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Police officers guard the San Diego Police Department headquarters in downtown as protesters gather following a Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A secretive body of police and fire personnel, tasked with distributing anti-terrorism dollars around the San Diego region, won’t be secretive any longer.

For more than a decade, the Urban Area Working Group has operated in a way that effectively shielded all of its decisions and deliberations from the public, allowing for the proliferation of a wide array of tactical and surveillance gear — everything from radios to robots to armored vehicles — in the hands of local law enforcement.

Technically, the group can’t make purchases on its own. It needs city councils to approve an annual grant application and accept the funding, but the process has long been treated as a routine matter, often buried on an otherwise busy agenda. In December, San Diego gave the group permission to buy cell-phone hacking technology without realizing it, which only added to the sense of unease among some elected officials that they’ve been essentially signing a blank check.

The Urban Area Working Group has operated largely in the dark because of the byzantine structure in which it exists. The group is under the umbrella of the county’s Unified Disaster Council and managed by the city’s Office of Homeland Security. The funds come from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and trickle down from California.

As recently as two weeks ago, there was some debate over which agency should provide the group with legal representation.

Although its members mostly work for cities across the region, the group has traditionally treated itself as separate from the rest — basically an advisory group — because of the nature of the work it does. It considers threats to things like public infrastructure and cyber security, and identifies projects that will prevent and prepare for a terrorist attack, with a considerable portion of the money every year going to staff who work on those issues long term.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the newspaper La Prensa, however, Timothy White, an attorney for the Unified San Diego County Emergency Services Organization, conceded recently in court papers that the group is a “legislative body.” That means it is bound by two of the state’s most important tools of transparency — the Brown Act, which requires that government meetings be open, and the Public Records Act, which requires that documents be accessible.

The Unified Disaster Council has since rewritten the Urban Area Working Group’s charter to reflect the change, and a city official informed its members at their first open meeting Thursday.

Katherine Jackson, program manager at the city of San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security, said the group got started after 9/11 as a way for local law enforcement to coordinate and provide security updates around the region. “We didn’t want to give the bad guys the information,” she said.

The change to the charter is a win for open government, but it comes with a caveat. In court filings, White suggested that the Urban Area Working Group’s commitment to the Brown Act and other applicable laws is proactive, not retroactive, meaning it will hold meetings and release records from here on out — but won’t necessarily make previous meetings and records available. White didn’t respond to a request for clarification.

If the group does intend to make that argument and a judge agrees, millions of dollars’ worth of purchases stretching back more than a decade will continue to be concealed from the public.

Both the city and the county have released some of the group’s documents in recent weeks in response to Voice of San Diego public records requests. Those documents include annual wish lists of police and fire tactical and surveillance gear totaling more than $96 million over a five-year period. About $2 million of that has gone toward maintaining a subscription with Palantir, a data-analytics company with ties to immigration authorities and the Central Intelligence Agency.

On Thursday, the Urban Area Working Group approved another grant application for fiscal year 2021 with requests totaling $21.2 million. Not all of those requests will get funding, though, because the proposals and projects are ranked by importance and the overall pot of money available is capped.

Jackson noted one important change in the way the money must be divided up going forward. She said the federal government now requires that 7.5 percent of all anti-terrorism dollars coming into the region be spent “combating domestic violent extremism,” more commonly known as domestic terrorism.

The vote on the grant application was expected to take place in December but got derailed at the last minute after La Prensa’s attorney, Cory Briggs, sued, arguing that the group’s members were about to break the law by holding a government meeting in private.

In the meantime, San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe has asked that the group’s managers give a presentation to the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee. Twice those hearings have been scheduled, and twice they’ve been canceled in recent months. It’s now expected to take place in April.

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

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