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The chair of the San Diego Association of Governments board said the agency needs to rebuild public trust after Voice of San Diego revealed executives there knowingly misled voters about how much money a November tax increase would have raised.
“I’d like to tell you we all knew about this, but we didn’t,” said Ron Roberts, a county supervisor who as the chair of the SANDAG board led the campaign to pass Measure A, a proposal to increase sales taxes a half-cent for 40 years that was defeated on Election Day.
“I wish as chair or even just as a board member, I had at least been made aware of this,” Roberts said. “I know there are board members who think I’m responsible for this, and that’s fine with me. But I never would have stood out there if I knew it was only going to raise $14 billion, and told people it would raise $18 billion.”
Months before SANDAG’s board put Measure A on the ballot, agency staffers recognized a major problem: Internal forecasts were dramatically overestimating how much money the tax would generate for regional transportation projects. They exchanged colorful and panicked emails about the discovery.
The discovery also meant SANDAG had made the same error on TransNet, a similar tax voters approved in 2004, which is now suffering a significant revenue shortfall as a result.
The staffers in December 2015 brought their findings to the agency’s executive leaders, who sat on the information. They didn’t tell the board of directors, of which Roberts is a member, or an oversight group that monitors the 2004 tax. Four months later, the board put the new tax on the ballot, carrying the faulty $18 billion promise.
Roberts, along with former San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, was the public face of SANDAG’s effort to sell the measure. He appeared at a debate to make the case for its necessity, where he argued the agency’s track record spoke for itself and warranted voter support. He wrote an op-ed urging its passage for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and another for Voice of San Diego defending the agency after it finally acknowledged TransNet’s shortfall late last year.
Now, though, he says he wishes SANDAG staff hadn’t kept him in the dark.
“I would have liked it if someone said, ‘We have a discrepancy here,’” Roberts said. “That didn’t happen, and to the extent it didn’t, that’s my disappointment. After spending time with (SANDAG Executive Director Gallegos and chief deputy Kim Kawada) on the phone, I don’t think the intention was to inflate this so people would be more receptive.”
Roberts is unwilling to say it was a “cover up” for SANDAG’s leaders not to publicly disclose the forecasting problems as soon as staffers discovered them.
“I’m not in a position to say why staff would do this,” he said.
Voice of San Diego revealed the forecast’s flaws, and the revenue shortfall that came with them, weeks before the November election. SANDAG staff insisted at the time that there wasn’t a problem. But the agency quietly acknowledged the issue late last year. It turns out they knew of the issue roughly a year earlier.
Roberts said the agency will need to win back public trust if it expects voters to ever approve another tax increase.
“We’re going to have to show with real clarity how these numbers are being derived,” he said. “Is the public going to say, ‘We’re going to destroy this organization because this thing happened?’ I think you have to re-establish that trust.”
SANDAG’s board has its annual retreat this week. Along with staff, the elected officials who make up the board determine the agency’s strategic agenda for the next year.
Roberts expects the meeting to address TransNet’s shortfall, Measure A’s erroneous revenue promise and SANDAG leadership’s decision not to disclose the forecasting problems earlier.
“If there are things that won’t be completed, people need to know that,” Roberts said. “But that’s based on a lot of assumptions, not just revenue, and I’d like them to be able to explain that to us. I don’t know if they’ll have those numbers available for us by Wednesday or Thursday.”