Chairman of Surfing Madonna charity calls for an end to relationship with Encinitas

The future of the Surfing Madonna mosaic in Encinitas is now in doubt, as the charity that maintains the artwork is severing its relationship with the city.
The future of the Surfing Madonna mosaic in Encinitas is now in doubt, as the charity that maintains the artwork is severing its relationship with the city.
(K.C. Alfred)

The charity that owns the Surfing Madonna mosaic in Encinitas has requested that city officials remove an item about it from the City Council agenda Wednesday, Feb. 12, a move that appears to sever ties between the nonprofit and its host community.

Robert Nichols, chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, emailed city officials over the weekend to request the agenda change, saying he and the nonprofit no longer want to sponsor their popular beach runs after the Encinitas Half Marathon & 5K next month.

“The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project has no interest in obtaining a permit for the Nov. 1, 2020 Surfing Madonna Beach Run, nor does the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project have any interest in obtaining any future event or special event permits in Encinitas now or in the future,” Nichols wrote to Mayor Catherine Blakespear and many others.

City officials declined to comment Monday, Feb. 10.

The email from Nichols came two days after city officials issued a report accusing the nonprofit chairman of harassing city workers and engaging in aggressive conduct when he hosted a series of fundraisers over the past six years.

The report included a staff recommendation urging the council to forego any further business with Nichols or his organization.

“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 recommendation states.

“The relationship with SMOP and multiple city departments including public safety has become unworkable,” said the report, which also noted that the beach runs began as city-sponsored events in the early 1990s.

Nichols has declined to comment on his agenda request, which was sent by email on Saturday, Feb. 8. He also declined to say what might become of the 10-foot mosaic now showcased on the wall of a Leucadia restaurant.

Twice in recent weeks, however, Nichols has said he would remove the popular artwork and place it in storage if the City Council did not permit him to continue sponsoring the twice-a-year beach run fundraisers.

“If these events are no longer approved, the Surfing Madonna mosaic will be taken down, per the artist’s request,” Nichols said on Facebook last month. “If the city is cutting our fundraising lifeline ... perhaps Surfing Madonna can find another community.”

The mosaic, which features the Virgin Mary riding a surfboard alongside the message “Save the Ocean,” mysteriously appeared under a bridge in 2011.

The community quickly embraced the artwork but government officials said it was hung illegally and had to be moved. It eventually found a home on an exterior restaurant wall at the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and South Coast Highway.

The tax-exempt Surfing Madonna Oceans Project was set up in 2013 to raise money to maintain the art and to promote the environment.

Between 2013 and 2017, the charity donated $56,000 to the Encinitas parks and recreation department, but none since 2017, city officials said. They said $15,000 of the donations remain unspent.

The San Diego Union-Tribune last month reported that the combined salaries paid by the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project to Nichols and his wife have climbed year after year to just under $220,000 in 2018, the most recent year for which information was available.

The money paid to the husband-and-wife board members accounted for more than 30 percent of the charity’s 2018 revenue. The rising salaries also came as the value of grants paid out by the nonprofit dropped by tens of thousands of dollars in the same year.

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