Apparently backed by the power brokers that made redevelopment possible for once-crime-ridden City Heights, city officials have been trying to evict the City Heights Town Council from its modest offices.
"I guess somebody thinks that they can do the job better, and that's why they want to get rid of us," said Rebecca Schwartz, who has served as president of the town council since October. "We don't always support everything that is proposed, and we speak up for ourselves. I mean, that's the job of the town council.
"So, we may not be popular with developers or with city council members that have a different agenda than we do," she added."
Regarded by many as one of San Diego's best community redevelopment success stories, the remaking of City Heights has truly been a team effort of colossal proportions. Former retail mogul Sol Price-of Price Club fame-kicked in $5 million to jumpstart creation of the five-square-block City Heights Urban Village, which boasts a library, police substation that opened in 1996, playing fields, a gym, an education center, pool and community meeting space.
Price has worked closely with former City Councilmember William Jones, who grew up in the area and now runs CityLink Investment Corp., the profit-minded master developer of the village. Some have even privately called Price the "King of City Heights."
"Back in the early 1990s, William Jones had a dream of getting involved in redeveloping the inner-city communities, and everybody was much in favor of it," said Ed Doolittle, a town council board member who has lived in City Heights for 20 years. "He went to Sol Price, and Sol said, "Well, I'll back your company up to get started.' They got started by building the police station and the gymnasium."
The city's redevelopment agency then got involved, purchasing the land on Landis Street across from the police station and eventually building Rosa Parks Elementary School on a portion of the land. The rest of the property was then leased to the nonprofit San Diego Foundation, which in turn built the rec center, swimming facility, library and the offices for the City Heights Town Council.
"In 1995, when this whole thing was conceived, the City Heights Town Council wasn't around," Doolittle told CityBeat. "Price felt that it was important to get community involvement to support this development project, and he helped organize, sponsor and fund the town council."
As such, Doolittle said, the town council became a fundraising arm of Price Charities, the nonprofit run by Price, and the San Diego Foundation, where Price's influence is equally felt from his financial prowess. The City Council, in an unusual move, approved an ordinance that allowed $100,000 a year to go to the town council from money the City Council paid to rent back the property from the San Diego Foundation.
While the City Council doesn't officially recognize the town council, initially it felt the group was, based on Price's endorsement, necessary to City Heights redevelopment.
The city continues to lease the library, the swimming pool and other community facilities, but the lease does not include mention of the town council offices, which are modest, to say the least. They are found up two flights of stairs and contain no bathroom facilities.
All seemed fine until February of 2002, when town council member Michael Sprague publicly aired some complaints about the redevelopment process and the method by which town council and planning committee members were elected. His mistake was apparently taking his concerns to a City Council meeting.
"Everywhere else in the state, renters vote for renters, property owners vote for property owners, businesses vote for businesses, and everybody votes for community-at-large seats," said Sprague, who also sits on the City Heights Project Area Committee, the planning group officially recognized by the city. "In City Heights, everybody voted for everybody."
That, Sprague suggested, led to major property owners gaining more sway on issues that came before the town council for about two years before state redevelopment officials cracked down on the practice. "Redevelopment, early on, was horrible for poor people," Sprague said, "and the state stepped in over a period of time and came up with some very good protections for poor people."
But apparently, city bureaucrats didn't like the suggestion that they had been failing to follow state law. Sprague said he was told by a city official in the Community and Economic Development department that because no one else had complained about the election irregularities, that there must not be a problem.
As Doolittle wrote in the August issue of Mid-City Neighbor, a community monthly newspaper he puts out for the town council, "a scheme was soon underway" at the Community and Economic Development department "to get rid of Mr. Sprague and the town council." Doolittle said the key factor in that decision was convincing the city's Real Estate Assets department that the city owned the building housing the town council, which in actuality is owned by the San Diego Foundation.
In a March 2002 letter from William T. Griffith, the head of the city's Real Estate Assets department, about the meeting, he wrote that "an agreement was reached to evict the town council within 30 days."
The city attorney's office then took the lead in pursuing the eviction, but last August a Superior Court judge dismissed the city's complaint, agreeing with the town council that the city had no right to seek the eviction.
Last month, the city refiled the legal action-according to Doolittle, it's identical to the previously reject claim. Why? While no one from the city attorney's office, the San Diego Foundation or Councilmember Toni Atkins' office returned calls or e-mails from CityBeat, the town council's president thinks she knows.
"The basic thought is that they're just trying to bleed us dry," Schwartz said. "We've had a lot of funding pulled, and they're simply outspending us right now."
What the town council would like to know is, where has the annual $100,000 payment gone that was originally earmarked by the City Council specifically for the town council? Doolittle noted that even if the money, which apparently sits in a San Diego Foundation account, isn't handed over to the town council, the city ordinance clearly states that that money is to go to the city's Parks and Recreation department to be used for the community's children.
Parks and Rec has not received that money, Doolittle said.
Community grant money was also pulled from the town council at the behest of Councilmember Atkins, leaving about $300 in the group's coffers, Doolittle said. All the group's funding was pulled within a month of Sprague's complaints.
"We're just relying on volunteers and money out of our own pocket at this point," Doolittle said.
Added Schwartz: "Do I feel that Sol could solve this with one phone call? Yeah, I do. But it doesn't really matter if they kick us out. It doesn't matter if we end up setting up in my garage. The town council is still going to be a viable organization that wants to continue to do good work."