Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Cleaner at Coronado

The beaches reopened today at Coronado, just in time for another winter rain shower.

(In fairness, though, should we really call it a winter rain shower? How about an early, early summer shower.)

Beaches remain closed from the border north to Silver Strand State Beach, the result of sewage-contaminated runoff from the Tijuana River.

Duke Gets 8+ years

Former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham was sentenced to 100 months in prison Friday, several months after the disgraced public official admitted accepting $2.4 million in bribes. During his prison term and after, Cunningham will be required to make payments on $1.804 million in fines and back taxes.

The emotional Cunningham was immediately taken into custody. He had pleaded for time to see his aging mother before her death.

Prosecutors said they were pleased with the verdict, which they called the harshest punishment of a corrupt member of Congress ever.

U.S. Rep Duncan Hunter appeared at the sentencing hearing to support Cunningham.

“Duke Cunningham has been a close personal friend for more than 30 years,” Hunter said.

WILL CARLESS

Questions Answered

Friday, March 3, 2006 — 12:56 p.m.

Should a supplemental airport be built in North County? Should a military base be used? And just what happened in that meeting with B.J. Penn, the assistant secretary of the Navy?

Suffice to say, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority will have a lot on its plate when it meets Monday morning.

If you’re following the issue, it’s worth taking a look at some of the reports the authority will address at its 10 a.m. meeting. The full board will be briefed (for a second time) on the viability of joint-use airports at each of the area’s three military bases. The authority’s four-member strategic planning committee heard the presentation earlier this week — though all board members were there listening and commenting.

Earlier in February, the same committee recommended ending considerations of two North County sites near Escondido as possible supplemental airports. The board can formally axe

And some light will be shed on the closed-door meeting with Penn, whose boss, Donald Winter, panned the idea of joint-use civilian-military airports in a letter last week.

Check back next week for the Voice of San Diego’s continuing airport coverage.

ROB DAVIS

Who Appoints Whom?

A friend reminded us today that — in contrast to what we implied in an earlier post — Mayor Jerry Sanders’ two picks to fill spots on the city’s pension board are not necessarily shoo-ins. The City Council must confirm the appointments.

In San Diego’s new “strong mayor” system of government, the mayor, according to a Feb. 28 legal opinion, retains the power to nominate people to such boards as the pension board, Centre City Development Corp., the Ethics Commission and several others. But those nominations are still subject to confirmation by the City Council.

In one interesting twist, however, the mayor will have very little say now over who becomes a commissioner on the San Diego Unified Port District’s governing board. The port’s by-laws say that its San Diego representatives are appointed by that city’s “legislative body.”

So, the City Council now has full control over those appointments, although it’s subject to a veto by the mayor. That veto may only be symbolic, however, because the council can easily override it with the same number of votes that made the appointment.

That will be a bit of a change from the past. Former Mayor Dick Murphy, for instance, took it upon himself to select port commissioners that the City Council then approved. One of his picks, remember, was Peter Q. Davis. Who is now the current pick of Mayor Sanders to take over a seat at the retirement board.

Want another twist?

The mayor gains a little power his predecessors didn’t have before. Last year, the City Council demanded that the city manager take control of the board that oversees the San Diego Data Processing Corp. Now that the mayor is the city manager, he will exercise full control over that board.

So if DPC officials start buying $20 tequila shots for all their buddies again, we’ll know who to blame.

SCOTT LEWIS

Join the Fun

The beleaguered city retirement board will have a new class of entering freshmen: two new appointees from Mayor Jerry Sanders and a new representative of city employees.

Retired banker and former mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis has the biggest name of the new group. Davis has served as the chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners for the San Diego Unified Port District. He was also the chairman of the Centre City Development Corp.

Mayor Sanders also appointed V. Wayne Kennedy to the board. Kennedy is the former vice chancellor for administration at the University of California San Diego.

Finally, Franklin Lamberth will be one of two representatives of general members of the retirement system on the board. Police and fire have separate representatives. Lamberth will take over the seat vacated by John Torres. Torres is currently facing felony conflict-of-interest charges for his alleged role in approving pension enhancements that he will benefit from.

Lamberth, who works in the environmental services department, won his election to the seat after a run off. Part of his campaign was to convince his colleagues that he could stand up to City Attorney Mike Aguirre the best. Aguirre has been working diligently to become the attorney for the pension board.

“I will not let this fox into our henhouse,” Lamberth wrote on a ballot statement.

—SCOTT LEWIS

Pointing Out Problems

Voice of San Diego’s reach may be spreading throughout the globe, a recent story we published seems to have touched a nerve.

In Kelowna, British Columbia, a condo project called Discovery Bay was built by Pointe of View Developments — a company based in Calgary, Canada. The project was recently identified as “under designed” and structurally unsafe. That’s relevant to San Diegans because the Canadian developers are currently working on what will eventually become the largest condo development in downtown San Diego.

While writing the story, I interviewed the city of Kelowna’s inspection services manager, Ron Dickinson. Residents of the Kelowna building were informed in an October letter from Dickinson that their building was unsafe, and that they should move out. I wanted to know why, four months later, the building was still inhabited.  

Dickinson was nonplussed, offering little. Finally he protested “Isn’t this story about San Diego, not Kelowna.”

He was right, and I left it there.

But it’s not the end of the story in Canada. This morning I received an email from a journalist in Kelowna, who copied a story he had outlining the following policy changes taking place in our neighbor (way) to the north:

“The final solution to the Discovery Bay construction troubles is still a ways off, although the city has implemented a lesson learned from the shaky structure,” writes the reporter, Grant Jones of the Kelowna Daily Courier.

