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The sudden ouster last month of Steve Padilla, Chula Vista’s representative on the Board of Port Commissioners, was accompanied by the buzz of controversy.

Padilla, who was voted off the commission the same day he was appointed to serve as its vice chairman, has come up again and again in the conversations I’ve had in the South Bay city in the last couple of weeks.

In conducting those interviews, I’ve been made privy to a couple of theories surrounding the vote: Padilla was voted off in as embarrassing a way as possible to pay him back for years of political animosity against Mayor Cheryl Cox and Councilman Steve Castaneda, I was told. No, other people said, the vote was recompense for members of the City Council — Padilla supporters — not backing Cox’s choice on a prior vote that evening for an appointment to the Metropolitan Transit System board.

There have been other theories, too: Padilla’s replacement, Ann Moore, was questioned publicly about whether she even lived in Chula Vista, a prerequisite to serving as the city’s port commissioner.

I don’t know why Steve Padilla was voted off the commission, or why he was voted off the same day he was appointed in a fancy luncheon to serve as the agency’s vice chairman.

I do know two things, however: The Chula Vista mayor and City Council may well be sued by a local attorney over the way they voted Padilla off the commission, and Ann Moore does, indeed, live in Chula Vista (I know because I met her at her house in eastern Chula Vista on Wednesday evening and she showed me two pieces of mail with her address on it).

The San Diego Union-Tribune, in this interesting piece published last month, noted that the City Council’s vote to end Padilla’s short term was at odds with the city’s prior record of making commissioner appointments.

A long, detailed process had been followed in the past, the story said, but Padilla was voted off the commission “without so much as a word of warning,” the story states.

That has raised the ire of local attorney Cory Briggs, who last Thursday wrote a letter to the mayor and City Council on behalf of his client, San Diegans for Open Government.

Briggs contends that the city failed to properly describe the item on the council agenda and violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act. The item was listed on the agenda as one of four reports to be made by the mayor at the end of the meeting. Briggs argues that the agenda should have made clear that the mayor would be asking the council to act on considering or appointing a port commissioner.

Here’s detail from Briggs’ letter:

Based on Chula Vista’s past practice, my client (and surely other members of the public) could not have anticipated, based on a fair reading of the City Council’s agenda for January 11, 2011, that the City Council would appoint a new representative to the Board of Port Commissioners.

Under the Brown Act, the violation must be cured not more than 30 days after receipt of this letter. Please notify me in writing as soon as possible to let me know whether the violation will be cured and, if so, when the cure will take place. (My client may sue before receiving your response.)

The prevailing theory I’ve heard about Padilla’s incongruous letting-go is that it was the culmination of long-held political vendettas against Padilla by Cox and Castaneda, who bonded together in a rare show of unity to vote him off the commission. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in Chula Vista has agreed that this was probably the real reason why Padilla was ousted — he ran against both Cox and Castaneda for mayor and those campaigns at times got pretty heated.

I asked Padilla about that theory when I met him for coffee Friday morning. A practiced politician, he quietly and calmly explained to me how he had been the victim of political retribution, without ever really explicitly saying so.

He said Cox consistently expressed her support for him while he was serving on the commission and had given no indication that she was unhappy with his service before suddenly voting to get rid of him.

“Most people, never mind politicians, I don’t think would stand up in a public forum and say that they see no reason why the person would not be our representative and that they’re doing a fantastic job, if they knew that they intended to not be supportive of that person,” Padilla told me.

“All she saw was ‘Oh, this is a guy I ran against, maybe he’s a political opponent, maybe I don’t like him, maybe I don’t trust him, whatever,’” he added.

Last Thursday, I sat and talked to Cox for an hour and a half. I pressed her about the Padilla issue.

She told me her vote for Moore in January was consistent with her vote last year. (When Padilla was originally appointed to the port commission in 2010, both Cox and Castaneda voted for his opponent, Moore.)

Asked about the apparently vindictive timing of the council vote, Cox said she had previously asked Chula Vista’s clerk to inform the port’s clerk that the council would be voting on Padilla’s future the same day of the commission luncheon in which Padilla was appointed vice chair. And she said something else that jarred with Padilla’s contention that he had no idea she was unhappy with him.

“I talked to Mr. Padilla a few minutes before the [port commission] lunch started and he asked me if he was going to be reappointed that evening. I said ‘Cities aren’t in charge of the swearing-in practices of other entities, so, Steve, you have an opportunity to go to those who would swear you in and ask them to hold that seat,’” Cox said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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