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It was an idea without an author.
San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald wanted to know who had gone around the council’s back to breathe 20 more years of life into downtown redevelopment.
The guy at the Oct. 12 City Council meeting who had answers was Frank Alessi, the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the city’s downtown redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corp.
Except Alessi wasn’t saying much.
Here’s a breakdown of Alessi’s testimony to the council now that we have the benefit of three months of reporting and the context from newly released emails. It shows that not only did Alessi fail to respond to many of Emerald’s questions, but that a key answer was false.
Emerald started her questioning by wondering if she could trust Alessi.
Emerald: If you were monitoring my comments from before you know how very upset I am about what I believe is a gross breach of trust. Going forward, I’m going to have a very difficult time believing anything that you and your staff have to tell us as a board.
Then she launched into him.
Emerald: Who actually hatched this idea?
Emerald: Whose idea was it? To go behind this council’s back and go to Sacramento?
Alessi: I don’t have an answer to that. Other than (Assemblyman) Nathan Fletcher was the author of it.
Emerald: He just in the middle of the night came up with the idea? Who did he talk to about crafting this idea to bury it in the budget bill? Was it you? Was it the mayor?
Alessi: I can’t speak for the mayor.
Alessi now is CCDC’s highest ranking official following the resignation of former interim head Fred Maas in December. Alessi has been with the agency since 1979 and makes $176,800 a year. Ultimately the City Council, as the board of directors for the city’s Redevelopment Agency, is his boss.
Emerald continued asking whose idea it was.
Emerald: Fred (Maas)? Who?
Alessi: Unfortunately, Fred, our chairman, is unavailable today. He’s back East on personal matters. And he …
Emerald: So who was involved, once the mystery person came up with the idea, who sat down and came up with the plan?
Alessi: There were several people involved. It’s …
Emerald: They were who?
Alessi: I defer, I would like to defer the answer to that question.
Alessi didn’t answer. He just stared straight ahead.
Emerald turned next to Alessi’s personal involvement.
Emerald: C’mon I mean it’s out here on the table here, you did this, you didn’t talk to us, but at least let us know who was involved.
Alessi: Well, I personally was knowledgeable of the information.
Emerald: Were you involved in it?
Alessi: To a degree.
Emerald then began asking him how long he had been discussing the deal. His answer, the most significant he gave to any of Emerald’s questions, was wrong.
Emerald: Can you tell us when this idea fell out of the sky or what?
Alessi: There was probably a week or, two weeks ago that was.
Emerald: Two weeks ago, you think?
Alessi: I’m guessing. I mean I can only tell you from my perspective.
Emerald: When did you first learn of it?
Alessi: I believe it’s been about two weeks. I don’t have …
But that’s not what emails we obtained through a public records request show. Alessi was involved as far back as August, six weeks earlier than when he said he was.
Alessi’s answer to council fit the deal’s official narrative at the time — that it was only weeks in the making. But that narrative fell apart a few days after Alessi’s testimony. The deal’s formation began in August, around the same time Alessi got involved.
In an Aug. 17 email chain, the city’s Sacramento lobbyist asked Mayor Jerry Sanders’ policy advisor for help writing the redevelopment bill. Fletcher, the lobbyist wrote, wanted language quickly. The mayor’s advisor looped Alessi and Maas in on the request.
“Do you want to talk first? Is there any draft? I assume we are talking lifting the cap,” Alessi wrote in response. The state legislation eventually lifted the cap on how much property tax CCDC could collect and spend over its lifespan.
Further, emails show that in September, Alessi organized a conference call on downtown redevelopment limits with the city’s lobbyist, its outside redevelopment attorney and a Sanders policy advisor.
The advisor, Job Nelson, said in an interview that the potential Fletcher bill was among legislative options discussed during the call.
Shown the emails, Alessi said he was wrong about the timeframe he told Emerald at the meeting. But he maintained he was as truthful as he could have been given the situation.
Discussions involving the legislation didn’t heat up until weeks before it passed, Alessi said. Others involved in crafting the bill have said the same thing: The deal was pieced together in fits and starts and didn’t coalesce into something tangible until the end. A flurry of emails the week before the bill passed lends credence to that argument. Further, it’s unclear what, if any, advantage Alessi could have gained from intentionally deceiving the council.
“There’s always a failure, not always, but periodically there’s a failure to recognize a moment in time six months ago or three months ago or four months ago, especially when you’re being interrogated,” Alessi said in an interview. “I don’t care if you’re in a court or you’re in someplace else.”
Still, Alessi’s testimony shows that yet another component of the redevelopment deal’s official story has crumbled when exposed to scrutiny. The deal’s timeline changed. Boosters have shifted arguments about its presumed benefits. CCDC stonewalled a series of requests for information. The Mayor’s Office didn’t fulfill a request for emails referenced in this story until last week even though it was filed Oct. 19 — more than three months ago.
After he spoke at council, Alessi never followed up with Emerald or other council members to correct or clarify it.
Emerald, who declined an interview request for this story through a spokeswoman, ended her comments at the meeting by reiterating what she told Alessi at the start. She didn’t like that she wasn’t getting answers on such an important issue. She wasn’t sure she could rely on Alessi anymore.
Emerald: As a councilperson, I’m not going to endorse this kind of action and put myself on the line. I’ve got a legal responsibility and now I’m not sure I can trust any information you people bring to me. That’s a very sorry statement and I know I’m not the only one on this City Council who feels this way now. It’s not about being mad. It’s about now being pragmatic. We need people in these positions who we can trust to tell us the truth.
Please contact Liam Dillon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.