San Diego Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry speaks at a press conference about the city's rental assistance program as Mayor Todd Gloria stands behind him. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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The San Diego City Council is going to review the performance of Rick Gentry, CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, following a rough year for the agency tasked with handling affordable housing for the city.

That might sound like a routine occurrence, but due to the Housing Commission’s unique governance structure, it’s actually a significant departure from the norm.

The agency is overseen by two boards. The City Council, acting as the San Diego Housing Authority, shares oversight responsibilities with the agency’s independent board of commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

Typically, it’s that board that handles the CEO’s annual performance review. But in its oversight capacity, the Council also has the authority to pull any item from the Commission’s agenda and conduct its own hearing. The Council has not exercised that authority over the CEO’s review anytime recently. At the very least, no one on the City Council now has ever done it.

The City Council has elected to do exactly that for Gentry’s review. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilman Chris Cate, in a Thursday memo, requested that two items from the San Diego Housing Commission’s recent meeting come before the City Council.

One is Gentry’s review. The other is consideration of changes to the commission’s policy for hiring brokers to help it purchase real estate.

Last year, we broke the news that a broker hired by the Housing Commission had invested heavily in a company that owned a Mission Valley hotel prior to helping the Housing Commission purchase that same Mission Valley hotel.

Gentry’s handling of that revelation is one of the Commission’s issues last year that led the City Council to begin pursuing reforms to the agency – among them, giving the City Council a role in reviewing the CEO’s performance.

Those reforms haven’t been enacted yet, but the Council has found a way to assert itself on the issue anyway. The Council is also set to vote Tuesday to create a special committee to pursue those permanent reforms.

SDSU and the City Still Haven’t Sorted Out Their Crucial Land Sale

Construction of San Diego State University’s Aztec Stadium in Mission Valley on July 27, 2021. / Photo by Noelani Sapla, The Daily Aztec

San Diego State University officials and the labor union leaders who have been criticizing them seem to have made some progress in mending their relationship.

At least, none of those unions showed up to torch the university in the public comment period before the San Diego City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee discussed, and then advanced, the university’s purchase of 2.04 acres of land left out of its purchase of the Mission Valley stadium land and related legal approvals.

But this row is far from settled.

Background: A couple weeks ago, this formerly non-controversial loose thread of the historic land sale and redevelopment of Mission Valley blew up into one of the more vicious exchanges between labor and a developer we have ever seen. The city very obviously backed off its approval of the land sale and various related land-use regulatory steps it needed to take several months ago in deference to labor’s concern that SDSU had broken its promises.

SDSU got impatient and we got to host a colorful volley of heated commentary between the university’s friends and labor leaders.

But one key thing also came in that article: The mayor acknowledged he did need to move the issue forward.

The news: After months of delays, it came forward. The Land Use and Housing Committee considered the package of approvals Thursday and advanced it to the full City Council. There are many very complicated things going on here but basically two issues are going forward: The city no longer needs to protect the public’s right of way and related utilities underground in the area and so it must process what’s called a vacation from that right of way.

The second issue at hand is the university just wants to go ahead and buy that land. The city normally doesn’t like to own these random parcels it can’t do anything with and they negotiated a price of $240,00 with the city.

The committee advanced these deals Thursday.

But not without some new controversy.

New critics: The Climate Action Campaign’s Madison Coleman called in to criticize the move. She said the land sale would threaten the region’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“To slash emissions, we need to offer competitive alternatives to cars including fixed-rail like SANDAG’s proposed Purple Line. We are concerned the city’s conducting real estate deals that will negatively affect our region’s ability to develop world-class transit specifically the Purple Line,” she said.

We had not heard about this one. The Purple Line was previously envisioned as a Trolley extension from Otay Mesa to Kearny Mesa. But new plans have it potentially going underground and no route has been chosen. Coleman said two of the three potential routes for the line, however, were in jeopardy if this sale went through.

This was news to Councilman Joe LaCava.

“If there were an issue with the Purple Line, I would expect SANDAG to be here front and center pounding on the table telling us there’s some problem here. And we don’t have that,” he said.

We asked SANDAG if the sale would pose a problem for its Purple Line ambitions. In short, the answer is ‘no.’

“Based on the latest concepts, it does not appear that the parcel in question would be needed for the Purple Line,” Coleen Clementson, SANDAG’s deputy CEO, said in a statement. “The Purple Line will need to operate separate from vehicular traffic to achieve higher speeds and is not envisioned to operate at street level.”

Also: Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who is running for City Council in the newly drawn coastal District 2, spoke up out of concern for several trees on the land. She wanted the city to protect them.

LaCava waved that off pointing out the hundreds of trees the university plans to plant with its new river park and all the green space in the development that will replace a vast parking lot.

However Saldaña’s point does remind us that if the city retains the land even after giving SDSU permission to do what it needs to with it, the city would have to keep maintaining it.

As for labor and SDSU, the fact that the deal advanced means the city at least is no longer holding it up in deference to the unions. SDSU’s Gina Jacobs, the vice president overseeing SDSU Mission Valley, said they have seen progress in their discussions with labor leaders.

“We have every intention of coming to an agreement with them,” Jacobs said.

Hughes Deposition Still Hasn’t Happened

Hughes Marino office / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

The planned deposition of a purported volunteer city real estate guru who walked away with more than $9 million for his work on 101 Ash St. and another city lease didn’t go forward Friday following a request that a Superior Court judge appoint a referee to oversee the discovery process.

An attorney for commercial real estate broker Jason Hughes notified lawyers representing a taxpayer challenging the 101 Ash lease that he wanted to postpone Hughes’ deposition until after a Tuesday hearing where Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil is expected to rule on whether a referee should step in. That referee, if appointed, would attend depositions.

An attorney for the lenders behind the Ash deal filed the request Wednesday, arguing that recent depositions have been “unnecessarily lengthy and unproductive.”

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office said city lawyers also pursuing separate lawsuits seeking to void the 101 Ash and Civic Center Plaza leases agree that referee should be appointed.

Former city attorneys Mike Aguirre and Maria Severson, who had been set to depose Hughes on Friday, argued the appointment is unnecessary and that the sitdowns would be less contentious absent scheduling challenges and alleged attempts by other attorneys to block their questioning.

The request for a referee follows a dispute over scheduling a deposition with Chris Wahl, a prominent lobbyist working with city landlord Cisterra Development. Wahl sat for hours-long depositions with Aguirre and Severson two days last week and Hughes’ attorney on Wednesday deposed Stephen Puetz, onetime chief of staff to former Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

— Lisa Halverstadt

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...

Scott Lewis

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...

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