Editorial: Secret Sauce

There is little doubt that Del Mar is a very special community in many ways, but after you have been here for a while you realize there is a secret sauce that is vital in concocting our uniqueness. Citizen participation is not just a slogan in this community – it is the essence of how the smallest town in the region has developed and maintained the highest quality of life. We elect Council Members to make official policy, but virtually every decision has the fingerprints of at least one citizen group on it before formal Council approval.


A former city manager commented that he had never seen in any other town the intensity of citizen involvement in almost every aspect of Del Mar life. Citizen groups organized to fight for our founding incorporation. A network of citizen committees drafted our constitution, the Community Plan. Over the following 50 years, literally hundreds of citizen groups have guided our development from big undertakings like Powerhouse Park and City Hall to smaller issues such as beach parking or Crest Road traffic mitigation, or the color of a park bench. The City Council is in charge of decision making but must understand that decisions are trusted only when there is vigorous public input. The first question that is often asked of new residents is “how do you want to get involved?”


Our current Council majority certainly knew how to campaign successfully but how well do they respect citizen involvement?


Two recent examples are instructive. The City Council presented a proclamation recognizing Tom McGreal for his many years of leadership of the City Finance Committee. His contribution to stabilizing our financial system and managing our retirement liability will benefit our city well into the future. On a more worrisome note, the City Council majority decision to ignore the Council-adopted recommendations of the advisory committee on undergrounding (UPAC) triggered mass resignations of members, and appeared to allow a favored supporter to jump the line ahead of higher risk neighborhoods. And reactivating the undergrounding program without reactivating UPAC signals how little the council majority values the advisory committee system that has served Del Mar so well.


Most city committees were directed to discontinue their work during the pandemic challenge. As we gradually return to normal activity levels, it is imperative that the Council revive this powerful network of citizen participants. It is also important for the Council to make citizen appointments based on merit and not favoritism. For example, appointing design review critics and DRO violators to the Design Review Board will certainly undermine the credibility of this vital quality control process. We are fortunate to have much talent and experience within our citizenry so ample choices are available without such conflicts.


The big challenge for our Council majority is how to blend staff expertise with rich citizen involvement to make decisions that keep our secret sauce savory.