“As a result of the design and foundation problems at the Sunset Drive condos, the city is now requiring that the design of all major structures undergo a peer review by others in the business,”

Jones quotes the beleaguered Dickinson:

On another note, drilling at Pointe of View’s downtown development began yesterday after a hiatus of several weeks. You can be sure we’ll be keeping an eye on them to ensure none of the Kelowna Conundrums make it this far south.

— WILL CARLESS

Quality Control at the Q

The county grand jury reported this week that the city’s Qualcomm Stadium Advisory Board includes two board members that have possible conflicts of interest because of their ties to companies that do business with the stadium.

The board, which makes recommendations about the Mission Valley complex, also did not properly notice its monthly meetings and inappropriately cancels regular meetings, the county grand jury stated.

Further, the board’s membership does not consist of the required amount of San Diego city residents and had been lax about its review of contracts. A parking contract that expired nearly a year ago has since been doled out to Ace Parking on a month-to-month basis.

One of the two members who were called out for possibly having a conflict of interest reported Ace Parking as a major source of income. The other worked for San Diego Medical Enterprises, which performs safety services at Qualcomm Stadium.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre stated in a press release Wednesday that he planned to make recommendations to correct the reported inadequacies, notably the two board members who the county grand jury said were conflicted.

“While we appreciate the volunteers who serve on boards and commissions, we want to ensure that the public’s interest is fully served,” Aguirre stated.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Pension Case Push Back

The six former retirement trustees charged with conflict of interest by the district attorney postponed the arraignment for their jury trial again Wednesday and instead went looking for a judge who might overrule the judge who says they need to stand trial.

The defense will have 60 days after their new arraignment date, May 3, to challenge Superior Court Judge Frederic Link’s decision to send the case to a full jury trial. Link ruled on Jan. 14 that there was probable cause to believe that the six defendants named had a criminal conflict of interest when they voted for a controversial pension funding arrangement in 2002.

An anticipated challenge to Link’s ruling will likely be heard by Superior Court Judge Roger Krauel, a supervising judge decided Wednesday.

Prosecutors say the 2002 pension deal, known as Manager’s Proposal 2, granted increased pension benefits to the defendants and other city employees while also allowing the city to forgo significant contributions to the pension system. The agreement, and one like it in 1996, is largely blamed for a pension deficit at the heart of the city’s fiscal crisis.

The defendants in the case are all former retirement trustees who voted for Manager’s Proposal 2 as well as pensioners. They are former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin, former Assistant Auditor Terri Webster, former City Treasurer Mary Vattimo, firefighters union president Ron Saathoff, white-collar union vice president John Torres and management analyst Sharon Wilkinson.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

LoGo a No-Go in ’06

Environmental attorney Lorena Gonzalez said Wednesday that she will not take another shot at a City Council seat in the June primary, saying she intended to make good on a pledge she and other candidates made before the January election.

Before that vote, Gonzalez accepted a challenge fellow candidate Ian Trowbridge proposed to the field of contenders to not compete in the 2006 council election if unsuccessful in the special election to replace resigned Councilman Michael Zucchet. The new council member-elect should be given the chance to legislate, Trowbridge said at the time.

Gonzalez lost the election to Kevin Faulconer in a runoff election by a slim 51-to-49 margin. District 2 includes San Diego’s downtown, peninsula and beach neighborhoods.

Gonzalez vowed to “continue my work on the community issues that inspired me to run in the first place,” despite her decision to not seek the post.

“I am hopeful that Councilmember Faulconer will also fulfill the campaign promises that he has made to the constituents of District 2,” she said.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Grant Gets Refurbished

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 — 1:58 p.m.

The US Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego is slated to reopen in November after undergoing a $52 million renovation, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. announced today.

The 272-room hotel was built by Ulysses S. Grant Jr. in 1910 to honor his Civil War hero father. It closed in January 2005 for the renovation. A team of designers, architects and craftsman were hired to refurbish the 11-story hotel, including the addition of wrought iron exterior lights, third floor gardens and the restoration of the original entrance.

More than two dozen types of stone and marble, gold leaf, brass work and exotic woods were used in the project, hotel officials said. The US Grant, at 326 Broadway, is managed by Starwood’s Luxury Collection brand and owned by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

— WIRE REPORTS

More Sales Stats

Every time I write a story regarding sales or price statistics, I get a deluge of emails either patting me on the back or blaming me for being one of the causes of the real estate slowdown.

Occasionally, however, I get an email that offers some excellent additional information that probably should have been included in my story. That happened this morning.

A mysterious e-mailer by the name of “erparadise” sent me a detailed message that outlines some extra statistics on home sales in San Diego County. Erparadise dug up some really interesting sales statistics from Sandicor, real estate statistics and analysis Web site.

My mystery source pointed out the following:

“Each week in 2006 we have added a net increase of over 200 listings to the MLS.  As long as the MLS keeps growing at this rate the disparity between supply and demand will gradually nudge prices lower. If the current rate of decline we’ve seen since November 2005 continues at the current rate, we will see a double-digit price decline in 2006.  Maybe that is a ‘soft-landing’ to some, but for zillions of people who bought homes with 10 percent or less down, it wipes out all equity.”

In addition, he (or she, or it) culled the following sales figures to compound their predictions of doom and gloom. These are the total sales figures for the month of January for the past five years compared to the total sales for January 2006. They make for interesting reading.

Year:             No. of closed sales:                No. of new listings:

As erparadise calculated, that represents an 18.3 percent decline in total sales from January 2005 to January 2006, and a 48.6 percent increase in inventory in the same period.

So, no matter what the seasonally adjusted rate of sales tells us, there’s always something to be learned from plotting the raw data.

— WILL CARLESS

Condo Inventory Update

The inventory of condos in downtown San Diego dropped again this week, the second such drop after six consecutive weeks of increases, according to statistics compiled by Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor.

