of things that are not true. Why is someone who is an environmentalist tearing me down?"
Chase's Political Clients
Another criticism of Chase is that she uses the Sierra Club to generate clients for her and her husband's web-design company.
Saldaña said that it was often unclear what Chase's priorities were and that the "club would endorse people and then hire Chris to produce campaign materials. I would ask [Carolyn] many times, when she would intermingle her activities, 'Which hat are you wearing?' "
Chase, who said she always "knows what hat I am wearing," admits that the couple's company has worked for politicians whom the club has endorsed, but "only after the endorsement was approved by the Sierra Club."
But in a January 2004 e-mail exchange between Chase and activist Ian Trowbridge, Trowbridge charged that Chase had a conflict that prevented her from being a fair arbiter of the Sierra Club's 2004 endorsement process. Trowbridge was the campaign manager for Kathryn Burton, who was seeking the club's endorsement in her unsuccessful campaign to unseat Councilman Scott Peters. Chase responded: "For disclosure purposes, for Peters' first campaign for office in 2000, my husband Chris did his website. Chris was paid $2867 for that effort. For a few months before that, he had done a website for Peters' law office. That was discontinued shortly into the campaign and I don't know how much he billed for it. I had no involvement with Peters or any aspect of Chris's website work at that time -- nor since."
But Chase's claim of noninvolvement and lack of knowledge of the financial details is belied by corporate filings that show Chase is the company's president.
In addition to Peters's website, the couple's company also designed websites for Mike Aguirre, in 2002, when he ran for district attorney; Supervisor Pam Slater; Councilmember Toni Atkins; and several other local Sierra Club-endorsed candidates.
But current Sierra Club chairman Richard Miller defended Chase against conflict-of-interest charges, saying, "I think that anyone involved in politics intermingles activities in all of their lives."
Sierra Club Endorses Chase for Open Council Seat
Chase's mastery of the political process recently came in handy when on August 9, three days before candidate filing closed, the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club voted to endorse her bid for city council. The District Two seat, vacated by resigned councilman Michael Zucchet, has attracted a strong field of candidates. The club's endorsement is particularly crucial in that Lorena Gonzalez, who does environmental work for Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, also filed papers to run for the open seat.
When asked why the Sierra Club had considered Chase and no other candidates, Chase said that "no other candidates requested the endorsement."
Club chairman Richard Miller oversaw the club's endorsement process. After Chase became a candidate, she stepped down as political committee chair. When asked if he contacted Gonzalez or any other environmentally friendly candidates before initiating the endorsement process, Miller said, "No. I was not required to." He also said that Gonzalez is not a "viable" candidate. "No one knows who she is." The political committee, chaired by Miller, met on August 4 and recommended that the executive board endorse Chase.
The club's bylaws regarding political endorsements do say that "Generally, no endorsement will be made unless the Chapter's endorsement has been requested" and that endorsement decisions will be based on two criteria:
"1) Environmental record or views; and 2) Electability."
When told the news of the Sierra Club endorsement, Gonzalez said, "Well. Who knew?"
Gonzalez, who sits on the State Lands Commission and as an alternate on the California Coastal Commission and is vice president of the League of Conservation Voters San Diego, said that she has worked the Sierra Club on a statewide level. "I am really surprised [by the endorsement] as I have found them to be a very democratic -- with a small d -- group."
Gonzalez, who has a bachelor's degree from Stanford, a master's degree from Georgetown, and a law degree from UCLA School of Law, touted her endorsements by "numerous environmental leaders, including" Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, and Bruce Reznik, president of the League of Conservation Voters San Diego and executive director of San Diego BayKeeper, which promotes clean-water issues. Gonzalez's brother Marco has long been involved in BayKeeper. She said she anticipates receiving formal endorsements from other environmental organizations "which have a genuine [endorsement] process." And Gonzalez was recently endorsed by Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña.
Ian Trowbridge, himself now a candidate for the Zucchet seat, is a retired Salk Institute professor and a taxpayers' "watchdog." Trowbridge played a major role in uncovering abuses at the city's Data Processing Corporation.
