July 25 2012 09:51 AM

San Diego Redevelopment Oversight Board grapples with autonomy

Mike Zucchet bailed on the Oversight Board.
Photo by David Rolland

"A great step towards independence is a good-humored stomach, one that is willing to endure rough treatment."


Watching a city dismantle a government function like redevelopment is a little like observing a petulant child lose the privilege of a favorite toy after misbehaving. You kind of say, "Awww, poor kid" at the same time you realize the penalty was deserved.

If anybody tells you they understand the whirlwind process that's under way to eliminate redevelopment in California, they are big, fat liars. Not even the smartest among us can say with any authority how this whole disassembly will play out, thanks in part to the evershifting rules of the game.

It's a process awash in acronyms and boilerplate-named agencies of short duration and confounding interrelations. The city of San Diego's Redevelopment Agency—basically the City Council in different hats—is no more, dissolved by state law. In its place has arisen the officially named Successor Agency, again the City Council, but acting supposedly as a legally separate entity.

Meanwhile, the city's redevelopment arms of the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) and Southeastern Economic Development Corp. (SEDC) have morphed into something called Civic San Diego, a nonprofit organization that's assisting in the redevelopment "wind-down," as it's called, while continuing its role as land planner, parking manager and economic developer.

The relatively new kid on the block, however, is the San Diego Oversight Board, a 3-month-old, ominously named panel of local movers and shakers whose job is to make sure city officials are following the letter of the in-flux state law to end redevelopment.

Appointed by the city, county and local school districts, the Oversight Board has the potential to wield extensive power and influence over a process that continues to unfold, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the question of independence has arisen.

At its meeting last week, the Oversight Board seemed headed toward a tipping point on independence, specifically whether it could hire its own staff rather than those from the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders, a known redevelopment-dismantling opponent.

Long-time redevelopment critic Mel Shapiro put it bluntly, saying that reliance on the mayor's staff was the equivalent to "the U.S. Army using the Taliban for security."

When board member Peter Q. Davis—a two-time mayoral candidate who served on CCDC's board for many years—asked board lawyer Steve Mattas if state law allows hiring independent staff, Mattas said it would be "useful for me to consult with the Successor Agency staff," i.e. the Mayor's office.

To which Davis, never one to shy away from a squabble, responded: "Why is that? Because we don't have staff? They don't have the authority over us."

Mattas assured him he would have an answer by the August meeting.

That didn't satisfy another board member, county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

"It seems to me that there have been a number of instances where the responses that we're getting are somewhat biased," Roberts said, without going into details. "That's why I used the word ‘independent.' I feel that this is something we ought to be looking at."

The rest of the seven-member board didn't seem as motivated to push ahead with the independence theme, choosing instead to await legal advice.

That's not a small thing, considering that it was a lack of legal counsel that convinced former City Councilmember Michael Zucchet, now head of the city's white-collar union, the Municipal Employees Association, to—as he put it— "bail" on his appointment to the Oversight Board after one meeting.

With his "Strippergate" ordeal firmly ingrained in his mind, Zucchet said he wasn't about to put his family at personal risk in an endeavor, ending redevelopment, that's fraught with legal tangles.

"I think just the entire notion of snapping your fingers and making it all go away overnight has been asking for trouble, and specifically asking for legal trouble," Zucchet told Spin Cycle, "and I think that's coming no matter how hard everybody tries."

Andra Donovan, a board member and deputy general counsel for the San Diego Unified School District, sees it differently. Cash-strapped schools rely heavily on pass-through payments from redevelopment agencies, and she wants to ensure those payments continue.

"I actually volunteered," she laughed. "Yeah, I've always thought that redevelopment was very interesting. We wanted to make sure that all school districts are represented on these boards, that they're mindful of schools' interests."

Donovan understands that the ground that boards like hers stand on is quicksand, but she thinks continued clean-up legislation by the state will help clear up the murkiness.

That's not to say she's a Pollyanna. When the City Council pushed through a list of $6.5 billion in residual redevelopmentproject obligations that came to the Oversight Board for approval, Donovan voted no.

"Yes, that was me," she said. "But what I said was there were footnotes in the [documentation] where the city essentially said, ‘We know that these are not supposed to be included but we disagree with the legislation.' To which I said, ‘Well, we're not here to approve a political position or a litigation standpoint. Our job is to follow the statute."

And the questions will continue, Davis added. He's particularly curious why the Successor Agency, for example, is requesting in its list of obligations more money for the Petco Park and Convention Center bonds than they were originally issued for.

"How can that be?" Davis said after last week's meeting. "I've asked, and we have not been given that information. Are they saying that now that you guys are going to pay it, maybe you should have been paying it for the last five years, so we're going to claw back from you and get all the interest that we paid and everything? That would be defendable if they explained it, but they don't. They go, ‘Just pay it.'" 

As former City Councilmember Donna Frye, a frequent CCDC foil, put it: "If you can't behave, it's only a matter of time before they take your money away, or your toy. There have been abuses all over the place. Nobody's the innocent." 

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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