The total number of downtown condos available on the market (excluding developer units) was 467 this week, down slightly from 471 last week.

Perhaps more significantly, the median price for a condo in the 92101 ZIP code listed on the Multiple Listings Service rose for the first time in 10 weeks last week to $645,000 from $638,700 last week. That’s still less than the median price three weeks ago, which was $649,000.

Breeze has been compiling the statistics from the Multiple Listings Service since 2003 on his Web site www.92101.info

— WILL CARLESS

Realtor Realities

Robert Kleinhenz, deputy chief economist with the California Association of Realtors, just told me he thinks the association’s previous assessment for the state’s housing market was overly optimistic.

That prediction, issued in October 2005, called for a modest 2 percent drop in sales activity during 2006.

Kleinhenz said the drop will more likely be between 2 percent and 8 percent. That’s because sales were very weak between November 2005 and January 2006.

However, that doesn’t spell doom and gloom for Realtors, he stressed.

“Even with an 8 percent decline, the market’s still going to come in with a very strong number for 2006,” Kleinhenz said.

We will be running a story tomorrow that looks at recent figures from the National Association of Realtors and the California Association of Realtors that show sales dropping considerably in California and around the country.

— WILL CARLESS

Headed North, Again

Beach closures went into effect today at Imperial Beach, Silver Strand State Beach and Coronado, as sewage-contaminated runoff from the Tijuana River began moving north.

Currently, about 146 million gallons of sewage runoff per day are entering the Pacific, according to a Tijuana River gauge. Currents are pushing it north.

The San Diego County Department of Environmental Health closed the shoreline at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge a week ago, after a quarter-inch rainfall drove sewage into the water.

Signs have been posted and will remain in place until tests show the water is safe, the Environmental Health Department said in a release.

The county also issued a general advisory today, warning against coming in contact with the water for 72 hours following the rainfall. Feces, soil and vegetation can drive up the water’s bacteria levels.

— ROB DAVIS

Pumped Out

We’ve been informed that Sewage Pump Station 21 — not No. 19 — was actually the focus of “The Pump House Gang,” Tom Wolfe’s 1965 opus on life at Windansea Beach.

Pam Hardy, communications director at Council President Scott Peters’ office called to let us know. She copped to being the author of the “much-mocked” press release describing the breathtaking views from the newly remodeled Station 19.

Thanks, Pam. Looks like we don’t get the last laugh, after all.

— ROB DAVIS

Union Olympiad

The Winter Olympics have ended, but the French and the Italiano will square off in the election to be the Municipal Employees’ Association’s president.

The MEA, which represents 6,000 white-collar city workers, has faced harsh criticism amid the city’s current pension debacle. Two of the six retirement trustees that have been charged by the district attorney with having a conflict of interest in a 2002 pension are MEA members. Actions by the union’s leadership have been frequently criticized by City Attorney Mike Aguirre and others.

One such critic is Linda French, who announced this week that she will take on current MEA President Judie Italiano. French is alleging that Italiano’s administration did not take action to prevent the crisis at the pension fund, which has a shortfall of almost $2 billion, and that she has mismanaged the union’s funds.

Italiano has held the presidency for nearly two decades. The union’s election is slated for October.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Discount Ad-Vantages

Vantage Point, the forthcoming condo project that was the subject of a story we published yesterday, has started to discount its condos.

An e-mail sent out to interested parties on Friday, Feb. 24, reads:

“With almost 300 sales to date, we are quickly approaching our sales target. To achieve our goal immediately, Point of View is offering to the next 20 purchasers 5% off on selected units. This offer is going to the public on Sunday, February 26th, 2006.”

It’s too late to take them up on that offer, which is a shame because included in that offer was an additional incentive:

“If you purchase at Vantage Pointe, then refer a family member or friend resulting in a new 2006 sale at Vantage Pointe, you will receive $2,500 towards options and upgrades for your new residence — in addition to the 5% sales price reduction!”

Discounting condos would have been unthinkable until recently, but with downtown inventory remaining high, at least one developer is taking the slowing sales market seriously.

— WILL CARLESS

Home Sales Slides

Sales of condos and single family homes have slipped in many neighborhoods of San Diego County, according to www.rereport.com, a Web site that tracks real estate sales and pricing statistics.

In Clairemont, sales of condominiums were down 75 percent in January from January 2005. Sales of single family homes in San Carlos were down 66.7 percent in the same period.

Those were the big losers, though some areas of the county posted positive growth in sales. Condo sales were up 75 percent in Mission Hills, for example, and condo sales were also up 50 percent in San Carlos.

Overall, sales of single family homes dropped 26.8 percent countywide, while sales of condos dropped 28.4 percent.

Check the detailed statistics at: www.rereport.com/sdccsd

— WILL CARLESS

Sanders Can Wait

The City Council decided Monday to put off until March 28 its decision on whether to place two of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ reform measures onto the November ballot, possibly so he can include additional language that would make his proposals more appealing.

The mayor wants voters to change the City Charter so that new pension benefits cannot be granted without a vote of the public and to allow “managed competition,” where private companies competitively bid on city services against public employees.

Sanders asked the council to postpone its decision so that his office could work with leaders of the city’s five employee unions at the bargaining table.

“I think we have an opportunity to incorporate things that are important to the unions,” Sanders said.

The mayor will likely return to the bargaining table with a version of the managed competition initiative Council President Scott Peters authored.

Peters’ alternative gives city workers who lost their job because it was outsourced the right to interview first with the company who wins the contract. His amended version also requires that a representative from the council’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst and the City Auditor’s Office be permitted spots on the board that reviews managed competition.

