Southeastern San Diego residents have long complained about a vacant plot at 54th Street and Chollas Parkway in southeastern San Diego that’s often filled with trash, debris and homeless camps. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Southeastern San Diego residents have long complained about a vacant plot at 54th Street and Chollas Parkway in southeastern San Diego that’s often filled with trash, debris and homeless camps. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

This fall, in the midst of a re-election battle, City Council President Myrtle Cole’s chief of staff triggered the clearing of a homeless camp that violated a long-standing city settlement dictating rules for those clean-ups.

Then, in the weeks before Cole’s Nov. 6 loss, longtime District 4 chief Jimmie Slack failed to turn over public records to Voice of San Diego describing the incident. City departments only provided records detailing the incident last week – after the election – despite receiving the request the second week of October.

For years, a dirt and weed-covered plot at 54th Street and Chollas Parkway that’s often filled with trash and homeless camps and surrounded by a line of parked trailers and RVs has frustrated southeastern San Diego residents.

After hearing complaints from Oak Park residents and visiting the area himself, Slack said he recalls calling nonprofit Connecting Hope CDC in August or September to have them pick up trash. Slack said he saw no homeless camps when he stopped by and never mentioned the issue to Cole.

But on Sept. 21, two city workers drove by the area and found a group who said they had told homeless San Diegans to move elsewhere so they could clean the area, according to emails released to VOSD through a separate public records request to other city departments.

The pastor who led the group told the city workers they were cleaning up the area “at the direction of Councilmember Cole, who was running for re-election in a very close race” and implied they had conducted sweeps of other homeless camps, city officials wrote in one email.

Those city workers were troubled by what they heard. They quickly reported the incident to their supervisor.

A 2011 federal court settlement, which has since been updated, mandates that workers notify homeless San Diegans at least 72 hours before clearing an area if no storage space is available, plus take photos and impound items that do not appear to be trash. Connecting Hope later told VOSD the city and Cole’s office never shared those requirements.

The so-called Isaiah settlement came in the wake of nonprofit Isaiah Project and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties’ 2009 suit against the city and the Downtown San Diego Partnership claiming workers had unlawfully seized and discarded the property of dozens of homeless San Diegans during regular clean-ups.

“Our officers are highly aware of their obligations under the Isaiah settlement, so they were deeply concerned about this abatement conducted at the bidding of a city official and not in compliance with the settlement,” city environmental services officials wrote in a Sept. 21 report to supervisors about the incident released to VOSD.

Greg Block, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said mayor’s office staffers directed environmental services workers to investigate and “as appropriate, inform the various parties involved of proper protocols to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

A week after the unauthorized clean-up operation, records show, environmental services chief Mario Sierra emailed Slack.

“Clean-ups and abatements within the public right-of-way or on city property must be conducted in accordance with the Isaiah settlement and city policy,” Sierra wrote in a Sept. 28 email. “I am available to discuss the terms and conditions of the Isaiah settlement if that would be helpful.”

Slack, who replied 17 minutes later to tell Sierra he would call him, told VOSD he understood that only city workers should conduct homeless camp sweeps and shared that with Sierra over the phone.

Slack did not provide this email exchange – or any documents – to VOSD following an Oct. 11 Public Records Act Request for communications between Cole’s office and Sierra’s department.

In an interview last week, the City Hall veteran who also served as chief of staff to former District 4 Councilman Tony Young said he initially didn’t believe his short response to Sierra was worthy of release.

“At the time, I only had one sentence saying, ‘I will call you,’ so I just didn’t view that as, ‘Let me send this over as a response,’” Slack said.

VOSD had requested all communications with the environmental services department – whether received by or sent to the District 4 office – and Slack’s initial decision not to release the email does not comport with state law.

The exchange was later released to VOSD by other city departments following a separate October records request.

More than two months later, Pastor Ray L. Smith of Connecting Hope said city officials had not informed him of the settlement outlining court-mandated protocols for clearing homeless camps.

“No one’s said anything about it at all,” Smith said last week.

Smith also added that he did not recall mentioning Cole’s race against Monica Montgomery, who unseated Cole in November, in his September interaction with city workers.

Smith’s nonprofit hires at-risk youth to do community clean-ups and repairs as part of a broader initiative to provide job and life skills.

Last year, Connecting Hope received more than $35,000 in City Council community project and programs funds from Cole and fellow City Councilwomen Georgette Gómez and Lorie Zapf for its Project Clean Up Job Employment Program.

Smith said his nonprofit has cleaned many homeless camps over the years and per past suggestions from city workers, has typically given homeless San Diegans two days’ notice before starting – short of the three days’ notice required.

City spokeswoman Katie Keach said last week the city’s environmental services department could not confirm previous discussions with the group and concluded that the unauthorized clean-up “appeared to be a single occurrence.”

She said the city leads quarterly homeless sweep trainings for environmental services employees and contractors, which do not include Connecting Hope.

But Smith said City Council offices, especially the District 4 office, regularly alert his team when trash piles up in their communities.

Slack said he and other District 4 staffers have often requested that Connecting Hope clean up areas with trash and debris over the years – but not homeless camps.

Slack said he wasn’t aware that the group had cleared a homeless camp until Sierra’s email.

“We never talked to them about homeless camps,” Slack said. “The only thing I talked to them about is cleaning up trash and debris.”

Slack said he didn’t follow up with Connecting Hope to clarify the rules after his conversation with Sierra.

He also said he didn’t mention conversations about the matter to Cole.

“I did not see any reason to talk to her about that,” Slack said. “There were so many other things that were more important to talk to her about.”

On Friday, after VOSD requested an interview with Cole, Slack forwarded a statement he attributed to the City Council president.

“Council President Cole states she has had no contact with Connecting Hope or Environmental Services Department regarding this matter,” Slack wrote in an email.

Regardless, attorney Scott Dreher, who helped negotiate the 2011 homeless sweep settlement and various updates, said he viewed the incident as a violation of the settlement.

“If they’re doing things at the behest of the city, they become agents of the city,” Dreher said. “The city has an obligation to make sure they know the rules.”

Dreher said he planned to contact city attorneys to ensure rules are followed in the future.

“I think the most important thing is, let’s fix this so it never happens again,” Dreher said.

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott also stressed the importance of heeding city protocols.

“Homeless camp cleanups should not be undertaken by city employees or members of the community, no matter their good intentions, other than those trained by (the environmental services department) and specifically assigned to that role,” spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik wrote in an email to VOSD. “This will ensure that laws are followed, and individual rights are respected.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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