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When Pete Wilson, then the mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, created the model of using a semi-private corporation to perform redevelopment, it was hailed as a success story around the country. The genius of this structure was built on three pillars:
(1) Autonomous from the city’s employment system. Hiring, salaries and bonuses of the corporation employees could be set independently from the city. The corporation could thus emulate private sector practices in hiring as opposed to the civil service system, and did not have the limitations imposed on bonuses and raises that city workers face.
(2) No electoral accountability. Neither the board members nor the key executives in such a corporation could be voted in or out of office. This buffered the structure from direct voter influence.
(3) Input from the private industry at the highest levels. Since the Board members themselves were from the private sector (often from the real estate, finance and development industry), there was a seamless venue between the regulators and the developers.
After 30 years in the works, this structure now faces a crisis. The autonomous employment system has raised questions about irregular pay practices and bonuses. The lack of electoral accountability has put the mayor and Council on the hot seat for responding to a public outcry over improprieties that they had little role in directing. And the questionable involvement of developers at top levels has put the limelight on the perceived conflicts of those that are supposed to be serving the public interest.
The reporting by voiceofsandiego.org has exposed not only the fundamental problems with the Pete Wilson structure of redevelopment, but it has tainted the credibility of the agency itself to the point that no amount of grand jury reports and citizen complaints could do. As a planner who thinks that redevelopment could generate community benefits if done right, I have several questions that result from this dilemma:
Question: To what extent has the privatization of the redevelopment function of government been responsible for the problems of this Pete Wilson model?
Question: Are taxpayers really benefiting from these entities, and who watches their books? For example, why is voiceofsandiego.org doing the homework that the city auditor is supposed to do?
Question: Are our conflict-of-interest and revolving door policies adequate and clear enough for the staff and boards of these entities, in order to regain the public trust?
It is time to raise these questions. It is time to end the “holy cow” status of CCDC and SEDC.