Bill Horn (left) and Ron RobertsJust as election season begins to ramp up, the controversial Merriam Mountains housing project has shone a spotlight on Ron Roberts and Bill Horn, the two incumbent county supervisors who'll be on the June ballot—and neither of them look too good in the brightness.
Let's start with Horn. Horn will jump at any opportunity to lay more miles of highway across North County, and so voting for Merriam Mountains—which would have erected a new community of more than 2,600 homes outside of Escondido—was a no-brainer. He liked the project so much that when he found out that Roberts wouldn't be attending the Dec. 9, 2009, meeting where a vote on Merriam Mountains would be taken, he lobbied Supervisor Dianne Jacob hard to join him and Supervisor Greg Cox in the “Yes” column. But Jacob resisted, and, needing three votes for approval, Horn urged Stonegate, the developer, to seek a delay. Horn admitted doing so in a Dec. 10 story in the North County Times—by county ordinance, supervisors are not allowed to talk to project applicants prior to votes, which are held amid quasi-judicial hearings—but later claimed it was a member of his staff who talked to the developer.
Ah, but through a public-records request, the opponents of Merriam Mountains uncovered evidence that calls were made from Horn's county-issued cell phone on Dec. 2—the day before Roberts' impending absence was widely known—to a consultant working for Stonegate. So, Horn admitted to a reporter having communicated with an applicant, though claiming that “I” meant his chief of staff, and calls were placed from his cell phone to a member of the development team. We suppose it's possible that Horn is telling the truth and his chief of staff used Horn's cell (why?), but there were other phone calls and text messages uncovered between Horn's senior aides and the development team, one of the text messages including talk of “strategizing” and others referring to contentious issues surrounding the project, such as water availability and public safety.
At best, the evidence shows that Horn violated the spirit of the law by using staff as intermediaries to strategize with the developer, and, at worst, the letter of the law by communicating directly. Misdemeanor violation of that ordinance is punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $500—or both.
If District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis hasn't yet launched an investigation, she must do so immediately. By policy, the DA's Office doesn't confirm or deny the existence of pending investigations.
And then there's Roberts. After the project failed to win approval on Dec. 9, ending in a 2-2 tie, Roberts could have let the thing die, but a month later, he officially asked for the project to be brought back for another hearing, signaling to most observers that he intended to vote with Horn and Cox. But on March 24, Roberts voted against Merriam Mountains.
We suppose it's possible that Roberts wanted to listen to all the testimony and didn't make his decision until the end of the hearing, but if you believe that, we have a large swath of land for sale outside of Escondido that might be great for massive residential development.
We'd wager everything we have that Roberts, under the looming threat of having to face environmentalist Donna Frye in the June primary when he made his move to seek a new hearing, wanted to make a big public spectacle of casting a high-profile vote against urban sprawl. If Roberts was truly undecided about the project, he could have—nay, should have—watched the Dec. 9 hearing online, absorbed the testimony and then issued a statement explaining his reasons for letting the project die. He could have spared everyone—his colleagues, county staff, the developer and its supporters, the opponents (who were bused en masse to San Diego from North County)—the time, money and energy it took to redo the hearing.
How convenient is it that Horn and Roberts are the two supervisors up for reelection this year? It's episodes like this that really hammer the message home that new blood on the county Board of Supervisors is desperately needed. What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.