Rancho Santa Fe community meets the candidates at Annual Meeting

The Rancho Santa Fe Association held its Annual Meeting at the RSF Garden Club on May 12, with well past a quorum of 75 members in attendance. The meeting was an opportunity for the community to hear from all six candidates for the Association board (in alphabetical order): Janet Danola, Allen Finkelson, Rachel Laffer, Rachel Leheny, Kenneth Markstein and Terry Peay.

Ballots were mailed last week and registered voters have until Monday, June 13 at 5 p.m. to submit their votes.

Each of the six candidates was allowed to give a three-minute introduction followed by a question and answer session. Audience-submitted questions were drawn randomly and candidates had one minute to respond.

Rachel Leheny, a 13-year resident of Rancho Santa Fe, has been involved in the community over the years mostly through her two children, now 16 and 14. She is now looking to get involved from the “adult perspective.” Leheny said her business experience from her long career in biotechnology, most recently running a biotech venture fund, combined with her love for the beauty and history of the Ranch would be “very additive” to the board.

“Rachel Laffer, Terry Peay and I are in complete agreement on our support for the current board and we’re committed to continue the immense progress that the board has made in the last several years,” Leheny said. “The cornerstones of our position are transparency and inclusiveness. We believe that any decision that represents a significant cost to our community or that will impact the community significantly, like the roundabouts, needs to be put to a community vote.”

Leheny said she would like to see a change to the bylaws so that any significant, non-operating spending can only happen if the majority of the community supports it.

Ken Markstein, a 29-year-resident of Rancho Santa Fe, is a past president of the Covenant Design Review Committee, the RSF Golf Club and, most recently, the Rancho Riding Club. He is CEO and chairman of the board for Markstein Beverage Company.

Markstein spoke about how he helped the Riding Club through a period of divisiveness and distrust using his valuable board member tools, such as listening, honesty, trust and the ability to build a consensus. The board worked together to bring back a healthy and vibrant organization, Markstein said.

“I’m very concerned about the negativism and the accusations put out by e-mail and in print. Rumors don’t do anyone good, it’s totally against our character, we are just a homeowners association,” Markstein said.

Markstein said he has been accused of being beholden to PIC (Public Interest Committee), the Rancho Santa Fe Homeowners Group and the RSF Golf Club, but he said he is not beholden to any group, only to the community.

He encouraged anyone who doesn’t know the person he is or the board member he would be, to ask RSF Association staff members and other board members he has worked with over the years.

Terry Peay, a Covenant resident since 2011, said it only took him three days of renting a house in Rancho Santa Fe years ago to decide he wanted to be a part of the community. Particularly, he was drawn to the RSF Golf Club, which he considers the “crown jewel” of the Ranch. His business background is in real estate development and he has served as the HOA (homeowners association) board president of his former community.

“I think the difference between all of us as candidates has narrowed the longer the campaign has gone on. I think all of us are pretty much in agreement about the important work and accomplishments that the board has done,” Peay said. “One of the things you might hear tonight is about the divisiveness of the existing board. I find that to be kind of a trumped up charge because all of us support the many activities and accomplishments the board has done — it’s debatable about who is the source of the divisiveness we’ve all heard about.”

“All of the candidates are fine, decent folks willing to serve,” he said.

Allen Finkelson, a retired attorney, moved to Rancho Santa Fe five years ago from New York City and said he made his decision to run for the board on his own — he wasn’t selected by any group and if elected he will represent the entire membership.

Finkelson said the election is not about the past as some have alleged but it is about the future.

“Three of my opponents want to continue the practice of the current board. One went so far as to say the RSF board is a ‘model of responsible local government, quite the contrary. To be sure, our board is dedicated, hardworking and well-meaning and they have made progress in certain areas but a model of responsible government they are not,” Finkelson said.

Finkelson said the current board needs help as they have let the Covenant Club get out of hand, have had violations of the open meeting act and refuses to discontinue assessments for the Covenant Enhancement Funds.

“Help is not going to come from the three ‘Ann Fans,’” Finkelson said. “Help is spelled Allen, Janet and Ken.”

In her opening statements, Rachel Laffer spoke fondly about how her grandparents came to Rancho Santa Fe in the 1970s to build their “forever home” and how much she enjoyed spending time here as a child. The current member of the RSF Community Center board is now raising her daughter, a fourth generation Ranch resident.

With her strong respect for the history of the community, paired with her communication and management skills from her business and investment career, Laffer said she thinks she could contribute to the board in a very special way.

“Whatever comes of this election, I have enjoyed meeting so many people that I wouldn’t have come across in my everyday life. I’m really proud to be your neighbor. There’s some really cool and wonderful people with incredibly diverse backgrounds and I think that’s what makes our community so special,” Laffer said. “The one thing we all can agree on is that we’re all neighbors and we all love this community.”

