Photo by Sam Hodgson
Statement: “The council, without any staff report, pushed this easement deal through – that is no payment – through both the committee and then the council, nine-nothing. You tell me who should ask the questions,” Mayor Bob Filner said at a June 28 press conference.
Determination: Barely True
Analysis: There’s been plenty of scrutiny in recent weeks of a developer’s $100,000 donation to the city and two of Mayor Bob Filner’s favorite city projects.
But Filner, who said he’s since returned the money to the developer, said the City Council deserves some blame for the debacle that led to accusations of extortion.
The mayor described his version of the episode involving Sunroad and its residential development in Kearney Mesa at a press conference last week. He said the City Council voted unanimously to allow the city to give up some of its property rights and didn’t involve city staffers.
Given Sunroad’s controversial history with the city, it would be odd if staffers weren’t involved in the decision-making process.
Sunroad proposed and received necessary permits to build an apartment complex in Kearny Mesa years ago. More recently, the developer has worked on two phases of the project surrounding a two-acre neighborhood park.
That’s when a conflict arose, as Scott Lewis explained:
Sunroad had built and given to the city a park between two of the buildings it was erecting. But it had only allowed six feet on both sides of the park. Fire safety laws require 15-foot easements to allow for equipment to pass through in an emergency.
So Sunroad approached the city about getting an easement. The developer wanted the city to give up property rights on the park.
At some point, the process stalled and Tom Story, Sunroad’s vice president, contacted Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s office. The project was in Zapf’s district and Zapf chairs the City Council’s Land Use & Housing committee.
Zapf’s office learned that Park and Recreation staffers had told Story that City Council rules barred the easement, so allowing one would require a vote, Zapf staffer Kelly Batten said.
Zapf’s office agreed to pull together an item to present to the City Council but Council President Todd Gloria’s office suggested it first be vetted at a land use committee meeting, Batten said.
The committee voted on the matter on March 27. Documentation presented ahead of the meeting didn’t include any recommendations from staffers.
The committee only spent about seven minutes discussing the request. Council members seemed eager to move on after more than two hours of other items.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who serves on the committee, told Zapf she’d be “very delighted to just make a motion” and vote.
Lightner and Gloria, who also serves on the committee, had some quick procedural questions before Story made a brief presentation that focused on his concerns with the rule than on the project itself.
Soon after, the committee voted 3-0 to send the easement request to the full City Council. Councilman David Alvarez, another committee member, was absent.
About a month later, the City Council took up the requested easement.
Again, there was no staff report or presentation from a city staffer.
But this time there were more questions. Councilwoman Marti Emerald suggested the city should get something for the property rights it was giving up.
Alvarez and Gloria both said it would’ve been helpful to get input from city staffers.
“If city staff has any documentation to show otherwise on what’s been expressed today I request that you submit that to us,” Alvarez said. “Today I’m taking a vote based on the information that I’ve heard. I haven’t heard otherwise.”
Gloria later said Development Services and Park and Recreation staffers could have provided more background.
The City Council voted anyway.
That isn’t the 9-0 vote the mayor described because District 4 Councilwoman Myrtle Cole hadn’t taken office yet.
Still, the vote was unanimous and city staffers didn’t present reports along with the Sunroad easement request.
But there are a few things the mayor didn’t mention.
As mayor, Filner could have directed staffers to put together a report.
Documents released by Zapf’s office this week show former Filner aide Allen Jones was communicating with Sunroad about the project before the land use committee ever considered the item.
In a March 26 email, Story told Zapf’s office that Jones had agreed the developer should make its presentation to the committee because he hadn’t had a chance to vet the matter.
Story noted that they could “pull” the planned Council vote “if it is determined to not be necessary.”
Emails sent earlier that month show Story had been communicating with Jones since at least March 12, two weeks before the committee meeting.
Presumably, this means Jones or Filner could have directed other staffers to make recommendations or put together a formal report on the matter.
Then there’s the reason Story approached Zapf’s office, and thus the City Council, in the first place: City staffers had told Story that Council rules don’t allow for an easement. This means city staffers had at least given the proposal at least a cursory vetting. Filner implied staffers weren’t involved at all.
We requested more background on these exchanges, as well as the mayor’s office policies on directing staff to provide formal reports, but a spokeswoman did not provide those details this week.
We dub a statement “barely true” when it contains an element of truth but is missing critical context that may significantly alter the impression it leaves.
That ruling fits here because while it’s true that city staffers didn’t present formal reports on the matter, they did provide at least some guidance to Sunroad and the mayor’s office appears to have had an opportunity to order them to put together a formal report.
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