Encinitas officials urge City Council to cut bait with Surfing Madonna charity

The popular Surfing Madonna mosaic in Leucadia is at the center of a dispute between Encinitas city officials and the charity that owns the artwork.
The popular Surfing Madonna mosaic in Leucadia is at the center of a dispute between Encinitas city officials and the charity that owns the artwork.
(K.C. Alfred)

Chairman reissues threat to remove popular mosaic if city rejects future event permits


Encinitas residents and tourists may cherish the Surfing Madonna mosaic that mysteriously appeared in public nearly a decade ago, but city employees do not feel the same way about the chairman of the nonprofit that owns the noted artwork.

A host of senior managers at Encinitas City Hall want the City Council to stop conducting any new business with the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project or, more specifically, its chairman, Robert Nichols.

In a stunning report to elected officials released late Thursday, Feb. 6, the city manager and other department heads describe Nichols as abusive and uncooperative. They want the council to return to hosting the popular beach runs as city-sponsored events as soon as the Encinitas Half Marathon & 5K ends March 29.

“Since 2014 through the present, staff has been routinely subjected to Mr. Nichols’ uncooperative, demanding, harassing and aggressive conduct during the permitting process, event planning meetings and during events,” the six-page report states.

“The relationship with SMOP and multiple city departments, including public safety, have become unworkable,” the recommendation adds.

Nichols said Friday, Feb. 7, that he was surprised by the city manager’s recommendation.

“This is absolutely heartbreaking what’s happening right now,” said Nichols, who denied ever treating the city staff disrespectfully. “My wife and I are having a tough time dealing with it.

“We are going to push forward and do the best we can and hopefully we can get these events reinstated and our surf camps reinstated. I’m shocked that it’s even on the agenda to take our surf camps and Surfing Madonna beach runs away from us,” he said.

Nichols said last month that if he was not able to resolve a billing dispute with the city he would move the 10-foot mosaic from the side of a restaurant at the intersection of Encinitas Boulevard and South Coast Highway.

He said Friday, Feb. 7, that if the council follows the staff recommendation, he would make good on the threat.

Artist Mark Patterson “will either shelve the Surfing Madonna mosaic or relocate it to another city,” Nichols said. “If the city and the City Council can’t appreciate all that we do, and they decide effectively to end our organization, then the Surfing Madonna should come down.”

The Surfing Madonna mosaic is a 10-foot piece of art featuring the Virgin Mary riding a wave alongside the message “Save the Ocean.”

It appeared under a bridge surreptitiously in 2011. But even though it was popular across the community, government officials said it was illegally placed and had to be moved. Eventually it found a home on the north wall of a pizzeria in the Encinitas neighborhood of Leucadia.

The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project was created by Patterson and Nichols in 2013 to steward the artwork and to raise money to benefit the environment.

The nonprofit organization hosts two primary fundraisers, the half-marathon in the spring and the beach run in the fall. Combined the events attract 8,000-plus runners and generate revenue that in recent years has topped $600,000.

The nonprofit also conducts other events throughout the year, including surf camps for disabled kids in Encinitas.

Profits are supposed to fund grants to the city and community groups, though tax records show the amount of awards has declined. The same tax records show Nichols and his wife were paid almost $220,000 between them in 2018, more than 30 percent of the charity’s total revenue that year.

According to City Manager Karen Brust and other department heads, dealing with Nichols is no longer worth the benefit of hosting the Encinitas Half Marathon & 5K and the Surfing Madonna Beach Run.

She said the city should return to sponsoring the community beach runs like it did from 1992 to 2013.

Nichols’ conduct led the Marine Safety staff to request that the Parks and Recreation Department serve as a go-between, the report says. Nichols also has questioned the skill level of lifeguards and attempted to dictate who the city could assign to staff his events.

“Mr. Nichols has insisted that city employees are ‘his employees’ and made demands on them during scheduled events outside the agreed-upon conditions of the permit,” the report says. “Mr. Nichols engaged in verbal altercations with individual safety staff, demanding the placement of event equipment in areas that would impede safety operations and demanding city staff remove beachgoers off the beach while threatening to take it to upper officials if he did not get what he wanted.”

After Nichols posted his threat to remove the Surfing Madonna from its Leucadia location last month, dozens of people emailed the city to urge them to work out their disagreement with the charity. At least one complained that the salaries Nichols and his wife are paid from charity proceeds is excessive, according to documents obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune under the California Public Records Act.

The Encinitas City Council will consider the staff recommendation Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6 p.m.

— Jeff McDonald is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune