Last Sunday a cryptic but intriguing story appeared on the San Diego Union-Tribune’s website from reporter Jeff McDonald.
“While San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott considers whether to join a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a businessman married to former Councilmember Barbara Bry, one of Elliott’s senior deputies has decided Bry should be investigated criminally.”
It was difficult to figure out what was going on until the next day, Monday, when another story by McDonald appeared. That story was about a lawsuit alleging that a large, corporate owner of homes had systematically avoided getting required permits for the many renovations it performed across California. The suit alleged that the cities where these homes are were deprived of permitting revenue and potential property tax increases from improved assessment values.
The litigant: That would be Neil Senturia, Bry’s husband.
Senturia has been involved with a company Deckard Technologies. And we remembered we had done some reporting on this. Last year, we wrote about how Bry had claimed significant income in consulting fees from Deckard Technologies. The company scrapes big sources of data and can identify anomalies. It had been lobbying the city for a contract so it could help the city regulate vacation rentals. Essentially, it could scan data and detect whether a home that wasn’t supposed to be used as a vacation rental actually was one.
This brought up a question about whether Bry had a conflict of interest. She said no, she had mis-marked the disclosure form and this was Senturia’s deal and his alone.
Senturia and Deckard apparently pivoted to a new pursuit: Scanning data of home renovation permits and discovered anomalies that indicated this company, Invitation Homes, had allegedly avoided getting permits.
Senturia set up a company – Blackbird Projects – to pursue lawsuits. Since some of the homes Deckard identified were apparently in San Diego. Cities, like San Diego, can join the lawsuits.
It appears San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott does not like how this has gone down. Her spokeswoman said that they have not identified any homes in San Diego that needed permits and didn’t get them.
But she thinks Bry may have committed a crime by not bringing this to her attention while Bry was a councilmember.
“If there was evidence of fraud against the city in August 2020, then Bry, as a sitting member of the City Council, had a fiduciary responsibility to bring it to the attention of the mayor, city attorney or city auditor,” Branscomb said, according to McDonald’s report. Instead, Senturia formed a company to make money off the findings and Bry would stand to benefit from that.
Got that? So the city attorney isn’t sure there’s fraud but if Bry thinks there was, then she had an obligation to bring it to their attention.
Bry and Senturia’s lawyer told the U-T what Bry told us about Deckard last year: This is Senturia’s deal, not hers.
Side note: Bry is running for County Assessor, which would have a lot of databases Deckard would ostensibly be able to comb through.
Mayor Settles on Plan to Divvy Out Developer Fees More Equitably
In 2020, our Mackenzie Elmer wrote about the vast disparities between San Diego neighborhoods and the funding they have for things like parks. It’s because of development impact fees, or DIFs.
Older neighborhoods have outdated fees and often don’t see a lot of development and thus don’t have much money set aside for public amenities like parks. Newer neighborhoods, though, could charge developers 100 percent of what they envisioned for public amenities and thus have nicer facilities. The city collects fees for 43 different neighborhood pots and so we have a situation where each of them have some money but not enough to even start to build what they want – and for some areas that means the parks are embarrassing even while $222 million is available to do something.
Elmer wrote about how the city, then under then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer, was slowly moving toward changing that. And Friday Mayor Todd Gloria announced that this ambition now has a new name: Build Better.
Here’s the description of what it would do:
“Build Better SD fixes this by putting all future DIFs collected into citywide funds by asset type, which would reduce the buckets of money from 43 to less than a handful. Infrastructure needs would be examined across San Diego and funding would be directed to high-priority projects. Previously collected fees would remain restricted to the neighborhood in which they were collected but could be topped up by new citywide fee collections to implement projects faster in every part of the city.”
The city has set up some workshops.
The politics: Leaving the already-collected funds in their neighborhoods will have two consequences. On the one hand, it will prevent a potentially ugly political brawl. Neighborhoods with comparatively more money stored up won’t lose it. And thus, it won’t create some of the tensions of neighbors being forced to share stored funds with other parts of town. On the other hand, redirecting only new development fees to just a few citywide accounts means it’s going to take a long time for those to build up enough money to do anything.
The $222 million will still be divvied up among the 43 accounts.
A new website the city launched has details on upcoming public events about the proposal.
- “Our Neighborhood Voices,” the statewide group that was pursuing a ballot measure to overturn recently passed state laws that made it legal to build multiple homes on single-family properties, announced Friday that it was suspending its attempt to place the measure on the November ballot. This came one day after our podcast, in which we (Keatts) confidently stated that the group would be successful in placing the measure on the November ballot. Listen to the podcast here for other authoritative claims from qualified reporters.
The group says it will now try to put the measure on the 2024 ballot instead and cited COVID-19 and spiked costs for signature gatherers as reasons for its failure this cycle.
- The City Council is scheduled, once again, to huddle with its legal counsel over the three lawsuits associated with 101 Ash Street, the downtown high-rise that the city entered into a lease-to-own deal that has grown into a byzantine, years-long scandal. It is the only piece of business the Council will discuss Tuesday, and as is typical with legal issues, it’ll happen in closed session. It’s unclear what’s being discussed behind closed doors, but Mike Aguirre, the former city attorney who is representing a taxpayer in one of the lawsuits, put up a settlement offer this week that would bar the city for five years from contracting with the lenders in the transaction, the middleman landlord who facilitated it, or the broker who made millions on the deal while publicly representing himself as a volunteer. The other two lawsuits are from the city and allege that the deal is void due to illegal conflicts of interest.
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