In addition, the city must report back every year with a performance audit of every outsourced service.

Sanders has indicated that he will gather the signatures needed to place the measures on the ballots if the council turns them down. Carl DeMaio, president of the conservative Performance Institute, said he will begin collecting signatures next week in case the council decides to put it off.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Investigate What?

Bajagua spokesman Craig Benedetto dismissed claims made this morning by the project’s opponents, which called for an investigation into the company’s contract to build a sewage plant in Mexico.

“It’s a political stunt designed to keep media attention on it when they have no facts to back up their claims,” he said. “The project has been conducted above board. There was disclosure on every level. Their continued claims are simply sour grapes because they didn’t get their way.”

Benedetto said procedures and protocols underlying the Bajagua project have already been investigated by the Government Accountability Office, the independent watchdog arm of Congress.

“An investigation has already been conducted,” Benedetto said, “and no wrongdoing was found.”

Benedetto further questioned the call for Department of Justice involvement. When the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board sued the International Boundary and Water Commission over lagging solutions to border-sewage issues, Benedetto noted that the Justice Department represented the IBWC.

— ROB DAVIS

Follow the Smell

Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña and Imperial Beach environmentalist Serge Dedina are calling for a federal probe into the exclusive contract recently awarded to Bajagua LLC to clean up Tijuana’s festering sewage problems.

Saldaña, D-San Diego, called for a probe to examine how a sole-source contract was issued to Bajagua, which proposes to build a sewage treatment plant in Mexico that would double the capacity of Tijuana’s existing infrastructure.

Dedina, the executive director of Wildcoast, a local conservation group, called for the Department of Justice to lead the examination.

“It needs to be investigated at the federal level,” said Joe Kocurek, Saldaña’s spokesman. “It just seems to be to the point where there is some really unsavory influence.”

Bajagua’s proposed treatment plant would be built in Mexico and boost daily wastewater collection capacity by 34 million gallons, while improving the quality of 25 million gallons already collected, treated and discharged in the ocean.

Although a majority of government contracts are awarded though a competitive bidding process, Bajagua exclusively negotiated the terms of its deal with the International Boundary and Water Commission, a small federal office that falls under the State Department’s purview.

— ROB DAVIS

Breathtaking, and Famous

We should have done more research. It turns out that the sewage pump station we mentioned earlier today already is famous — and it has nothing to do with its $4.7 million makeover.

A reader writes to tell us that it was featured in Tom Wolfe’s 1965 book “The Pump House Gang,” which satirized life at Windansea Beach in the 60s.

Though Pump Station 19 may not get a shout-out from

So much for being cheeky.

— ROB DAVIS

Raining on Downtown’s Parade

Fat Tuesday could be anything but phat (phat = “cool”) if the rain gods get their way.

Click here for a full listing of SDMTS’ special events trains, and the hours of extended service for tomorrow nights festivities, and here to check out what else the Gaslamp Quarter Association has planned for tomorrow night.

—SAM HODGSON

Legal Developments

Several community groups are threatening to sue the city if on Tuesday it approves the proposed environmental document scripting downtown San Diego’s growth over the next 25 years.

“There is a strong likelihood that one or more of the groups opposing the plan will follow with lawsuits if the plan is approved in its current form,” said attorney Marco Gonzalez of the Coast Law Group.

Gonzalez represents Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, or SOFAR, and San Diego Coastkeeper, two organizations who claim the Centre City Development Corp.’s proposal does not address the projected development boom’s impact on transportation and urban runoff into the bay, respectively, to the satisfaction of state law.

Friends of San Diego representative Tom Mullaney said he expects his group to challenge the city for inadequately planning out funding for public facilities. The plan underfunds parks, fire stations and libraries by $1 billion, he said.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said the mayor is confident that the plan pays to mitigate the impacts of three times as many residents and twice as many workers downtown.

“No plan is perfect, but the mayor believes the plan adequately addresses these issues,” he said.

Although CCDC and builders have repeatedly stated over the past few months that the plan should be passed in its current form, CCDC admitted last week that market conditions made the funding mechanism for parks unfeasible.

Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer met with developers last week to negotiate a $15-per-sqaure-foot price for the 19.5 million square feet of density rights that were initially going to be doled out for free.

CCDC estimates that builders are only likely to capitalize on one-third of that number, meaning that allowing developers to build taller, denser and more valuable projects at that price could generate $100 million.

Faulconer said Saturday he will ask the council to amend CCDC’s proposal to include the $15 price in order to better secure funding to pay for 10 acres of parks.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

After reading my interview with Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath about how the city should consider bankruptcy as an option, a member of the city’s pension board emailed to remind me of a meeting next week.

Mark Sullivan, a police officer who sits on the board of administration of the city’s retirement system, said the committee he heads up will “have an open discussion on contingency planning in the event the city goes into bankruptcy.”

That meeting is March 8 at 1 p.m. in the conference room of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.

SCOTT LEWIS

Breathtaking Sewage

City Council President Scott Peters and Mayor Jerry Sanders were scheduled to be on hand this morning for the re-opening of a sewage pump station in La Jolla.

But it’s not just any sewage pump station. It’s Sewer Pump Station 19, in La Jolla’s Bird Rock neighborhood. It opened in 1950, and underwent a $4.7 million upgrade mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

We still haven’t told you the reason it’s not your average sewage pump house. Here’s why, according to a news release from Peters’ office:

“The renovated pump station offers a breathtaking view of the La Jolla coastline,” it says, “as well as protecting it from sewage spills.”

No word yet on whether the pump station will be included in future AAA guidebooks highlighting the beauties of La Jolla. (We can see it now: Visit Children’s Pool, Torrey Pines, Prospect Street restaurants and Pump Station 19.)

