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Current and former San Diego Association of Governments board members said staff should have specifically flagged for the board that the agency had drastically cut down the amount of money it expected to raise from a 2004 tax increase months before the board decided to put it on the ballot and nearly a year before voters approved the measure.
Instead, the agency went to voters with a measure pledging $14.2 billion in new revenue to build a host of regional projects, even though a forecast the board adopted said the measure would bring in just $12.9 billion.
That $1.3 billion gap is no small thing – it’s roughly the same amount SANDAG will spend on the Mid-Coast Trolley line, one of the hallmark projects of the ballot measure.
Barry Jantz was a La Mesa councilman who had just been appointed to SANDAG’s board in late 2003 when it approved a long-term plan for the region, including an economic forecast that would have projected $12.9 billion in revenue from a 40-year, half-cent sales tax.
He was still on the board a few months later when it first voted on the outline of a spending plan for TransNet, the sales tax that would go to voters that November. That plan called for $14.2 billion in local revenue.
Jantz said he had no idea the board had formally adopted a forecast predicting the tax measure to raise $12.9 billion prior to telling voters on the ballot that it would raise $14.2 billion.
“If it had been clear to me that there was a big revenue shortfall, I would have been upset,” he said. “If it had been clear to me that the revenue would have been less than anticipated, that would have stood out to me.”
More than a decade later, TransNet is on track to bring in nearly $5 billion less than the total sold to voters. Agency staff has said the shortfall is due to the Great Recession, but it’s now clear SANDAG had abandoned the idea of collecting $14.2 billion four full years before the recession began.
Jantz is now CEO of the Grossmont Healthcare District, meaning he is the staff leader for a public agency run by a board of elected officials.
“My philosophy is if there’s anything significant your board should know, it is incumbent on you as staff to point it out,” he said. “Staff shouldn’t be relying on elected officials to have the expertise to go through all the documents. That’s why staff is there, to point every concern out.”
SANDAG’s board chairman, County Supervisor Ron Roberts, was also on the board in 2004. In a statement, he said new quality-control measures the agency instituted this year – after Voice of San Diego identified a series of problems with TransNet and a failed 2016 tax increase, Measure A – would enable future leaders to catch similar problems in the future.
Roberts did not dispute that the agency went to voters promising Measure A would raise $18 billion, despite internal communications showing serious concern over that figure, that it failed to disclose an $8 billion cost increase to the TransNet program for nearly a year in the run-up to the 2016 election, or that TransNet had been approved with a $14.2 billion revenue forecast that the agency had formally abandoned.
He did, however, take issue with any suggestion that SANDAG did those things intentionally to curry favor with voters by offering more robust project lists with the additional revenue.
“Suggesting a public agency inflated revenues to influence voters is a serious charge, and I’d have to see compelling evidence to be convinced that occurred here,” he said. “Ascribing malicious intent to decisions made over a decade ago, with no evidence, does a disservice to the public servants working at SANDAG, misleads the general public and gets us nowhere closer to addressing our region’s many transportation needs.”
Roberts refused to say whether the agency should have revised the 2004 tax measure with the agency’s most up-to-date forecast before bringing it to voters, whether he was aware of the change at the time or whether he had been made aware of the issue at any point since.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, who is new to the board, said SANDAG needs to explain why the $14.2 billion number was used at all, after the agency had formally adopted a new forecast.
“Either management was misleading voters, or management was incompetent,” he said. “The most up-to-date number was not used. The question is, ‘why?’ Did Gary want the rosy one to squeeze in more projects, or was it inept management that they couldn’t find the updated number, or didn’t know it was changed? It has to be one of the two,” he said, referring to SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos, who has been in the role since 2001.
He said staff responses that the shortfall was wholly caused by the recession fall flat, because the agency didn’t use its own most updated number at the time. If it had, the shortfall might still be $4 billion instead of $5 billion, but at least the agency could say it went with the best information it had at the time.
“Regardless of the answer, if it’s incompetence or misleading voters, it still erodes the credibility and trust voters have in the organization, and without credibility and trust it’ll be very hard for SANDAG to ever pass a ballot measure in the future,” Bailey said.
Kristine Allessio, a La Mesa City Council member and SANDAG board member, wrote on Twitter that “Gary is not the problem, lack of leadership is.”
In a follow-up interview, she clarified what she meant.
“The problem isn’t Gary,” she said. “The problem is the will of the board to question things, and I don’t know why that is.”
AB 805, a state bill proposed this year after the agency’s scandal came to light, would reform the agency and shift the board’s balance of power from smaller to larger cities – the thinking being that board members from larger cities have larger, full-time staffs and are therefore better-equipped to examine issues that go before the board in-depth. But Allessio said the bill gets the problem backward.
Right now, she said, the only board members who routinely question staff are from small cities. The board members who first called for SANDAG to launch an investigation into the scandal, aside from County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, all hail from small cities: La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Poway, Coronado, El Cajon and Encinitas.
“SANDAG board membership is not something everyone takes seriously,” she said. “It’s like a small businessman has to watch every penny, but a big multinational corporation, because of the enormity of things, can let things fall through the cracks. You look at people from small jurisdictions, you have people who are more detail-oriented in their task.”
Alessio’s argument that the issue is not Gallegos, but leadership from the board, and specifically from the agency’s larger jurisdictions, seemed to point the finger at Roberts, the board’s chair and a representative from the county. I asked her if that was accurate.
“I don’t think he failed to exercise appropriate leadership, but I think he just wanted to get Measure A on the ballot, and I understand why. What is good leadership: Is it getting something on the ballot for funding we need, or taking a step back and saying, ‘We need to look at this’? I’m not willing to throw him under the bus, but I would have preferred another method.”
She said Roberts and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, another board member and Measure A supporter, were focused only on getting Measure A passed.
“It wasn’t an impure motive; they wanted certain projects to go through,” she said. “I’m not going to say (Roberts) is the main problem, but as more people are involved in leadership roles, who are more reformers instead of politicians, you will probably have a better organization. If I thought Ron were the problem, I’d say it. He can’t control the whole board.”
She said she expects SANDAG staff to alert her to issues like the revenue discrepancy in 2004, and internal concern over the forecast that led to the Measure A revenue total.
“If you notice something is mucked up, go to the board,” she said. “The one in 2004, I think people lost sight again in wanting to have revenue to complete projects. They lost sight of important things, and didn’t want to say ‘oh by the way,’ but I’m glad we did an internal investigation. Anyone on the board who would say they’re fine with how everything is going would have to be quite dishonest with themselves. They may say, ‘Everyone knows forecasting is difficult, so why make a big deal of it?’ but out of transparency, why wouldn’t you say something sooner? A forecast is a guess, but it’s disingenuous now to say it’s just a guess. It’s the not coming forward and saying there’s a problem. There’s no shame in it. Just say it. Humans make errors.”