Fact Check: Staffing the Sunroad Debacle

Fact Check: Staffing the Sunroad Debacle

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Bob Filner

Image: Barely TrueStatement: “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.

Land Use committee

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.

Sunroad Vote

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.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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28 comments
Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider subscribermember

Right, they got approved by the city for that height. But that was wrong, given the location of the building in the airport zone.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

They got approved by the city for that height. I think that debacle gave Aguirre a far less stellar reputation than it did Sunroad. The Tom Story issue was beat to death by Aguirre as well, who waved around a bunch of emails that showed exactly nothing IIRC. Sunroad isn't the problem, the person extorting them is.

MAnderson
MAnderson

Why did the council vote if they (in particular, Todd Gloria) thought some further input from staff was needed? I blame the council as much as any one person or company. Also, Sunroad has a less than stellar reputation-- remember the extra height on the Tower building that they eventually had to take down? Why would anyone on the council not ask for more research when dealing with this company? Furthermore, I'd like more info as to which council members have received political donations from Sunroad and/or Tom Story. Can that please be looked into? I don't see the value of giving anything anyway by the City without getting something for it.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Another meaningless fact check, this one used as misdirection - Did the council do anything wrong? No, they approved an easement exception. Did the council ask for pay to play? No, Filner did that. You can argue that the easement exception shouldn't have been granted, but that's simply opinion on the roll of city council as enablers or blockers of growth and business. Hardly a controversy in this one decision. The only thing about this topic of real note is Filners blocking of an already approved business project, until they paid money to have that block removed. That possible bribery is where the focus needs to stay, not on misdirection enabled by a pro Filner staffer at VOSD.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Another meaningless fact check, this one used as misdirection - Did the council do anything wrong? No, they approved an easement exception. Did the council ask for pay to play? No, Filner did that. You can argue that the easement exception shouldn't have been granted, but that's simply opinion on the roll of city council as enablers or blockers of growth and business. Hardly a controversy in this one decision. The only thing about this topic of real note is Filners blocking of an already approved business project, until they paid money to have that block removed. That possible bribery is where the focus needs to stay, not on misdirection enabled by a pro Filner staffer at VOSD.

Cheryl Ede
Cheryl Ede

After reading this, I would give it a mostly true, with major caveats, rating. It will be interesting to see what the FBI concludes. Thanks for reporting this, as it shows the ease with which our city council makes major decisions, and how unassertive city staffers are.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

This is a troubling fact check in my view, because it goes beyond fact checking the statement it purports to check and in doing so makes at least one false statement. Indeed, in my assessment, Mr. Filner’s statement is quite simply true. To dissect the fairly simple statement being checked: “The council” – True, since they were the deciding body. “without any staff report” – True, since there was none. “pushed this easement deal through – that is no payment – through both the committee and then the council” -- It would seem that Ms. Zapf pushed it through and her colleagues went along with her without any report from city staff as to the implications of the decision. That’s unusual. “nine-nothing.” – Untrue, but essentially meaningless. Nine-nothing is lingo for “unanimous.” “You tell me who should ask the questions.” – This is opinion, not fact. In other words, if you dissect this statement, it is entirely true, with one meaningless miscalculation over how many people voted in the unanimous vote. How does this come out as, “Barely True?” Well, for example, the writer says, “As mayor, Filner could have directed staffers to put together a report.” Indeed so, but this is not a fact check of what he could have done. It’s a fact check of his actual statement. And the writer says, “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.” Any vetting of that statement by Batten? Apparently none by this fact checker. It is Zapf who is in part under the microscope here, since she pushed the issue through council for Sunroad, but the writer has made no effort to verify that Park and Recreation staffers told Story anything. To make this even worse from a journalistic perspective, this unchecked assertion by Zapf’s staff member later becomes fact in the writer’s narrative, “City staffers had told Story that Council rules don’t allow for an easement.” No longer is it something Zapf’s office assert that they “learned” from unnamed people. Finally, the writer makes this statement, “This means city staffers had at least given the proposal at least a cursory vetting. Filner implied staffers weren’t involved at all.” Let’s assume that indeed city staffers did tell Mr. Story that allowing an easement would require a vote. In other words, Mr. Story calls a city staffer and says, “Can I get an easement,” and the city staffer says, “We can’t give an easement. That requires a vote of the council.” Filner did not, in the statement quoted, state or even imply that staffers weren’t involved at all. That statement by Ms. Halverstadt is flatly untrue. The point he appeared to be making is that the norm, when the council is reviewing an issue, is to have a report from city staff advising as to the implications of a decision before making that decision, so that they are not only hearing from the proponents thereof. In my view, this fact check is well off the mark. It needs to be edited to remove some of the unrelated narrative, corrected for accuracy, and changed to true.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