ROB DAVIS

Sources: Downtown Deal Struck

Several sources said Friday afternoon that the city councilman representing downtown will suggest changing the proposed update to the urban core’s blueprint for growth when it reaches the council Tuesday, asking to do away with a controversial windfall for developers in order to raise $100 million to build parkland.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer, both of whom were backed heavily by the real estate industry in their recent elections, asked developers over the past week to pay for the right to build denser, taller projects in order to fund 10 acres of parks downtown.

To accommodate the growth expected, some property owners, depending on their land’s location, would have been afforded the right to build more densely for free under the Centre City Development Corp.’s proposal.

Sources in the building industry and at City Hall confirmed that the compromise Sanders and Faulconer forged with developers was to sell the rights to build more densely for $15 per square foot, up to the possible maximum 19.5 million square foot that was automatic under CCDC’s proposal.

Planners at CCDC project that only 6.6 million of the possible 19.5 million square feet would have been developed over time, meaning Faucloner’s revision is estimated to raise $100 million.

More density rights can be acquired by builders if they preserve historical buildings, include retail on the bottom floor of their development, include affordable housing units onsite, or build parkland on their projects’ roofs.

The downtown plan update provides a guide for the 1,500-acre area’s expansion over the next 25 years. Downtown is expected to have three times as many residents and a workforce that is twice as big by 2030.

Faulconer and Sanders are expected to officially announce the tentative agreement at a press conference Saturday. Check back Monday for a full story.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Commission: Faulconer, Atkins Not Conflicted

The City Council will vote Tuesday whether to update the blue print for downtown growth over the next two decades, and some readers couldn’t help but inquire whether certain council members had a vested interest in the plan’s passage.

Two council members, Kevin Faulconer and Toni Atkins, have tried to solve that conundrum too, according to the Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission has informally told Faulconer, whose wife owns businesses downtown, and Atkins, who dates the chairwoman of the board overseeing downtown development, that neither would be conflicted in voting for the downtown plan update.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the downtown plan update would not improperly benefit Faulconer’s wife Katherine, who owns two Gaslamp-area businesses, Restaurant Events, Inc. and Spa Tiki. The council will be voting on land-use issues, and the businesses lease rather than own the properties they operate on, Fulhorst said.

Fulhorst said the downtown plan update should affect 25 percent of the businesses downtown in the same way Katherine Faulconer’s businesses are impacted for a conflict to be avoided. In addition, the proposal should relate to a variety of businesses, not just one trade or specialty, such as event planning or spas in this case.

A spokeswoman for Faulconer said the councilman also asked the City Attorney’s Office to weigh in on the matter. He is expected to do so next week.

Atkins asked the Ethics Commission in February whether her personal relationship with Centre City Redevelopment Corp. Chairwoman Jennifer LeSar was a conflict of interest. CCDC developed the downtown plan update the council will take up Tuesday, and the council, when acting as the city’s redevelopment agency, often finalizes CCDC’s recommendations.

In a memo to the commission, Atkins said that she and LeSar were dating but did not have joint bank accounts and are not registered as domestic partners. The Ethics Commission informed her that voting on CCDC items was appropriate.

“A dating relationship does not have to be considered for the purposes of conflict of interest,” Fulhorst said.

The Ethics Commission also said they did not find that an Atkins vote for a CCDC proposal would never result in a financial gain for LeSar, who is an unpaid volunteer in her role at CCDC.

Atkins asked for a formal opinion, but Fulhorst said she did not expect to issue one before Tuesday.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Worst Condo Market?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal picks apart the downtown condo markets in five major U.S. cities including San Diego. Its conclusions are worth noting:

“Of the condo markets we surveyed, San Diego showed the strongest signs of a slowdown,” the article reads.

“In the fourth quarter of 2005, the median price per square foot for downtown condos fell 0.2 percent to $517 from a year earlier — the first year-over-year drop since 2001, according to London Group Realty Advisors, a research firm.”

That’s a statistic I haven’t seen before. For all of Voice of San Diego’s reporting on the downtown condo market, you’ve got to give it to the Journal for digging up that gem.

The article continues:

“San Diego also had an 82 percent rise in inventory of existing condos last year as speculators stopped buying.”

The Journal has Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor to thank for that statistic. We’ve been running Breeze’s informative condo inventory updates on our site weekly. His Web site is at www.92101.info.

“Many also backed out of contracts and forfeited their downpayments: In San Diego County, the number of canceled purchase agreements for new condos and townhouses jumped by 75 percent, to 264, from the second quarter to the fourth quarter of 2005, according to MarketPointe Realty Advisors, a local market-analysis firm.”

That’s an issue we’ve also covered and will continue to keep on top of.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article here.

— WILL CARLESS

Poop Subsides

The San Diego County Department of Environmental Health has reopened waters at Imperial Beach. The area had been closed since late Wednesday, after sewage-contaminated runoff from the Tijuana River had drifted north.

On the plus side for surfers, they didn’t miss any waves while the water was closed. The waves have been pathetically flat and will remain weak through the weekend.

ROB DAVIS

Navy: Thanks, but no thanks

The U.S. Navy has responded to U.S. Rep. Susan A. Davis’ inquiry about the viability of a commercial airport on one of the three local military bases.

No surprises here. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter politely panned the idea.

“While I recognize the San Diego region faces difficult planning and economic decisions regarding future aviation growth,” Winter wrote, “I must tell you that national defense requirements preclude making any portion of any of these installations available for a new or dual use commercial airport.”

The closures of Marine Corps Air Stations at El Toro in 1999 and Tustin in 1997 have left Miramar as the only viable air base in the region, Winter wrote. El Toro, a 4,700-acre base near Santa Ana, was axed during a round of military base closures in 1993. Tustin, a 1,300-acre base seven miles from El Toro, was cut during a 1991 base closure round.