"It's a worthless endorsement," he said, and it shows that the Sierra Club "is dominated by a very small group of people who do not represent the thousands of members in San Diego."
Chase said that after she stepped down as the political committee chair, she sent e-mails to some members of the committee suggesting they consider interviewing other candidates besides herself. When asked for copies of these recent e-mails, Chase said she'd "already deleted them."
Chase also said she urged Miller to inform Gonzalez about the accelerated endorsement process "as a courtesy."
But Miller, who did not comment on Chase's claim, said he "polled the executive board by e-mail, and there was no objection to proceeding with Chase's endorsement." In fact, the club's bylaws say that they "may vote by electronic means on actions that have been deemed urgent by the Chair between regularly noticed meetings."
Miller signed a letter from the Sierra Club to Chase on August 10 confirming her endorsement: "I am pleased to inform you that the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club California have approved you for endorsement for election to the San Diego City Council District 2 in the Special Primary Election on November 8, 2005."
The timing allowed Chase to mention the endorsement in her ballot statement, which was filed on August 12.
Kathryn Burton said Miller is controlled by Chase. "He may be chair, but there is always a woman behind every man, and in this case it is Carolyn Chase."
On August 18, as controversy over the endorsement process started to spread, Chase wrote on her campaign website that Gonzalez's campaign was caught "flat-footed out of the gate."
"[A]nother candidate [Gonzalez] has now publicly accused the Chapter of playing favors for me since I was most recently the Political Committee Chair.... This reaction only shows this campaign's ignorance of the process and the rules. The race was noticed on a regular agenda for the regularly scheduled meeting of the PolComm," which, according to Chase, was before she decided to run.
Chase said that she prepared the August 4 political committee agenda and sent it out to the political committee about a week before the meeting but "did not attend the meeting," a fact confirmed by Miller. Bonnie Stone, in the San Diego City Clerk's office, said that Chase took out city council nomination papers the first day they were available, August 2, 2005.
Burton, echoing Saldaña's concerns about process, said, "Carolyn's idea of a political committee is one stacked with her handpicked cronies. She notices her committee by e-mail and then holds meetings in her house." During Chase's tenure as chair, the political meetings have been held at her PB home, although the Sierra Club's conservation and executive committees have met at the club's North Park offices.
Chase's August 18 website message continues. "The Sierra Club, being a more than hundred-year-old institution -- has lots of bureaucratic rules. But key to making any bureaucracy produce is knowing the rules and how to use them. The bottom line is: I played by the rules and got the endorsement because I deserve it. Everything else is sour grapes."
But Gonzalez's environmental supporters turned this sour wine into political action. Her brother Marco, who one environmental activist said "threw a fit" over the Sierra Club's support of Chase, generated enough heat on Miller to schedule a special political committee meeting on August 29.
In the meantime, Trowbridge e-mailed Miller formally requesting an endorsement interview:
"I have been told that the Sierra Club requires that a candidate for public office has to request endorsement from the Sierra Club. Forgive me for not being aware of this unusual rule."
When Gonzalez was asked about the committee's sudden interest in her, she said she thought that it was a result of this reporter's asking questions about the Sierra Club process: "Well, I think we can thank you for that."
When Miller was asked why the committee had decided to interview Gonzalez, he said, "Because a majority of the board members have decided they wanted to do that. A request was made, and the rest of the political committee decided they wanted to interview Ms. Gonzalez."
On Monday, August 29, the political committee held a special meeting to consider Gonzalez's candidacy. The meeting was the first in years to be held in the Sierra Club's North Park offices. In addition to Trowbridge, two other candidates who had contacted the Sierra Club since Chase's endorsement -- San Diego Community College District board member Rich Grosch and longtime environmental activist Kathleen Blavatt -- also attended the meeting. Earlier in the day, all three had been sent Sierra Club candidate questionnaires and asked to submit them as part of a formal request for consideration. Chase, however, had not been asked to fill out a questionnaire during her endorsement review. "It was not required," said Miller, stating that the committee asks for one to be filled out "if they don't know the candidates."
Much of the early part of the political committee meeting was spent discussing the process, what Miller called the "misconception that we are not open." Miller explained that because of the special election, the process had to be sped up.
