County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata and Terra Lawson-Remer / Photos by Adriana Heldiz and Megan Wood

Days after the March primary, the executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, Hasan Ikhrata, donated the maximum amount allowed by law to the Democrat running for the Board of Supervisors in North County. It only came to light this month after the campaign for Terra Lawson-Remer disclosed its finances.

The heads of public agencies don’t typically wade into local elections. But the $850 contribution underscores an important and underappreciated consequence of the District 3 race in November.

Its outcome will determine the makeup not only of the Board of Supervisors, but to a large extent the governing body that oversees SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, which has significant sway over housing and transit policy.

Ikhrata didn’t just cut a check for the candidate he personally preferred. He took a side, publicly, on who he’d rather have as his boss going forward.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar currently represents District 3, which includes Escondido, Encinitas and parts of northern San Diego, and she’s running for re-election. She’s also one of the most vocal critics of SANDAG’s new transportation plan.

Together with Supervisor Jim Desmond, she’s mobilized and channeled conservative opposition to Ikhrata’s vision.

A veteran of public planning in Southern California, Ikhrata has made his position clear since he took over the agency in late 2018. Rather than sit back and wait for the board’s direction, he’s argued publicly that elected leaders need to completely rethink the way San Diegans move about the region if they’re serious about meeting legally required greenhouse gas-reduction goals.

But there’s another major sticking point: a sales tax approved by voters in 2004 isn’t bringing the money as promised, meaning there’s only so much to go around.

Ikhrata recently presented some of the details of his plan to revolutionize transit in San Diego so that it’s competitive with driving. The sticker price: $177 billion. And he’s making his pitch in the midst of a pandemic while advocating for a new tax.

Earlier this year, Lawson-Remer expressed support for more investments in public transit — without overtly endorsing Ikhrata’s plan — and argued that conservatives had established a false choice between roads and basically every other form of transportation.

Conservatives have said they’re not necessarily opposed to transit but want the agency to meet its prior commitments to voters by continuing to widen freeways. They’ve accused Ikhrata of waging a “war on cars.”

Both Gaspar and Desmond are Republicans, and they’ve been appointed to the SANDAG executive board with the support of their colleagues on the majority-Republican Board of Supervisors. But that support may soon evaporate.

If Gaspar holds onto her seat, she and Desmond are likely to hang onto their appointments at SANDAG, too. As it is, Republicans have a 4-1 majority on the Board of Supervisors. District 1 in the South Bay is guaranteed to flip blue in November because there are only two Democrats on the ballot. Even so, Republicans would maintain a 3-2 advantage.

But if Lawson-Remer wins, the equation flips. Democrats would have three seats on the Board of Supervisors and control of appointments. Gaspar would be out of office and they’d likely remove Desmond from the helm of SANDAG, to be replaced with two of their own.

In that case, the opposition to Ikhrata’s long-term transportation plan on the executive board shrinks to a few mayors who don’t wield all that much power anyway.

Jason Roe, Gaspar’s campaign consultant, said she was one of the first to question Ikhrata’s plan and called it “fantastic and utopian and expensive.” He said Ikhrata was trying to remove a voice of dissent on the SANDAG board.

“I think it is a pretty reckless thing for him to do because Kristin will be back and other board members will see it and take offense,” Roe said.

Over the last 18 months, conservatives in the suburbs and rural parts of the county have been mostly outmaneuvered thanks to the way votes are weighted and counted at SANDAG. In short: Cities with larger populations, like San Diego and Chula Vista, get more say, so they’ve used their numbers to shift policy and protect Ikhrata.

But Gaspar and Desmond are not simply shouting into the void. They managed last year to tweak his plans for $500 million in spending changes and dealt Ikhrata his first big loss.

In an email Wednesday to SANDAG board members, Mary Scyocurka, a conservative activist, said Ikhrata should be disciplined for his donation.

“The precedent being set by Mr. Ikhrata is dangerous on several levels and creates a stifling environment where Board members may feel that advocating for their constituents — particularly when that manifests in disagreement with the executive director — threatens not just their position on the board, but their elected office,” she wrote.

The ICMA, an association of local government professionals, maintains a code of ethical conduct and it instructs officials to “refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.”

Ikhrata declined to comment for this story. I couldn’t find similar donations from him to any other candidate for supervisor in D1, D2 or D3 in 2020.

Several of Gaspar’s fellow supervisors and at least one would-be colleague also waded into the race recently, putting a spotlight on SANDAG.

At Lawson-Remer’s campaign kickoff in June — via Zoom — Democratic Supervisor Nathan Fletcher called Gaspar “one of the worst Republicans in San Diego County” and cited among his reasons: “She has consistently fought against our efforts on transit.”

Fletcher tied the District 3 race to the region’s larger attempt at getting more people out of their cars and said Democrats had already made progress at SANDAG and the Metropolitan Transit System, which runs many of the buses and trolleys. The Board of Supervisors was next, he told donors — “we need you more than we’ve ever needed you before.”

Parke Skelton, Lawson-Remer’s campaign consultant, told VOSD in an email that Gaspar claims to be someone who can work with anyone. “But the fact is that she works with no one,” he said. “She is highly partisan and ineffectual.”

Neither Dianne Jacob nor Greg Cox, both fellow Republican members of the Board of Supervisors, has endorsed Gaspar in her re-election bid.

Yet she does have the support of Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, who’s running for the Board of Supervisors in East County and chairs the SANDAG board. He called her “a leading voice in opposition to SANDAG’s attempt to divert voter-approved road funding to 100 percent mass transit.”

Vaus wants to take Jacob’s seat at the county when she’s termed out later this year.

Jacob, however, has been fairly critical of Gaspar, her colleague. She told San Diego Metro magazine that Gaspar is “a little difficult” to work with. She added: “I think a change on the board will be good going forward.”

Roe said he wasn’t surprised by the comments. Since she was elected in 2016, Gaspar has governed “independent of an establishment and power structure that’s used to getting its way,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors was controlled for 25 years by the same five people and Kristin was one of the first new ones. Rather than roll over and go along with the other supervisors, she asked tough questions.”

The same culture of complacency extended to SANDAG, he said, and was one of the reasons Ikhrata’s predecessor resigned in scandal.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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