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Voice Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006 | If the City Council wanted to, it could remove Mayor Jerry Sanders from having a say in redevelopment in San Diego altogether. But it doesn’t appear willing to pick that political battle.
Thrown into the political jumble that accompanied the city of San Diego’s switch to a strong-mayor form of government this year, the structure of the city’s Redevelopment Agency is one of the more crucial uncertainties remaining as San Diego gets accustomed to its new government. The switch creates a unique opportunity for the council, which has a chance to rein in the agency for itself. For his part, the new mayor would prefer a more permanent seat at the table.
The City Council is currently mulling what they will do with the new mayor. Judging by the comments made at a council panel Wednesday, it appears the mayor will have a spot on the redevelopment roster.
“It makes no sense under strong-mayor, which is what the people voted for, to go forward without allowing the mayor a strong influence on the redevelopment of the city,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins.
Before Jan. 1, the mayor sat as the chairman of the City Council and, by extension, the Redevelopment Agency as well.
When the city switched to a strong-mayor structure in January, Sanders was removed from the council – the city’s legislature – and state law mandates that only legislators may sit on the redevelopment agencies’ board of directors. The voter-approved ballot proposition that created the strong-mayor form did not carve out a place for the mayor, so the council permitted the mayor to temporarily assume the role of executive director for the Redevelopment Agency until June 30.
At stake is the say-so for one of the most important governmental functions within the city. The Redevelopment Agency is responsible for reviving several pockets of San Diego that past councils have unilaterally declared to be blighted, and the law governing redevelopment has become a land-use and tax-catching tool for local governments in California.
“When we’re talking about a redevelopment project, it can always be incorporated into the bigger city picture,” said Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz.
The intention of the state’s community redevelopment law is to improve an area of town the council declares “blighted” so that it can acquire private property in the slummed neighborhood and transfer it to a developer who has plans to improve it. The new property tax revenue that is generated in the blighted community as a result of redevelopment, known as tax increment, is overwhelmingly spent on public infrastructure within that project area. The downtown project has become the poster child for redevelopment among its supporters, as the urban core has transformed from blight to bright over the past 30 years.
The process has become controversial in San Diego and across the country, as critics say governments abuse their power by seizing properties through the power of eminent domain, and that the redevelopment areas unfairly harbor the taxes that should be shared with the rest of the community. The city has faced lawsuits on each of those subjects within the last year.
The council committee that deals with land use and housing discussed new possibilities for the agency, which oversees 17 project areas, and for establishing a position for the mayor during the strong-mayor era, which expires in 2009 without a voter-approved extension.
The council has the authority to decide whether the mayor should be included in the Redevelopment Agency, although the four council members who serve on the Land Use and Housing Committee said they supported providing the mayor with a role.
“I don’t think we want to be in a fight with the mayor,” Madaffer said. “It’s more successful to work with the mayor than work for just our own ends.”
Exactly what kind of role Sanders will have remains to be seen.
Jim Waring, the mayor’s land-use czar, said he hoped that the council would extend Sanders’ acting executive director title until the end of the 2007 fiscal year, a year beyond the current sunset date. In the meantime, Waring said, the Mayor’s Office could study the possible positions he could take on and receive public input for a full year before a decision was made.
Among the possibilities would be to allow the mayor the ability to appoint an executive director or hold the position himself. Some council members and audience members also said it would be worthwhile to allow him a seat on the Redevelopment Agency, although it was unclear Thursday whether he could legally vote on the board under state law.
The council panel also shopped ways to improve the Redevelopment Agency’s operations.
The city has created two nonprofit corporations separate of the city to manage a combined six redevelopment areas in downtown and southeast San Diego – the Centre City Development Corp. and Southeastern Economic Development Corp., respectively. A city bureau oversees the remaining 11 project areas that exist in neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, Grantville, City Heights and the Naval Training Center. The council, sitting as the Redevelopment Agency, has final say on all of the projects.
Some said they wanted to separate the 11 at-large areas from the city bureaucracy to and create nonprofit corporations in the model of CCDC in order to avoid civil service requirements for agency’s staff, which they said would improve accountability and create pay incentives for staff members.
Others suggested the formation of an independent entity that contracts with the city and is appointed by elected officials, such as the Housing Commission.
“You want people with real estate experience and you’re not going to get that in classified service,” said local attorney Michael Jenkins, who testified in front of the committee Wednesday.
Redevelopment coordinator Maureen Ostrye said the local citizen groups who advise the city’s at-large redevelopment bureau have “fear that their authority would be diluted” under a corporation model.
One San Diegan told the council panel that she was frustrated by the lack of public oversight at SEDC, saying it was difficult to provide input and monitor contracts.
“You don’t just create a corporation, walk away, and expect it to always be operating in the public good,” said Kathleen MacLeod, an Encanto resident.
SEDC spokesman Alexis Dixon disagreed with MacLeod.
“Throughout my time with SEDC, we have constantly had community meetings so the public can share their opinions,” Dixon said.
Madaffer, who chairs the Land Use and Housing Committee, and Waring said they would meet so that a timeline for studying and proposing changes to the Redevelopment Agency could be created. If the council wants to maintain Sanders as the head of the agency, they would have to vote to do so before June 30.
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