Candidate Janet Danola has lived in Rancho Santa Fe for four years. With a background in accounting and finance, she said she has spent much of her professional life working to build consensus in contentious situations — she said she believes she would bring those valuable skills to the board. She is a member of the RSF Homeowners Group and a member of the RSF Golf Club, but considers herself an independent candidate.

Danola said at first glance the six candidates look as though they are running on the same platform but there are things that set them apart.

“My three opponents want to continue business as usual. I believe that there have been a series of missteps by the Association board and the causes of those missteps need to be corrected in order to rekindle confidence in the board and to build a cohesive community,” Danola said. “We need to develop mutual trust and respect between the board and homeowners through open and timely dialogue. Homeowners don’t like surprises. So let’s hold more town hall meetings, send out surveys, share the results, call on committee members to assist with their knowledge and, above all, promote involvement and communication.”

During the question and answer section, there was a conversation about the Covenant Enhancement Fund (CEF), formerly known as the Open Space Fund.

Leheny said part of the unrest about the CEF derives from the fact that in the past there were no restrictions on how the board could spend the money, which is why she is advocating for the bylaws to be amended to set limits on what can be spent without a community vote.

Some candidates had questions about the legality of the fund.

Danola said the Association’s own auditors recommended that the remainder of the CEF be allocated to specific projects and that any future assessment needs to have a plan first.

I believe the fund is illegal. It’s illegal to be assessed for something that the budget does not specify. I know that HOA counsel disagrees, I’ve read their opinion, I still think I’m right,” Finkelson said. “ I believe that we should discontinue assessing for what is, fundamentally, a slush fund.”

As Peay noted, he believes the CEF is in compliance according to Association counsel and outside third-party council.

“I would also suggest that we put constraints and limitations on the use of it so those funds aren’t just used by the board without community vote and approval,” Peay said. But the notion that the CEF should be dissolved is ludicrous. If every time you want to do a community enhancement you have to do a special assessment, that is crazy. You’ll go nuts, you’ll never accomplish anything.”

Each candidate responded to the particularly loaded question: “What do you believe has caused the community to be so divided and suspicious of the board and do you have any ideas on solving the lack of goodwill?”

Markstein said the “lightning rod” has been the Covenant Club although the issues of roundabouts versus signals and 90-foot cell towers added fuel to the fire.

“I think what we need to do is have as much open dialogue and open communication that we can, vote on all major issues and expenditures and we should hold as many open town hall meetings and open committee meetings as possible so everyone can have an opportunity to hear what’s going on,” Markstein said.

Peay said a lot of the divisiveness started when Ann Boon was president and began asking fiduciary questions about finances and the existing manager.

“I was shocked and amazed about the outcome, the outcry, that Ann was harassing people, that the manager went on sick leave, he couldn’t handle it, that was crazy. The responsibility of the board is to look into those things and then to have a small group of people demand, not ask, that the president be removed, that shows you the kind of vitriolic nature of the constituency groups,” Peay said. “You can argue that the existing board is divisive but you can also argue there is a lot of divisive groups that want to maintain power and control. I would argue that it’s a collective community issue. We all need to feel like we’re neighbors and friends and work together.”

Danola agreed with fellow candidates that the Covenant Club has been very divisive and she can’t wait to move on to get other things done.

“We have a really smart group of people here that really want to be involved with the community. I think what we need to do is solicit, let’s go out and ask people for their opinions and get people really involved in the process,” Danola said. In the case of the cell towers, Danola said would have liked to see all the information and participation from the community happen in the beginning rather than wait for it at the end.

Finkelson mainly answered the question in his opening remarks when he spoke about how he could help the board function better.

“I think the board needs to be better at soliciting and listening to community voices and better at processing that input and better at making well-informed, responsive decisions,” he said.

Laffer related the question to a study she read in the New York Times about what made some teams successful and others not.

“When team members showed empathy and understanding, other team members could feel as though they weren’t going to be attacked and ridiculed. That’s what I think we need to do more of, to really listen to every member without feeling as though someone’s going to attack us for having an independent view,” Laffer said. “We need to have more openness, more open dialogue where every single member of this community contributes and also votes on every major issue.”

Leheny agreed that the Covenant Club hasn’t been a great “coming together moment” for the community but she related it to the ugliness and arguments around the Rancho Santa Fe School District’s new school 10 years ago. She said the community was able to move through it and, as a result, they have a very beautiful school. She said maybe they will get there with the Covenant Club and maybe not.

“I think one of the things we can do to take down the pressure a little bit is not only to listen to everybody but, again, set limits on what the board is able to do so that people don’t feel that the rug is being pulled out from under them,” Leheny said.

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