101 Ash St. / Photo by Scott Lewis

An official involved in the city of San Diego’s troubled acquisition and renovation of a downtown high-rise has resigned, marking the first personnel consequence of the still-unfolding scandal.

Kris Michell, the city’s chief operating officer, announced the change in a Feb. 14 memo to the City Council.

“The city has accepted Assistant Chief Operating Officer Ronald H. Villa’s resignation/retirement, effective June 30, 2020,” she wrote. “Ron will be working on special assignments between now and his departure.”

Representatives of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office declined to comment, citing their policy against discussing personnel matters.

Villa had been closely involved in the city’s acquisition and renovation of the former Sempra Energy headquarters at 101 Ash St., which was pushed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

City staff moved into the building in December only to be “voluntarily evacuated” a few weeks later when the county’s Air Pollution Control District said the building should not be occupied due to ongoing asbestos violations. The district first cited the asbestos violations in August 2019 but continued to document violations nearly every week over the ensuing months, according to NBC San Diego.

That was years after the city’s problems began at 101 Ash St.

In late 2016, the city struck a lease-to-own agreement with the building’s owner, in hopes of saving money by consolidating city staff there from the various office spaces they were occupying. A year and a half later, the Union-Tribune reported the city had been paying $18,000 in rent per day for the still-empty building.

Months later, in August 2018, the City Council agreed to spend $30 million on renovations for the building after city staff determined it needed upgrades that were more extensive than they had expected. When the Council approved the lease-to-own deal in October 2016, staff said the building needed $10,000 worth of cleaning, caulking and pressure washing the exterior.

It was during those renovations that the city ran into asbestos issues. Asbestos is present in many buildings. It is harmful when it is disturbed and becomes airborne.

Villa has been replaced by Jeff Sturak, a long-time employee in city operations.

“I’m confident Jeff will serve our city well in his new role,” Michell wrote in the memo.

There is no indication in the memo of any other fallout from the Ash Street situation. The city has not indicated when employees might be able to occupy the building again, or how much more it might spend addressing the problem. There’s a forensic investigation into the ordeal underway.

Villa’s role in asbestos-related issues in a different, city-leased building has also come under scrutiny.

The city also leases space in the Executive Complex off Broadway and Second Avenue, and in 2017 the building underwent renovations. According to a lawsuit, employees complained to their supervisors about dust and headaches, and air samples later analyzed by the Air Pollution Control District tested positive for asbestos — despite assurances from city-hired experts that the building was safe.

Eventually, employees were evacuated from that building as well.

Villa is at the center of the lawsuit. In it, he’s quoted as acknowledging that the city took months to act because it was afraid of breaking the lease and debating whether the more than $1 million fee and possible litigation with the owner was worth it.

In response, the city didn’t deny that Villa had said what the employees accused him of saying. Instead, the city argued that officials had believed the asbestos levels were within tolerable levels and evacuated the employees out of caution. The city also noted that the Air Pollution Control District had petitioned the owners of the building at 2nd Avenue and Broadway, not the city, which was a tenant, for an asbestos abatement order.

City officials confirmed earlier this month to the Union-Tribune that they’ve hired an outside consultant to assess what went wrong and come up with recommendations for what to do next.

“Many entities were involved in the transaction and renovation of the 101 W. Ash property over an extended period of time,” Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokeswoman for the city attorney’s office, said in an email to VOSD. “The city has retained industry experts to assist it in reviewing this complicated transaction to determine the city’s rights, responsibilities, and potential remedies.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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