CARLSBAD, Calif. – Caruso Affiliated, the developer behind the proposed mall on the banks of the Agua Hedionda lagoon in Carlsbad, may be working to stop a public vote on the project, FOX 5 has learned.
Citizens for North County, the group pushing for the referendum, kicked off a signature-gathering event Tuesday. The group needs thousands of signatures to place the issue on the ballot.
“We have to gather 9,000 signatures within 30 days so everyone has a chance to vote on it,” said Diane Nygaard.
“I was contacted by one of the opponents and asked to investigate,” said Tom Shepard, a political consultant.
In an exclusive interview with FOX 5, Shepard said he has been looking into Caruso Affiliated. He said he learned that Caruso recently established contracts with all major signature-gathering firms in California.
“They’ve indicated they’ve all been approached by the supporters of the development and received payment, that would put them in a conflict of interest situation and bar them from working in the city of Carlsbad,” explained Shepard. “So none of those firms are available to anyone who opposes the project.”
Shepard said in total there are about five major signature-gathering firms in the state, but he didn’t say how much each firm was paid. He said the developer Kilroy also tried to use similar tactics to derail the One Paseo project in Carmel Valley.
"They were paying each firm $50,000 to agree not to work on the referendum,” said Shepard.
Kilroy was not successful with their efforts to buy out the firms.
“So far it appears Caruso has been successful in eliminating all the big firms from working In Carlsbad,” said Shepard.
FOX 5 contacted Caruso Affiliated, but Executive Vice President of Development Matt Middlebrook refused to discuss the company's political strategy regarding the referendum. He did say:
“For three years we’ve worked closely with the Carlsbad community to create the 85/15 Plan, which will provide accessible open space at no cost to taxpayers, preserve strawberry farming and give families a great place to gather, and we’re pleased that City Council approved the plan unanimously. We will continue to work with Carlsbad residents to ensure that Corporate interests from outside of California and others do not overturn the council’s approval of the 85/15 Plan.”
Shepard said buying out signature-gathering firms isn’t illegal, but it does raise a question of ethics.
“They’re effectively denying the voters in Carlsbad to have a voice on this issue. I don’t think that’s how the system was set up to work,” said Shepard. “I should think with a major project like this, voters in the city deserve a chance to get a voice.”
“He is completely writing the rule book himself in a way that has never been done anywhere like this in San Diego County,” said Nygaard.
As for the buy-out, Nygaard said her effort never had the intention of hiring signature-gatherers anyway.
“We were never going to buy any signature gatherers. My goodness, this is a citizens' effort, a grassroots effort,” said Nygaard. “People are out here who care about their community, who are talking to their friends and neighbors. You can’t buy that. That is priceless.”
Arnie Cohen, a volunteer supporting the development, said voters need to look at the bigger picture.
‘You can shop, you can dine, pick strawberries and enjoy the open space. That’s not something you can find anywhere else in San Diego,” said Cohen.