There is plenty of blame to go around in the latest brouhaha involving Mayor Bob Filner
By Andy Cohen
Mayor Bob Filner is in the crosshairs again (metaphorically speaking, lest anyone suggest that someone is actually trying to shoot our mayor). This time, the local media—and especially the conservative interests around town—are howling about a deal that Filner’s office struck with Sunroad Vice President for Development Tom Story.
This is the same Sunroad Enterprises, and same Tom Story, that in 2007 were accused of exerting improper influence over city officials in order to secure construction permits to build a 12 story building off of route 163 and adjacent to Montgomery Field. Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit a building that tall from being so close to an airport, but city officials along with a complicit Mayor Jerry Sanders, issued the permits anyway. Then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre sued Sunroad, was joined by the FAA, and the company was eventually forced to remove two entire floors from the building.
Sunroad does not exactly have a sterling reputation around town.
More recently, Sunroad struck a deal with the city that, as part of a multi-family residential development, handed over 2.5 acres of property to the city to be developed as park land as mandated by the city’s General Plan. Sunroad later discovered, however, that they hadn’t met the fire safety requirements of 15 feet of clearance between each of their buildings and the park, and needed an easement of an additional nine feet on each side to meet their legal requirements.
Skipping ahead for a moment—because that seems to be exactly what the rest of the local media has done, without attempting to examine the origins of the deal—and we have Mayor Filner in hot water with the local political establishment over a $100,000 donation Filner negotiated with Sunroad in exchange for dropping his veto of the City Council’s unanimous approval of the easement literally for nothing. Filner viewed it as, once again, the City Council giving away public property to wealthy developers simply to make the developers happy, with absolutely nothing in return for the city.
Had the City Council not granted the easement, Sunroad would have been out an additional $200,000 to install fire windows that could not be opened, so the $100,000 that Filner earmarked for the Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza and the Ciclos Días event planned for August seemed like a pretty good deal. In Filner’s view, he was merely protecting the taxpayers’ interests, getting something for the city instead of giving away free land, as the City Council and administrations past have been wont to do in this city.
But that’s when things got weird. From the mayor’s perspective, he told members of the local media last Friday at his monthly “Pen and Paper” session, this was never supposed to be a blatant quid pro quo arrangement, where Sunroad gives the mayor something, and the mayor agrees to support their easement. But then we learned that Sunroad’s Story left a voicemail message for City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, saying that he had struck a deal with the mayor. And last Thursday Filner and his staff discovered a memo sent from Story to Filner’s recently departed deputy chief of staff Allen Jones, clearly stating that the $100,000 was consideration for the mayor “removing the wrench,” as Filner put it, and dropping his veto.
“Attached please find two checks totaling $100,000, payable to the City of San Diego in consideration for the City’s recordation of nine-foot building restricted easements on the north and south portions of the subject park site and as depicted in the attached graphic,” the memo read (Emphasis added). No mention of any donation. Sunroad clearly construed it to be a sale of real property. Filner did not. And according to an analysis by the City Attorney, the arrangement did not meet the criteria for a sale of real property.
It must be noted that Story approached the mayor’s office about working out a deal after Filner issued the veto, not the other way around. Story was the one who offered up the $100,000. Which led to this astute tweet from former Jerry Sanders spokesperson Rachel Laing last Friday:
— Rachel Laing (@RachelLaing) June 29, 2013
But the City Council’s role in this must be considered as well, and to this point it has not. Story initially approached Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, in whose district the Sunroad project sits. Zapf then took it to the rest of the Council “because it was not being processed by the Executive Branch,” said a spokesperson for Council President Todd Gloria.
According to a story in the Voice of San Diego, Story had approached Jones “months ago” with the problem. In the interview, Jones, a former developer himself, told the VOSD he had determined that Sunroad should have to compensate the city $100,000. “If I came to you and said ‘I want to constrain your land so that I can make more money,’” Jones asked VOSD’s Scott Lewis, “how would you act?”
According to Gloria’s office, the city’s Planning Commission originally approved the project with the six foot setbacks, and it wasn’t until construction of the residential towers was well underway that the city came back to Sunroad to notify them of the 15 foot setback requirement per the California Building Code. Which ultimately led to the City Council unanimously approving the easement.
This is a comedy of screw ups across the board. Filner should have been more cautious as to how his arrangement with Tom Story was constructed; the City Council should have been more clear about their reasoning behind supporting the easements in the first place, instead of coming off as once again merely giving city property away to private developers; the city Planning Commission, well, let’s just point out that they had perhaps the biggest screw up of all (back in June 2012, still under the Sanders Administration, so it cannot be blamed on Filner). Filner’s office, though, should have been more attentive to the matter before Sunroad felt compelled to run to Zapf.
This completely convoluted mess is indicative of the current dysfunction at San Diego City Hall. And no, this is not just between the Mayor and City Attorney, who have seen their feud ratcheted up a few notches lately. Everyone seems to be running scared of and pointing fingers at Big Bad Bob Filner. It might help if everyone down at City Hall started acting like responsible adults and a lot less like Congressional Republicans. This city’s got enough problems to deal with without this nonsense.
The root of the problem, though, is that Filner is trying to do what he promised to do during the 2012 campaign: Change the way business is done at City Hall; turn around the “business as usual” culture where the developers and hoteliers run the city. That era is over, at least for the next 3 ½ years, and there are some that don’t like it one bit. Too bad. They’d better get used to it, ‘cause this mayor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.