This is a troubling fact check in my view, because it goes beyond fact checking the statement it purports to check and in doing so makes at least one false statement. Indeed, in my assessment, Mr. Filner’s statement is quite simply true. To dissect the fairly simple statement being checked: “The council” – True, since they were the deciding body. “without any staff report” – True, since there was none. “pushed this easement deal through – that is no payment – through both the committee and then the council” -- It would seem that Ms. Zapf pushed it through and her colleagues went along with her without any report from city staff as to the implications of the decision. That’s unusual. “nine-nothing.” – Untrue, but essentially meaningless. Nine-nothing is lingo for “unanimous.” “You tell me who should ask the questions.” – This is opinion, not fact. In other words, if you dissect this statement, it is entirely true, with one meaningless miscalculation over how many people voted in the unanimous vote. How does this come out as, “Barely True?” Well, for example, the writer says, “As mayor, Filner could have directed staffers to put together a report.” Indeed so, but this is not a fact check of what he could have done. It’s a fact check of his actual statement. And the writer says, “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.” Any vetting of that statement by Batten? Apparently none by this fact checker. It is Zapf who is in part under the microscope here, since she pushed the issue through council for Sunroad, but the writer has made no effort to verify that Park and Recreation staffers told Story anything. To make this even worse from a journalistic perspective, this unchecked assertion by Zapf’s staff member later becomes fact in the writer’s narrative, “City staffers had told Story that Council rules don’t allow for an easement.” No longer is it something Zapf’s office assert that they “learned” from unnamed people. Finally, the writer makes this statement, “This means city staffers had at least given the proposal at least a cursory vetting. Filner implied staffers weren’t involved at all.” Let’s assume that indeed city staffers did tell Mr. Story that allowing an easement would require a vote. In other words, Mr. Story calls a city staffer and says, “Can I get an easement,” and the city staffer says, “We can’t give an easement. That requires a vote of the council.” Filner did not, in the statement quoted, state or even imply that staffers weren’t involved at all. That statement by Ms. Halverstadt is flatly untrue. The point he appeared to be making is that the norm, when the council is reviewing an issue, is to have a report from city staff advising as to the implications of a decision before making that decision, so that they are not only hearing from the proponents thereof. In my view, this fact check is well off the mark. It needs to be edited to remove some of the unrelated narrative, corrected for accuracy, and changed to true.

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider

So, did staff make a recommendation or not? if staff made a recommendation, what was it?

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider subscribermember

So, did staff make a recommendation or not? if staff made a recommendation, what was it?

Don Wood
Don Wood

So the city council was giving away the store to Sunroad, and they mayor asked why this proposal hadn't been vetted by any city council committee. Why isn't VOSD asking Lorie Zaph and the other council members to voted to give Sunroad the easement free what they were thinking instead of going after the mayor?

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

So the city council was giving away the store to Sunroad, and they mayor asked why this proposal hadn't been vetted by any city council committee. Why isn't VOSD asking Lorie Zaph and the other council members to voted to give Sunroad the easement free what they were thinking instead of going after the mayor?