But Trowbridge, whose tone was combative, asked about the procedures and rules, concluding, "So you needed to expedite the endorsement..."
"...chose to," interrupted committee member Peter Andersen.
Committee member David Hogan said he was "getting tired of this. At the time we made the endorsement there was one [known environmental] candidate [Chase]." The club's conservation coordinator, Eric Bowlby, admitted that there were "other names out there" but said that the club needed to endorse quickly so its name would appear on a candidate's ballot statement, increasing the club's "influence."
Sierra Club executive committee member Joanne Pearson, who attended the meeting, said that she raised concerns about early endorsements in the 2004 election cycle, saying that an early endorsement "does not serve the [San Diego Sierra Club] chapter well." And that it is "my information that it [an early endorsement] is unusual."
Each of the triumvirate of candidates was given five minutes to address the committee before Gonzalez was interviewed. Grosch and Blavatt outlined their credentials, but when it was his turn to speak Trowbridge said, "I came to ask for your endorsement, but having heard what I heard tonight, I do not want it." Trowbridge called the process a "disservice" to environmental candidates, called the committee members "unethical," and said he found "this group to be distasteful."
No action was taken on further endorsements, but the political committee interviewed Grosch and Blavatt during a special meeting on September 14. Afterwards Miller said, "No recommendation was forwarded on any candidate. Not even a motion." Lorena Gonzalez, who recently was awarded the sole endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters San Diego, said, "We anticipated this. It's politics, right?"
Chase's website says of the Sierra Club endorsement, "[O]ne of the only independent grass-roots groups -- and also the biggest -- is the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club. With 15,000 members countywide, almost 9,000 in the city and 1,000 in the [Second City Council] District, I'm proud they endorsed me."
2004 Planning Commission Votes
Of all the controversies surrounding Chase, the one with potentially the most significant ramifications relates to her votes on the city Planning Commission.
On February 5, 2004, Chase recused herself from voting on a project by Black Mountain Ranch, one of the co-funders of the San Diego Coalition for Transportation Choices. When asked why she did so, Chase said it was an "abundance of caution." Black Mountain Ranch "had sponsored Earth Day...it was an indirect conflict," since Chase and her husband earn close to $60,000 from Earth Day. But Chase said the city attorney indicated, "You don't have to recuse on anything other than a direct conflict." She also said that since she "endorsed the project [Prop K]" as Sierra Club chair, "it might avoid the impression of already having made up her mind" about the project.
But when asked why she did not similarly refrain from voting on Pardee's 677-unit housing project the following August, Chase said that an environmental activist, David Hogan, "asked me to raise some concerns about the project on the record." Chase also said questions of a potential conflict of interest reminded her of "Toilet to Tap," the proposal to repurify sewage into drinking water. "People say they wouldn't want to drink toilet water," she said. "But all water is toilet water. It depends on what kind of filters you put on it. Money is like toilet water. What kind of filter does it go through?"
or Greek Tragedy
As environmental activist Chase morphs into politician Chase, the stakes are getting higher.
Former Sierra Club conservation coordinator Paul Blackburn, who calls Chase "a great character," says that "Carolyn does not really understand that your friends can't help you as much as your enemies can hurt you."
But Kathryn Burton says that it's Chase who has hurt the environmental movement in San Diego. "There are far too many former environmental activists in San Diego because of her infamous purges -- people who just wanted to preserve open space, save endangered species, or improve water quality rather than advance Carolyn Chase's agenda of the week. This has hurt the environmental movement immeasurably."
Chase looks at the times philosophically.
"The interesting flaw about smart people or often people in power, and, frankly, this whole thing with the city -- the pension, the indictments, the convictions, and the other indictments," she laughs, "the resignations, all of it, it's just like a Shakespearean tragedy or a Greek tragedy."
As Carolyn Chase embarks on her first run for elective office, time will tell whether she herself will face political triumph or tragedy.
In 2004 Scott Barnett represented San Diego businessman Phil Thalheimer, a candidate for San Diego City Council, who requested but did not receive the Sierra Club endorsement.
Contact Scott Barnett at [email protected]>