With a projected buildup of forces in the Pacific — anticipating the rise of the Chinese military and the continued threat of North Korea — Winter said the Marines have affirmed their need for San Diego bases.

“The Department of Defense has delivered this message clearly and consistently for many years to those who are studying future civilian aviation requirements in the San Diego area,” Winter wrote. Analyses have led to “the inescapable conclusion that these installations cannot provide the home to a commercial airport or joint-use airfield without undermining military response, security readiness, or safety.”

It’s worth noting Winter emphasized all the reasons why Miramar won’t work for the airport authority without addressing specific problems with locating an airport at any of the other military bases under consideration. He solely refers to previous reports of why commercial aviation is not acceptable at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Naval Air Station North Island.

ROB DAVIS

Inventory Still Climbing

According to ZIP Realty, an online real estate information service, San Diego County’s inventory of homes is still spiking toward a record high.

Since the beginning of the year, the total number of homes on the market has increased more than 3,000 to stand at its current level of 17,027. That’s edging closer and closer to the all-time record high for San Diego County, which was set in July 1995 at 19,000.

The total number of homes on the market in San Diego has been increasing every week since Jan 1, 2006, with no signs of stopping. On Jan 1, the total inventory stood at 13,916.

WILL CARLESS

Signing the Line that is Dotted

I picked on Jerry Butkiewicz today for registering as a lobbyist at City Hall only after The San Diego Union Tribune highlighted the fact that he and others who get paid to influence city officials weren’t registering as lobbyists.

But he wasn’t the only one who signed in after that story.

Erik Bruvold, the vice president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., is now a registered lobbyist along with his boss, Julie Meier Wright. Bruvold signed up the day before the Union-Tribune’s story ran.

Donald Cohen, the executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives — a think tank that pushes for workers’ rights and affordable housing — also decided to register as a lobbyist. He had told the Union-Tribune what he did was different from the lobbying that, you know, lobbyists do.

“It’s different for advocacy groups like us, the [Chamber of Commerce], the (American) Lung Association, the Environmental Defense Fund,” Cohen told the Union-Tribune in October. “The activity may be the same, but it’s a different story line.”

—SCOTT LEWIS

School Bus Cleanup

California’s Air Resources Board announced plans today to spend $25 million to replace and upgrade the state’s oldest, highest-polluting school buses.

The state still has 300 buses in its fleet that were manufactured before 1977. The oldest school bus, serving California City in the Mojave Unified School District, was built in 1951.

Nineteen fifty-one.

It’s 55 years old. When the bus was new, Stalin and Truman were in power. Bobby Thomson was belting the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The Korean War was raging. Libya became independent from Italy.

So long, Old Bus. The Air Resources Board is spending $12.5 million to replace you and 89 of your closest friends. You’re heading to the great bus yard in the sky. Another $12.5 million will be spent retrofitting 900 of your diesel-chugging buddies.

To date, the Air Resources Board has spent $76 million retrofitting and replacing nearly 3,500 buses.

There’s no local hook here, we admit it. No new buses or retrofits are coming to the San Diego region. But check out the fascinating list of oldest buses here. 

— ROB DAVIS

Sewage Calibration

The sudden spike in the flow of the Tijuana River we reported on yesterday turned out to be a false reading. Dion McMicheaux, project manager at the International Boundary and Water Commission, said his office was calibrating the river gauge Tuesday.

Because rains are so infrequent, the weekend rainfall gave the IBWC an opportunity to calibrate its gauge — taking a manual reading of the flow and comparing it to the computer readout.

The flow hasn’t come back to normal, according to the gauge. McMicheaux said that’s because the river is flowing — meaning the gauge can’t yet be put back where it was.

Beaches as far north as Imperial Beach remain closed after the quarter-inch rainfall, according to the county’s Department of Environmental Health.

— ROB DAVIS

Choose Me

City Attorney Mike Aguirre will host a public forum at City Hall on Tuesday evening at 6 p.m., where he will explain to attendees and Channel 24 viewers why he should be the chief legal adviser for the city’s retirement system.

Aguirre released a 26-page report Tuesday detailing his take on why he should be the plan’s attorney. Since 1998, the in-house lawyer for the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System has reported to the plan’s administrator and board of directors, but Aguirre has contended that the law sides with him.

A Superior Court judge has tentatively ruled in favor of allowing SDCERS to have a separate attorney, but a final decision is expected to be handed down the week of March 6.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Migrating Sewage

Mexico’s sewage is heading north.

The post-rain contamination that blanketed Tijuana and then headed into the Tijuana River — destined for the Pacific Ocean — already shut down Border Field State Park and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge yesterday. This afternoon, San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health closed the water at Imperial Beach.

We wrote about the sewage earlier today. The Tijuana River mysteriously rose three feet sometime late yesterday, and we still don’t know why.

“We took a look at it,” said Mark McPherson, the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health’s chief of land and water quality. “We don’t know what the reason is.”

McPherson said after the flows peaked yesterday, they didn’t go back to normal. The sewage-contaminated runoff is heading from the river into the neighboring estuary, then into the Pacific. The tides are pushing it north. Check out the river gauge 

When the river is flowing normally, a diverter pushes 15 million gallons a day into an international treatment plant. When it rains, though, the diverter is taken offline, so the treatment plant doesn’t get overwhelmed. It can only treat 25 million gallons daily — just a fraction of what runs into the ocean after a rainfall.

Right now, McPherson said, the diverter is off. As a reminder, it’s Wednesday — it hasn’t rained since Sunday.

The diverter is operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission. We couldn’t reach officials there by phone this afternoon.