Kristen Aliotti
Kristen Aliotti

Somehow, this Fact Check thing is not working. You seem to confuse the issues (!) rather than clarify them. Also "Barely True"? Something is either True or not. Perhaps PARTS of an explanation are true and parts are not? I think VOSD needs to take a close look at this Feature and either improve it or drop it. There are several unanswered issues in your piece. Seems to me it would have been more valuable to have focused on 1)what Jones and Story said in their communications prior to the Committee meeting, and 2)explaining what City Staff meant when you say they said "Council rules don't allow for an easement." They don't allow for an easement, but they allowed the city to "give up some of its property rights." Huh? Really, clarification of the story itself would be much more valuable.

Kristen Aliotti
Kristen Aliotti subscriber

Somehow, this Fact Check thing is not working. You seem to confuse the issues (!) rather than clarify them. Also "Barely True"? Something is either True or not. Perhaps PARTS of an explanation are true and parts are not? I think VOSD needs to take a close look at this Feature and either improve it or drop it. There are several unanswered issues in your piece. Seems to me it would have been more valuable to have focused on 1)what Jones and Story said in their communications prior to the Committee meeting, and 2)explaining what City Staff meant when you say they said "Council rules don't allow for an easement." They don't allow for an easement, but they allowed the city to "give up some of its property rights." Huh? Really, clarification of the story itself would be much more valuable.

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider

Right, they got approved by the city for that height. But that was wrong, given the location of the building in the airport zone.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

They got approved by the city for that height. I think that debacle gave Aguirre a far less stellar reputation than it did Sunroad. The Tom Story issue was beat to death by Aguirre as well, who waved around a bunch of emails that showed exactly nothing IIRC. Sunroad isn't the problem, the person extorting them is.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink

Chris - thank you for this detailed analysis of a troubling article - troubling not because of the topic but because of the apparent assumption that Filner is the one at fault here and the use of questionable interpretations to support that assumption. At the very least, the writer should have verified the role of the Park & Recreation Dept. I would add the comment that both the Sunroad tower, built 2 stories too high, and this new Sunroad mess are the result of a Sanders-controlled DSD granting permits that should not have been granted. The Sunroad tower was brought into conformance because our City Attorney (however you may feel about him) stood up on behalf of City & FAA regulations. The Sunroad park easement request is the result of post-Sanders DSD staff calling out the non-conformance with a City Council policy that the Sanders DSD chose to ignore when doing the original plan check some years back.

Steve Mehlman
Steve Mehlman

Don't try to confuse them with facts, Chris. When in attack mode, facts don't matter.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

Chris - thank you for this detailed analysis of a troubling article - troubling not because of the topic but because of the apparent assumption that Filner is the one at fault here and the use of questionable interpretations to support that assumption. At the very least, the writer should have verified the role of the Park & Recreation Dept. I would add the comment that both the Sunroad tower, built 2 stories too high, and this new Sunroad mess are the result of a Sanders-controlled DSD granting permits that should not have been granted. The Sunroad tower was brought into conformance because our City Attorney (however you may feel about him) stood up on behalf of City & FAA regulations. The Sunroad park easement request is the result of post-Sanders DSD staff calling out the non-conformance with a City Council policy that the Sanders DSD chose to ignore when doing the original plan check some years back.

Steve Mehlman
Steve Mehlman subscriber

Don't try to confuse them with facts, Chris. When in attack mode, facts don't matter.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink

All we have is second and third-hand statements that "a Park & Recreation staff person" (unidentified) told Tom Story that an easement could not be granted without a Council vote. This has not yet been verified as factual and, in any case, is very different from a staff report that would analyze the value to the City of the easement being requested and the pros & cons of waiving the Council Policy which does not allow private easements on parkland. Basically, Sunroad has gained public land, public park land, to their private benefit at no cost to them.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

