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Mayor Bob Filner’s recently departed deputy chief of staff, Allen Jones, said Friday the mayor knew full well about a negotiation with a developer that many are calling extortion — and that he stands by it.
Jones’ comments came hours after Filner announced he had returned a $100,000 donation to the city from the developer Sunroad. The mayor said he made the decision after he discovered a memo between a Sunroad representative and Jones that explicitly laid out a quid pro quo between the city and the developer.
Jones confirmed that he signed the memo.
“I signed it and stand by it,” Jones said.
He also said that the mayor, a notorious micromanager, was fully aware of it.
“Every decision in the office is made by the mayor. No authority is delegated. He’s aware of and makes all decisions,” Jones said.
Jones went on to explain why he doesn’t think it’s a scandal and he explained in depth both how the deal originated and why he decided to resign, describing a toxic work environment he couldn’t stand to be “complicit” in. Filner also acknowledged he was reflecting on his tone and approach after Jones’ resignation.
Jones said that Sunroad’s Tom Story approached him months ago to say the residential development on which construction had already begun, Centrum 23, was in trouble. Sunroad had built and given to the city a park between two of the buildings it was erecting. But it had only allowed six feet on both sides of the park.
Fire safety laws require 15-foot easements to allow for equipment to pass through in an emergency. It’s unclear who discovered the problem but it was Sunroad that approached the mayor’s office, Jones said.
“Neither I nor the mayor had any involvement in this until Tom [Story] came in and said, ‘We have a problem,” Jones said.
Sunroad wanted the city to agree to a so-called non-building easement on both sides of its new park. This would mean the city would give up property rights on the park, meaning it couldn’t build things like jungle gyms or bathrooms or anything else.
If the city did not give Sunroad the easement, Sunroad would have had to build the project with fire windows that couldn’t open. And that would have cost Sunroad $200,000, Jones said.
“If I came to you and said, ‘I want to constrain your land so I can make more money,’ how would you act?” Jones said in an interview Friday. He said he determined that Sunroad should have to compensate the city $100,000.
He presented the opinion to the mayor, he said, who agreed. Jones said he recommended the money be directed to savings for projects and needs in the same neighborhood as the development. It was the mayor who recommended the money go to two other projects: a special bike day the city is hosting and the Ocean Beach Veteran’s Plaza project.
Jones, a former developer, said he would have demanded even more if he were still in the private sector.
“People are always saying government should be run more like a business. This is exactly what a business would do if it were asked to give away something of value,” Jones said.
If this is all accurate, it helps explain some of the bizarre and vague acknowledgements of the deal by Filner, who seems to simultaneously want to take credit for dealing sternly with developers but also wash his hands of an increasingly controversial deal.
He described the deal’s origins differently.
“I looked at this and said, ‘You’re giving away public property free to these guys, who as you know had some problems with the city in the past. How are we as a city doing that?’ To try to bring that up as an issue, I vetoed that,” Filner said Friday.
Filner said he wanted to throw a wrench in the deal. He said that Sunroad wanted him to get rid of the wrench and offered donations.
Sunroad made out checks totaling $100,000 to the city of San Diego.
Then Filner said the memo from Sunroad to Jones came to his attention. Filner said he’d never seen it and that it was “contrary to my own orders to him.”
“They saw these checks as payment for the easement. I didn’t know this existed. It came to light with a [public records] request,” Filner said. “I did not have any notion that that is what they were doing. I was told they were just interested in making it easier and I said if you make the donations, that would be great. Because I couldn’t stop it at the Council.”
Jones said he was disappointed with this take. He said he’d kept as quiet as possible since he quit last week. He reiterated that the mayor was involved in every decision Jones made.