Jim Desmond (left) and Hasan Ikhrata / Photo by Megan Wood

The feuding and dysfunction that’s defined SANDAG for two years was on full display Friday, as the agency’s board accepted an audit into hiring and firing practices that’s erupted into a public standoff between management and the auditor tasked with scrutinizing their performance.

SANDAG will hire another law firm to determine whether there was anything illegal found in the audit, which has been a source of vehement disagreement. In the meantime, staff will begin re-writing agency policies that enabled the fast-and-loose personnel moves that were the subject of the audit.

What happened: Hasan Ikhrata took over as SANDAG’s new director and declared the agency’s previous leadership had not only systematically misled the public about its ability to deliver promised transportation projects, but had also adopted a long-term transportation plan that was fundamentally fraudulent. He said it met state carbon emissions reduction mandates by sleight of hand and was legal only on a technicality. The region could not actually lower its carbon footprint with anything like the plan it had been pursuing, he said.

As he went about junking previous plans and changing the agency’s entire vision, he surrounded himself with his people.

That meant pushing out people perceived as loyal to the old guard, which he did. With them out, he needed to put people sympathetic to his vision in their place. He did that too.

It’s that set of moves that serve as the basis for the audit. The employees pushed out got big severance packages. The auditor says those severances could be perceived as improper gifts of public funds. And the bonuses and compensation given to the elevated staff members didn’t go to the full board for approval – the auditor says that’s improper, too, and that the agency’s long-standing practice of allowing its director to make those decisions unilaterally needs to change. Management, its legal counsel and an outside law firm hired by the Audit Committee have argued aggressively that the personnel moves were perfectly legal, and that the auditor came to false conclusions.

Now, the agency will bring in yet another law firm to review the audit and its findings, and come to a final conclusion about the legality of the severance payments and the promotions and bonuses given to certain staffers.

Board politics: SANDAG’s board has been sharply divided under Ikhrata. His urban, transit-focused vision has been opposed by representatives from smaller cities and more rural areas in the northern and eastern parts of the county. Opposition is mostly but not exclusively Republican. His supporters mostly hail from larger, more urban cities, especially in the South Bay, that are better positioned to benefit from transit.

And while Ikhrata’s supporters are mostly Democrats, by far the most significant supporter has been San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer. A state law passed just before Ikrata’s arrival gave the city of San Diego an effective veto at SANDAG. Board members can call for a vote in which each representative’s say is weighted by their population. On most controversial items before the board, the city of San Diego has invoked the weighted vote, muscling Ikhrata’s vision through opposition.

That wasn’t necessary Friday, though.

The board ended up fighting it out over two proposals for how to proceed that mostly differed by who proposed them.

San Diego Councilwoman Vivian Moreno proposed that staff come up with fixes to problems the audit found – based on audit committee recommendations  – and hire an outside firm to “investigate any allegations of illegality and impropriety included in the audit.”

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones proposed accepting all findings from the audit, directing staff to work with the auditor to implement policy changes, hiring a third-party auditor to conduct a peer review of the report and passing a new policy that would keep the agency from redacting any future audits.

That last point refers to controversy over the agency’s response to the audit. Mary Khoshmashrab, the auditor, said the agency “manipulated” her report by excessively redacting sections of it that weren’t confidential, and said she had never in her decades working in government auditing experienced such interference into her work. Management has said they did not interfere, they simply disagreed with her conclusions and said so. Board Chair Steve Vaus said at the start of the meeting that all information had now been released to the public, so he hoped the board could focus on the audit’s findings and stop litigating the way it was handled. That didn’t happen.

The vote: After a couple hours of debate, Moreno proposed cutting it off and voting. County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar thought she knew what was coming, suspecting another weighted vote that put her on the losing end.

“It seems like we’re about to witness the worst of AB 805,” Gaspar said, referring to the state law that created the voting procedure.

But she was wrong. Jones’ motion got the first vote, and it failed to win a simple majority of representatives.

Then Moreno’s motion got its vote. It passed, again without a weighted vote. Councilman Keith Blackburn from Carlsbad, County Supervisor Jim Desmond, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, Oceanside Councilman Jack Feller and Vista Mayor Judy Ritter joined Jones in voting against the proposal.

A handful of representatives voted for both measures, suggesting they didn’t see much difference between them and weren’t interested in picking sides.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara and Vaus – it seems – would have been happy with either solution.

What’s next: Staff will bring its recommended policy changes, based on the audit committee’s proposals, to the audit committee on Oct. 23. It will then bring the proposal to the agency’s executive committee on Nov. 6, the same day the committee will be hiring the outside law firm to review the audit.

Staff is eyeing Nov. 20 for the full board of directors to discuss any changes. It’s unclear if the law firm would be able to present its findings that soon.

