City’s Undergrounding Committee in Crisis While Council Resumes Undergrounding Without It

UPAC and City Strongly at Odds? Recent resignations from the City’s Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC) have showcased strong disagreement with the City Council’s 4-1 decision to jump the Tewa neighborhood to the front of the line for undergrounding. Committee Chair Jay Thomas resigned on July 11, followed by Dave Sykes and Tom Blakely on July 12.


In its July 22, 2021 issue, The Del Mar Times published a letter from resigned UPAC member Tom Blakely highlighting the conflict. The letter began by noting:


“The Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC) essentially completed its task just before Covid lockdowns started in March 2020. We haven’t officially met, Zoomed or been contacted since. Of the nine members who were on the committee prior to Covid the vast majority (7), now all resigned, totally disagree with the Tewa pilot project. Of the other two, one lives within the Tewa area and the other is Dan Quirk. Population density (1A) and Cal Fire hazard (X1A) were the only determining factors used to prioritize the town zones. The UPAC committee unanimously agreed not to use taxpayer Q funds for any existing private projects….”


Blakely’s letter describes UPAC’s consideration of the Tewa neighborhood, and highlights the role of Mayor Gaasterland, who strongly supported the Tewa proposal when it came before Council this year, as follows:


“Interestingly, [Terry] Gaasterland tried to get the UPAC Scheduling subcommittee to include Tewa in the X1A zone, but it was not considered a reasonable choice by either the engineering consultants nor the Scheduling subcommittee given the pole locations. Obviously Gaasterland continued to pursue this personally with the person representing Tewa under the guise of a pilot project, thus spending the existing Q funds that were targeted for 1A and X1A. This was a “gift of public funds to a handful of property owners”, and not something that UPAC had, or would have agreed to.”


Blakely’s bottom line: “Q funds are being used contrary to the UPAC committee’s two years worth of time developing impartial recommendations and, most importantly, not in our city of Del Mar’s taxpayer’s best interests.”


The City Council adopted UPAC’s recommendations as to the scheduling order for undergrounding, with areas 1A (Stratford) and X1A (Crest) going first, consistent with UPAC’s recommendation – and Tewa was in Tier 3, until it was plucked out of Tier 3 and moved to the top tier by a May 17, 2021 Council resolution, with no consultation with UPAC beforehand and despite opposition from former City Manager C.J. Johnson (reported in the June 24th Del Mar Times).


Just What is Left of UPAC?
Collectively, the mass resignations represent a significant loss of institutional memory, since UPAC conducted the foundational work for the undergrounding project from its inception in 2018 until the City halted its meetings in April 2020. At least five of the committee members who participated in that foundational work are now gone (Thomas, Sykes, Blakely, Benedict and Shah). With four vacancies and two new members who have yet to attend a committee meeting, and postponed meetings due to the pandemic-related budget crisis, this 9-member advisory committee appears to be undergrounded.


The Council Majority’s Decision to Bypass UPAC: The concerns raised by the Tewa process are underscored by the Council’s decision to suspend most advisory committee meetings since March 2020, even though Zoom meetings could have allowed these advisory committees to continue providing citizen input into Council decisions. The Council majority not only chose to deviate from a prior Council decision to begin undergrounding with the 1A and X1a areas by jumping the Tewa neighborhood to the front of the line; it also elected to completely bypass UPAC, not even allowing UPAC to meet to evaluate the Tewa proposal and make a recommendation to the Council.


The 4-1 vote on Tewa (Worden opposed) suggests that the Advisory Committee system that has long provided a mechanism for robust citizen input into key City decisions is in need of a strong reaffirmation by the current Council. Even now, with the City’s budget having recovered to some extent, the Council is apparently on track to keep the Advisory Committees largely on hiatus until 2022.


The Sandpiper will report on key developments on this topic in its September issue.