SANDAG is looking into ways to reform SANDAG.

Later this month, the board of directors will discuss reforms for the scandal-plagued regional planning agency that could be put before voters for the 2018 election.

But the move could also be seen as the agency’s latest attempt to fend off reform from Sacramento, where Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has proposed AB 805, a bill that would create an independent auditor for SANDAG and make significant changes to its voting structure.

In a June 28 memo, the board’s chair and vice chair – County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Del Mar Mayor Terry Sinnott – asked to put the discussion on the agenda of a July 28 board meeting. AB 805 would make substantial changes to SANDAG, the memo said, so the board should discuss putting a ballot measure to county voters next year on that topic.

“The board will be asked to request that the provisions in AB 805 be carefully considered during a thorough public outreach process, and that any changes that are proposed to be made to SANDAG be placed on a countywide ballot for a vote of the people of this region,” the memo reads.

But the discussion doesn’t appear to be limited to the changes contemplated by AB 805.

“Through this process, the public would have an opportunity to suggest their own ideas for other reform,” the memo reads.

In a statement, Roberts said the board would explore the possibility of putting governance changes before voters, including the provisions in AB 805.

It’s hard to tell if SANDAG’s hypothetical measure would ask voters to approve or disapprove of the measure – which by that point would either already have been killed or signed by the governor – or would represent a competing reform proposal. Sinnott and Roberts didn’t immediately respond to attempts to clarify.

Gonzalez Fletcher said it’s unclear because SANDAG itself doesn’t know what it’s proposing.

“Except for creating a new argument for themselves against AB 805, it’s unclear what they’re intending to do, or if they know what they’re intending to do,” she said.

AB 805 passed the state Senate’s Committee on Governance and Finance Wednesday. Sinnott and National City Mayor Ron Morrison spoke against the measure during the hearing.

At the hearing, Sinnott said if there are going to be sweeping changes to SANDAG, voters should sign off on them.

Morrison pointed to provisions within two state laws dealing with SANDAG’s structure, SB 1703 and AB 361, to suggest changes should go before county voters.

“We realize there are issues we need to deal with, and we will deal with that and let local voters of San Diego” address the problem, he said.

Gonzalez Fletcher said her staff doesn’t think the laws SANDAG is leaning on actually require local voter approval of systemic reforms. Her office has asked the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office for its interpretation.

“It provides them a good argument,” she said. “They come to the state Capitol and say, ‘We’ll handle this.’ This was a different hearing today than we’ve heard from them. Now they say, ‘We know there are problems, we’ll handle them.’”

Currently, items that go before the SANDAG board need to be approved by a majority of all 19 local governments in the county that sit on the board, but also need approval by a vote in which each city’s vote is weighted relative to its population. AB 805 would shift SANDAG to a proportional vote, giving the county’s larger cities, like San Diego and Chula Vista, greater sway in regional decision-making. It would also give the Metropolitan Transit System and the North County Transit District the authority to levy their own taxes; currently, only SANDAG has that authority.

The legislation has been endorsed by San Diego, Chula Vista, Lemon Grove and MTS; cities that together represent more than half of the county’s population. It has been opposed by El Cajon, La Mesa, National City, San Marcos, Solana Beach, Poway, Vista, San Diego County and SANDAG’s board.

Reforming SANDAG became a countywide discussion after Voice of San Diego uncovered that the agency had knowingly overestimated how much revenue it could collect for an existing tax and for a proposed 2016 tax measure to pay for regional transportation projects, and underestimated how much those projects would cost.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated SANDAG’s current board structure.

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

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