Communication Breakdown, It’s Always the Same

Someone may need to check the phone lines connecting San Diego County with the Mother Ship in Sacramento. The county is supposed to be a kind of extension of the state. But officials in both agencies appear to be having serious trouble communicating.

For weeks, for example, the San Diego County Office of Education assured locals that schools could still open in the county if we were to slide into the new purple tier of danger related to the coronavirus. Though state guidance seemed clear that schools could not open, the county said schools could open.

This is important to a lot of schools that plan on opening. For example, Poway Unified School District announced this week a two-part plan to open in-person learning at 26 elementary schools.

They were all acting on the same information.

Reminder how things went:

  • The state implemented its new tier system effective Aug. 31.
  • While San Diego landed in the red tier, it actually had the surprising impact of suddenly opening several closed indoor businesses, like salons, gyms, indoor dining, etc.
  • But it was obvious we were right on the line and could easily slide back, especially if we had more interaction
  • We slid back.

Throughout it all, we had guidance that schools could still open.

In fact, just Thursday a county official assured the County Office of Education that tier status would not affect schools ability to open.

“We received confirmation from the State that aligns with what Dr. (Wilma) Wooten has previously communicated in multiple venues to include the weekly press conference and County Board of Supervisors meeting. San Diego schools are open. County schools can still move from distance learning to in-person education even if we’re directed to Tier 1 status,” wrote Katherine Gordon, the county’s Education Sector Lead on the crisis, to County Office of Education officials.

But then, also Thursday, the Union-Tribune reported that was incorrect.

“If a school did not open while the county was in the red tier, and the county subsequently moves to the purple tier, that school will not be able to open for in person instruction, until the county has returned to the red tier and been in the red tier for two weeks,” the California Department of Public Health said in an email to the Union-Tribune Thursday.

That means if we do go into the purple next week, Poway will not be able to make its opening plan date. Even if the county started containing the virus again, another two weeks would have to pass before openings were allowed.

That means a number of private schools and North County public schools were able to open and can stay open. The rest will stay closed indefinitely.

Unless there was another … miscommunication.

LaCava and Moore Quarrel on Rent Control and Proposition 15

It’s always pretty fun for us to go through the transcripts of the U-T editorial board’s interviews with candidates. This year, they did Zoom debates instead, or joint interviews with both candidates in several races. You can see the videos here. Let us know if anything sticks out.

One of the more interesting ones was San Diego City Council District 1, the race between Democrats Joe LaCava and Will Moore.

They had salty exchange about rent control.

“I’m not in support of rent control, it has been proven to actually be counterproductive. I have talked about being supportive of rent stabilization,” LaCava said. (By rent stabilization, he means a cap on how much landlords can raise rents any given year.)

But Moore immediately pointed out that LaCava had supported Proposition 10, the 2018 initiative that would have allowed cities across California to implement rent control.

“I’m glad Joe has come around to what I think is the correct opinion. But I wish he had been here the whole campaign,” Moore said.

LaCava said he did not support Proposition 10. The U-T panel moved on.

I called LaCava to follow up on whether that was true – that he had not supported Proposition 10. He said no, it wasn’t. He had supported Proposition 10 and he told me he sent a note to the Union-Tribune to clarify his position.

He said that while he supported Proposition 10, he is still against rent control. He said he wanted to let cities have the option if they wanted it.

“It’s just fundamentally how I think. You ought to have all the options on the table and not be afraid to look at everything even if you discard it.

Property Taxes and Proposition 15

On the November ballot is a measure that, if approved, would allow local governments to appraise commercial properties at their market value and thus charge the property tax to a much higher valuation (and raise the tax). The measure has several exemptions (no residences of any kind would be included and there’s exemptions for a certain level of value).

Turns out Moore, who is kind of the business candidate, endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, supports the measure. And LaCava does not.

But even with that, Moore called out LaCava. He told the San Diego Association of Realtors that he supported “split roll,” as the issue is called. It was part of their questionnaire. Split-roll refers to the long pursued (and now almost realized) effort to remove commercial properties (think hotels and shopping centers) from the regular property tax law and thus separate from protections on valuations that homeowners enjoy.

Since 1978, the valuation of a property can only be re-assessed if the property changes hands. So people who have kept the same houses have not seen more than a 1 percent increase in their valuation since then. For many people that means they pay a far lower annual property tax bill than neighbors who bought later.

LaCava now says he was confused by that wording “split roll.” He supported that, again, as an option to consider. But opposes the actual Proposition 15.

It mattered: The position got Moore the endorsement of the San Diego Education Association, the teachers union. And LaCava, generally considered the candidate to the left, did not get it.

LaCava said his wife, a teacher, gave him grief.

If you have any ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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

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