— ROB DAVIS

Fewer Downtown Condos

The inventory of condos in downtown San Diego dropped this week after six consecutive weeks of increases, according to statistics compiled by Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor.

The total number of downtown condos available on the market (excluding developer units) was 471 this week, down slightly from 487 last week.

The median price of condos in the 92101 ZIP code listed on the Multiple Listings Service dropped for the ninth consecutive week, down more than $6,000 from last week to $638,700.

Breeze has been compiling the statistics from the Multiple Listings Service since 2003.

— WILL CARLESS

Most Eligible Reporter

San Diego’s Most Eligible Bachelor is sitting three feet away from me. I’m waiting in line for his autograph.

That’s right. Evan “Ace Boy” McLaughlin, the Voice of San Diego’s City Hall reporter, is featured on 10News’ search for San Diego’s most freewheeling single dude. And he’s trailing.

Somehow, someone named “Hula” is beating our tenacious journalist. How can that be? Hula likes to sip mimosas. Evan drinks beer. Hula describes himself as adventurous and boasts that he once skydived. Evan drinks beer. Hula says he knows how to work it on the dance floor. But we’ve got news for you: Evan invented the dance floor.

Seriously, though, Evan lets his accomplishments speak for themselves. That’s right, ladies, he’s modest. He’s always available by cell phone to talk off-the-record. (For the record, he enjoys running on the beach, attending Mike Aguirre press conferences and correcting the AP Style mistakes of anyone within range.)

Help Evan win. Hula is hooping — oops, that’s hoping — to win. But we have other plans, and we need your help. Vote here. Vote Evan. Vote often .

— ROB DAVIS

Fighting Fiscal Fires

The San Diego Fire Department is understaffed and under funded.

Now the City Council Committee on Public Safety and Neighborhood Services knows it too – and they heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.

SDFD presented the findings about an hour ago of a departmental self-study. After identifying various deficiencies in fire service, and presenting them to the International Commission on Fire Accreditation, the commission denied San Diego’s request for accreditation.

But denial is merely the first step (much like a grieving cycle). Now, the city must create a strategic plan to improve fire facilities and vehicles, and to plug the holes in fire coverage.

SDFD currently responds to emergencies in five minutes less than 50 percent of the time. In that period, an individual could experience brain death, or a room could explode.

Have no fear, however; fire officials said that they could adequately respond to day-to-day emergencies. But if “THE BIG ONE” hits, be it a firestorm the likes of 2003, a large-scale earthquake or a nuclear holy war, SDFD officials said they would not be adequately prepared to manage the situation.

—SAM HODGSON

Sewage Spike

The weekend rains may have stopped, but water hasn’t stopped flowing through the Tijuana River, which is notorious for its contamination. Sometime late yesterday, the river rose about three feet, then receded to normal.

When the area got a quarter-inch of rain Sunday, the river rose about a foot, catching the runoff as it’s designed to do. But it didn’t rain yesterday, and the river’s flow was nearly triple what it was at its Sunday peak. We don’t know why.

“It’s not runoff,” said Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental group. “We’re trying to figure out what’s going on. This happens all the time — and it’s not even news anymore. That’s why we get these continual closures.”

The beaches at Border Field State Park and the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge have been closed since yesterday because of sewage contamination in the water.

The controversial Bajagua project, which is designed to improve sewage collection in Tijuana and improve water quality at nearby beaches, took a large step forward last week. The private company that has proposed to build the treatment plant signed a contract with the federal agency that oversees border sewage issues — the International Boundary and Water Commission. Bajagua is supposed to more than double the treatment capacity of Tijuana’s overwhelmed sewer system, though it still needs a host of approvals and permits.

—ROB DAVIS

But I Wanna’ Be the Attorney

City Attorney Mike Aguirre continued his crusade today to become adviser to the city’s embattled pension board, and presented a 26-page report which articulates his legal argument to assume the position.

Aguirre repeated his position that he would serve as an “independent,” adviser to the counsel and questioned the former adviser’s independence.

“Our city attorney is elected,” Aguirre said, “and the theory is that the elected city attorney will do a better job in telling the pension board what it needs to hear rather than what it wants to hear.”

During his press conference, Aguirre said that Lori Chapin, the former adviser to the San Diego City Employees Retirement System who is under federal indictment, illegally used her position as a deputy city attorney to gain her position on the pension board.

He also said that his reports include information, which shows that Firefighters Union Representative Ron Saathoff helped Chapin ascend to the position of adviser to the pension board. The two were both recently indicted for not providing the citizens with honest services.

“It’s clear that there was a tie between the unlawful behavior that has created the massive deficit and the creation of the dependent attorney who was dependent on the pension board for their employment,” Aguirre said. “And in fact, the indictment charges that Ms. Chapin was motivated in carrying out the alleged illegal behavior in order to maintain her position with the pension board.”

— SAM HODGSON

Ad Hoc Discussion

The future of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s legislative ad hoc committee will be up for discussion when the authority’s board meets March 6.

At board member Mary Teresa Sessom’s request, the full authority board will consider whether the legislative committee should drop the “ad hoc” from its title.

Authority spokeswoman Diana Lucero said the four-person committee had been formed for a one-time purpose — though she wasn’t clear what that was. The group has met more than once, though, traveling to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy and to Sacramento yesterday to meet with legislators.

Authority Chairman Joe Craver and board members Xema Jacobson, William D. Lynch and Paul G. Nieto sit on the ad hoc committee.

Sessom said she is concerned that the group’s ad hoc nature has allowed it to skirt public meeting rules, without having to report minutes or draft agenda items.

— ROB DAVIS

Bring the Budget

The City Council panel that oversees the city’s budget and finances met today to discuss the timeline for the upcoming budget season, but expressed concerns that they were unsure where the mayor’s bargaining with the city’s unions fit into the schedule.

