June 16 2015 09:50 PM

Revision could represent ethics violation for Supervisor Ron Roberts

A truck enters the Washington Street on-ramp to University Avenue

I know those streets like I know the back of my hand, and I feel that this is what we ought to be doing," said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, earlier this month, addressing a packed room of frustrated environmentalists and bicycle advocates. 

At the Friday, June 5, meeting of the San Diego Association of Governments Transportation Committee, Roberts led the way for significantly limiting a bicycle-lane-improvement plan in Mission Hills and Hillcrest.

Backed by City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who chairs the committee, Roberts successfully proposed nixing a significant swath of planned bike lanes and halted the closure of the West Washington Street on-ramp to University Avenue. 

However, as a partner in a prominent Mission Hills restaurant, Roberts may have violated the state ethics code when he proposed and voted to alter the bike plan. According to Roberts' most recent public disclosure forms, he's invested up to $100,000 in the upscale Brooklyn Girl Eatery at 4033 Goldfinch St. 

Under state conflict-of-interest laws, the question is whether the bike plan would've affected the value of the restaurant and Roberts' investment. 

The applicable standard in the state ethics code reads: "[T]he financial effect is material if a prudent person with sufficient information would find it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision's financial effect would contribute to a change in the price of the business entity's publicly traded stock, or the value of a privatelyheld business entity." 

Roberts' office denied the conflict of the interest but gave no explanation as to why, issuing a statement to CityBeat that the "creation of bicycle corridors through developed communities is inherently challenging." 

In order to establish a violation of the ethics code, the state Fair Political Practices Commission would need to conduct an investigation. The agency often opens cases based on complaints filed by the public on the agency's website. Fines can total up to $5,000 per violation. 

In November, the $40-million bike plan for University Avenue—part of the SANDAG Uptown Regional Bike Corridors Project—called for limiting the on-ramp's use to bicyclists, pedestrians and emergency vehicles. It also proposed stripping out roughly 50 on-street parking spots between First and Ninth avenues to make room for bike lanes. 

For months, members of the local business community had attacked the bike plan as a disaster for neighborhood commerce, arguing that closing the ramp and eliminating on-street parking would deter visitors to the area. 

While the Mission Hills Town Council supported the ramp closure, concerns from others grew to a fevered pitch with hundreds signing a petition to keep the Washington Street on-ramp open. 

The original bike plan would've created a traffic "mess," said Patty Ducey-Brooks, owner of the monthly newspaper Presidio Sentinel, who helped organize the campaign to keep the on-ramp open to cars. 

"If you're going to make it more difficult for people to come into my neighborhood and do business with me, guess what? They're going to find another alternative," she said. 

The owner of Brooklyn Girl Eatery, Michael McGeath, declined to comment for this story, but is no stranger to politics. Over recent years, he donated repeatedly to conservative Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilmember Chris Cate, as well as to Roberts in his recent uncontested bid to retain the supervisor seat for District 4, which represents most of the city of San Diego. 

Beyond the politically connected McGeath and Roberts, the establishment is also backed by Paul Robinson, a prominent leader with the pro-business Lincoln Club, who invested more than $1 million in the restaurant, according to disclosure forms

Robinson, who sits on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, also has ties to Roberts, having treated the supervisor to at least two San Diego State University basketball games last year, according to disclosure forms. 

If these power players were concerned that the proposed bike plan would affect business, they weren't alone. 

 In January, the Hillcrest Business Association, which opposed the original bike plan, entered into a four-month contract for $20,000 with one of the state's most powerful lobbying firms, California Strategies and Advocacy. 

"The first thing would be that the closure of the ramp is taken off the table," said Benjamin Nicholls, the business association's executive director, at its January meeting. 

During the meeting, which is posted to YouTube, California Strategies lobbyist James Lawson laid out his tactics for stopping the on-ramp closure and keeping the parking spots. 

"We try to come up with a win-win solution, something that works for, in this case, SANDAG, the city of San Diego, the mayor's office, Councilmember Gloria's office and the [Hillcrest Business Association]," he said. "That's our goal." 

In March, SANDAG staff presented the bike plan to the Uptown Community Planning Group. The meeting was so contentious, the agency said it would hold additional meetings to try to smooth things out. However, those additional meetings never happened. After an April 3 meeting of the transportation committee was canceled, the issue was tabled for public discussion until the most recent vote. 

Quarterly lobbying disclosure reports show that California Strategies met with Gloria in an effort to convince him to keep the ramp open and reduce the loss of on-street parking along University. 

Asked why he changed direction on the bike plan, Gloria told CityBeat in an email: "The purpose for this item coming forward last week was that the project, as originally proposed, was unable to receive wide support among the key stakeholders in the Hillcrest community." 

After multiple requests by CityBeat, officials with the San Diego County Office of the Clerk said they didn't keep such disclosure reports for lobbyists who meet with the supervisors. 

However, Nicholls, with the Hillcrest Business Association, told CityBeat that Roberts also had contact with the lobbying firm. "I do know that the folks at California Strategies worked with him to present our point of view, so he was involved," he said. 

On April 14, according to a video from the Hillcrest Business Association meeting, Nicholls told his board that according to "positive responses" from SANDAG, the ramp would likely remain open. 

On June 2, Johnathan Hale, president of the Hillcrest Business Association, told the board that he and others had met privately with SANDAG a few weeks before the vote. "Benjamin Nicholls, Charles Kaufman and myself met with the folks down at SANDAG and had a productive meeting," he said. 

The closed-door meetings frustrated bike advocates, who said they feel shut out of the process. 

"What I understand is that SANDAG had non-public meetings with California Strategies and the Hillcrest Business Association," said Samantha Ollinger, executive director of BikeSD. "So the public meetings were all canceled, but SANDAG continued to have private meetings with the lobbyists." 

Randy Van Vleck, who sits on the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee and works as a transportation manager for the City Heights Community Development Corporation, voiced similar concerns: "As a result of the decisions that were made behind the scenes, the entire community planning process has been undermined." 

The plan still includes construction of bike lanes between 10th Avenue and Normal Street, as well as bike and pedestrian lanes along the Washington Street on-ramp. The entire regional bike plan will likely need to be approved as part of the annual update of SANDAG's Capital Improvement Project budget, officials said.

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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