This post has been updated.

Things keep getting stickier for Civic San Diego.

California’s nonpartisan legislative counsel said this week the city’s arrangement with Civic San Diego might be illegal.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has unveiled a bill that would make Civic San Diego answer to the City Council, asked the counsel to determine whether cities are allowed to contract with nonprofit groups to make land use decisions.

They aren’t, according to the legal opinion, but cities can outsource certain “administrative functions,” as long as they hang on to ultimate decision-making authority.

That gray area – just how much is allowed within those “administrative functions” – is likely to stir up some debate.

The city attorney’s office responded Thursday with a 23-page memo detailing the city’s arrangement with Civic San Diego. It said everything in the agreement is in keeping with the circumstances described by the legislative counsel’s opinion.

In short, the city says the legislative counsel’s opinion in fact confirms that the city has a perfectly legal arrangement with Civic San Diego.

The city has given Civic San Diego the power to issue development permits for projects downtown. Elsewhere in the city, the city handles permitting itself.

Gonzalez’s office asked the legislative counsel to weigh in on whether that’s an acceptable deal, to give support and cover to her bill.

The development community embraces Civic San Diego because it issues permits faster than the city. Downtown developers and Civic San Diego also go way back, since it is the agency that used to handle downtown redevelopment, a state-subsidized urban renewal program that ended in 2011.

Get ready for a debate over whether or not the city’s arrangement with Civic San Diego is a full surrender of its authority.

Civic San Diego’s responsibility downtown comes with a few caveats.

Downtown got a new community plan in 2006. That plan went through a full environmental study that essentially pre-approved all sorts of projects.

The City Council approved both the community plan and its environmental report. Civic San Diego approves individual projects in the area that are meant to conform to those plans.

The city itself still approves certain practical permits, like plumbing and electrical work, for downtown projects. Civic San Diego essentially checks on the design specifications for each project.

“Thus, the issue in each case of delegation is whether ultimate control over matters involving the exercise of judgment and discretion has been retained by the public entity,” the legislative counsel’s opinion reads.

Gonzalez says it’s pretty clear Civic San Diego is making judgement-based decisions that fall outside what the legislative counsel says is OK.

“I think it’s clear Civic San Diego is approving discretionary permits, and clearly under this opinion that is something that is not delegateable, and that’s what our bill corrects, quite frankly,” she said.

“Now, I’m sure the city attorney will do backflips and maneuvers for how this is permissible, but I think legislative counsel was pretty clear.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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