As the discussion continued, council members began sounding off about their unhappiness with how the strong-mayor form of government essentially excludes them from labor talks. Under the new structure that began this year, Mayor Jerry Sanders and his staff lead the negotiations, potentially strike a deal and forward any tentative labor pacts to the council for approval.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Councilman Jim Madaffer said it wasn’t logical to propose labor deals to the council without allowing its input beforehand.

“I don’t want to be led down a primrose path and then we find out we have a problem,” Madaffer said. Madaffer also noted that some strong-mayor cities have a personnel committee, made up of the mayor and some council members, who oversee negotiations.

Council President Scott Peters said he asked the mayor to find a way to include the council in those talks.

During his campaign, Sanders said he would seek wage freezes, work furloughs while having employees pay more out of pocket into the deficit-ridden pension plan. This month the mayor is beginning contract talks with the unions representing police officers, firefighters and deputy city attorneys at a time when he is also ruffling workers’ feathers by championing City Attorney Mike Aguirre and proposing ballot initiatives that many workers view as draconian.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Seventh Inning Smoke

First, it was the beaches. Now, even the Padres are sick of people lighting up cigarettes in their fine city.

Padres officials announced today that they would ban smoking at Petco Park for the 2006 baseball season.

Smokers were previously permitted to puff away in designated areas, but the Padres decided that it was too difficult to limit smoking to just one zone.

Now, those seeking a smoke-break between innings will be asked to leave the gates of the stadium and will be issued a reentry pass.

— SAM HODGSON

Airport Authority board member Mary Teresa Sessom is calling for the dissolution of the airport’s ad hoc committee, the group that traveled to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with the U.S. Navy’s assistant secretary.

Sessom said the committee either needs to be made formal or abolished, because its impromptu ad hoc nature is allowing it to skirt public meeting regulations.

For those who didn’t study dead languages in school, ad hoc is a Latin term that means “for a specific purpose.” (The literal Latin translation is “for this” or “to this,” depending upon whom you ask.)

The ad hoc committee (Authority Chairman Joe Craver, specifically) came back from Washington touting the Navy’s spirit of cooperation in talking about joint-use plans for a new local airport. After talking to the U.S. Navy’s assistant secretary, B.J. Penn, the authority later revised Craver’s statement.

The issue will be raised tomorrow at a 10 a.m. meeting of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s executive committee. We’ll have more information afterward. Stay tuned.

— ROB DAVIS

Watching Vantage

The message board I joined a couple of weeks ago for Vantage Pointe, a proposed downtown condo development continues to make for interesting reading.

This morning, an e-mail popped into my inbox from the message board’s mediator. He asked why there’s still no work going on in the massive hole the Canadian developers Pointe of View have dug at the site of the proposed building.

He’s got a point (or is that a Pointe?)

This subject has come up a couple of times as people who have expressed interest in the project — I’m not sure how many people have actually paid deposits on condos there — keep on asking why so little building seems to be actually going on.

The project’s slated for completion by summer 2008, so the builders have plenty of time to get cracking. Even so, ever since Randy Klapstein, Pointe of View’s CEO told me that he had accepted an offer on the company’s other San Diego project, Pacific Pointe, there’s been plenty of buzz on the message board about what will happen to Vantage Pointe.

(It should be noted that the Pacific Pointe deal never went through due to complications with historical designations, and that Klapstein said the project is not “officially” up for sale, and never has been.)

Klapstein’s not taking my calls. I have been trying him all day and he’s either really busy or upset with me.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep checking the live online Web cam for Vantage Pointe.

Let’s see if anyone shows up for work tomorrow.

— WILL CARLESS

Carlsbad Cost Cuts

ZIP Realty (www.ziprealty.com) is reporting that asking prices for homes in Carlsbad dropped 15 percent from December 2005 to January 2006.

The Web site, which offers its users access to a wide range of real estate facts and figures, also reported that sales prices were down a more modest 4 percent during the same period.

The number of sales completed in the Carlsbad area also dropped off sharply in that time. There were 82 sales completed in December compared to 49 in January, the Web site reports.

While asking prices and sales prices dropped, prices per square foot — which many analysts consider a far better representation of the measure of home values — actually rose from December. The cost per square foot in January was $352, up $30 from December’s value of $322.

A table of this data can be viewed here . 

— WILL CARLESS

Tijuana Gifts

Beaches at Border Field State Park and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge are closed after being contaminated by sewage runoff from the Tijuana River.

The weekend’s rainfall brought water from the Tijuana River into the United States. At its peak late Sunday, more than 100 million gallons of water were flowing through the river, according to a river gauge monitored by the International Boundary and Water Commission.

The San Diego County Department of Environmental Health announced the closure today — more than a day after the sewage-contaminated river’s flow had peaked — and said the beaches will remain closed until results show the water is safe for recreation.

Link to this story for background about the Tijuana River and controversy about how to clean it up.

—ROB DAVIS

Foreclosures Up

Foreclosure activity in San Diego real estate was up in the fourth quarter of 2005, according to DataQuick, a local real estate information service.

“Lending institutions sent 14,999 default notices to California homeowners during the October-to-December period. That was up 19.0 percent from 12,606 for the third quarter, and up 15.6 percent from 12,978 for 2004’s fourth quarter,” reads a press release on DataQuick’s Web site.

The number of foreclosures is watched closely by homeowners, real estate investors and economists, as it may be a signal of the state of the coming real estate market. Essentially, when home prices drop, foreclosures tend to rise, whereas the number of foreclosures tends to stay low as home prices rise.

— WILL CARLESS

Read last week’s “This Just In.”

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