All we have is second and third-hand statements that "a Park & Recreation staff person" (unidentified) told Tom Story that an easement could not be granted without a Council vote. This has not yet been verified as factual and, in any case, is very different from a staff report that would analyze the value to the City of the easement being requested and the pros & cons of waiving the Council Policy which does not allow private easements on parkland. Basically, Sunroad has gained public land, public park land, to their private benefit at no cost to them.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Jim: So the city should give public land away for free when a developer makes a "mistake" that uses public property without compensation? That land is owned by you and me. Under that concept, what is to stop developers from routinely "accidentally" overbuilding and asking for a free pass afterwards? As well, this Sunroad outfit has a history of this stuff. In my view, it is just as likely that the FBI is investigating them as that they are investigating the mayor. Slimy outfit I'd say.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Giving away the store? How is putting an easement on a park that isn't going to be built on and that Sunroad built in the first place anyway "giving away the store"? Granted the design architects should have caught this 9 foot error prior to this point, where they simply could have kept it separate from the park, but there is no reason not to simply grant the easement in this case.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Jim: So the city should give public land away for free when a developer makes a "mistake" that uses public property without compensation? That land is owned by you and me. Under that concept, what is to stop developers from routinely "accidentally" overbuilding and asking for a free pass afterwards? As well, this Sunroad outfit has a history of this stuff. In my view, it is just as likely that the FBI is investigating them as that they are investigating the mayor. Slimy outfit I'd say.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Giving away the store? How is putting an easement on a park that isn't going to be built on and that Sunroad built in the first place anyway "giving away the store"? Granted the design architects should have caught this 9 foot error prior to this point, where they simply could have kept it separate from the park, but there is no reason not to simply grant the easement in this case.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Chris, Please try to keep the conversation about facts, not hyperbole. No land was "given away". The city still owns the entire park (a park that Sunroad donated to the city to begin with), an easement is just an easement. The developer and city BOTH made the mistake, the city approved the plans. The park and the building are just as they were in the final submission that was approved and permitted. Saying Sunroad "overbuilt" is also hyperbole, it tries to invoke a false impression that the building extends further into the park than what the city approved. So, if we concentrate on what is true, and leave misleading statements behind, there is nothing untoward about granting an easement on this park, the city wasn't going to build on the park or sell it for building on anyway, it's build as submitted, so the easement causes no loss to the city and nothing was given away except a remedy, just a quick fix to a error by both Sunroads designer and architect and the city that means people who buy units facing the park can have opening windows. Without the easement Sunroad would have to put non opening windows in to meet code. Errors in permitting are not uncommon, and there is nothing untoward about a quick remedy like the council did. What is uncommon is a mayor who seizes on one to try to very possibly extort money from a private company. If this is being investigated by the FBI, it is certainly that possibility that this veto was done as a means of extortion by Filner that is at the center of it.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Chris, Please try to keep the conversation about facts, not hyperbole. No land was "given away". The city still owns the entire park (a park that Sunroad donated to the city to begin with), an easement is just an easement. The developer and city BOTH made the mistake, the city approved the plans. The park and the building are just as they were in the final submission that was approved and permitted. Saying Sunroad "overbuilt" is also hyperbole, it tries to invoke a false impression that the building extends further into the park than what the city approved. So, if we concentrate on what is true, and leave misleading statements behind, there is nothing untoward about granting an easement on this park, the city wasn't going to build on the park or sell it for building on anyway, it's build as submitted, so the easement causes no loss to the city and nothing was given away except a remedy, just a quick fix to a error by both Sunroads designer and architect and the city that means people who buy units facing the park can have opening windows. Without the easement Sunroad would have to put non opening windows in to meet code. Errors in permitting are not uncommon, and there is nothing untoward about a quick remedy like the council did. What is uncommon is a mayor who seizes on one to try to very possibly extort money from a private company. If this is being investigated by the FBI, it is certainly that possibility that this veto was done as a means of extortion by Filner that is at the center of it.