Notes from the March 18 Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee
By Anna Daniels
At 4:45 pm on March 18, Marti Emerald, City Councilmember and Chair of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee (PS&LN) announced that there were still 62 speaker slips remaining on the topic of community benefits.
The agenda item with the most speakers had been switched to the last one that would be heard that day. Emerald courteously asked the citizens remaining in the room to limit their testimony to one minute and to please not repeat what had already been said. The committee would lose its quorum at 5:30.
Why had so many people shown up at 1:30 earlier that day, packing the committee room and overflowing into an adjacent room? Why were they willing to wait three hours to provide one minute of public testimony about Civic San Diego (CivicSD), the public non-profit development agency owned by the City of San Diego?
The majority of residents were there to provide input about the kind of community benefit needs that should be addressed as a policy requirement of CivicSD economic development projects in their neighborhoods of City Heights and Encanto. Those benefits were clearly articulated–livable wages, affordable housing, markets that provide fresh produce, safe streets and more parks.
Since its inception in 2012 as the mechanism for handling the administrative duties associated with the winding down of redevelopment, CivicSD has continued to morph into an autonomous, powerful entity with little City oversight. It continues the operation of CCDC and SEDC and is expanding its presence in City Heights and Encanto. It relies heavily on public funding from a variety of sources but reports to an appointed board.
Above all, CivicSD is poised to become the major economic development force in town and possibly in the county. New Market Tax Credits, for instance, are not geographically limited. It can eliminate competition via its expedited permitting status downtown and has expressed the need to expand that expediting status to other areas of the city. The City of San Diego is being rushed to put all of its apples in the CivicSD cart and in that rush it is compromising transparency, accountability, responsiveness and representation as well as glossing over significant liability and legal issues.
There is all the more reason to care about what CivicSD does if you live in Barrio Logan, City Heights, College Grove, Crossroads (eastern El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, College Avenue and other nearby corridors), Grantville, Linda Vista, the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma, North Park, North San Diego Bay (taking in Pacific Highway, Morena Boulevard and parts of Loma Portal and Clairemont), San Diego State University area or San Ysidro. These communities have also been added to CivicSD’s development portfolio.
In an effort to address the issue of City oversight and the need for more formalized community benefit language, three resolutions had been placed on the March 18 committee agenda:
- Requiring the approval of the City Council for agreements entered into by CivicSD involving either the transfer of City money or the disposition of City owned land valued at $500,000 or more.
- Appointing a representative of the IBA (Independent Budget Analyst) to the Board of Directors of CivicSD’s Economic Growth and Neighborhood Investment Fund;
- Amending CivicSD’s bylaws under “Purpose” to include community benefit language related to promoting affordable housing and creating well paying jobs;
In the spirit of hurry up and make it snappy, here’s what happened:
The resolution that would require City Council approval of CivicSD agreements entered into by CivicSD involving either the transfer of City money or the disposition of City owned land valued at $500,000 or more was pulled without comment.
The appointment (2) of a representative of the Independent Budget Analyst to CivicSD’s Economic Growth and Neighborhood Investment Fund became mired in an hour long discussion and public testimony about legality, liability, whether there was a need for “additional” oversight and the meaning of “independent.” The issue was referred to the City Attorney for further clarification.
The resolution amending CivicSD bylaws (3) under section 1.2 Purposes was further amended to include livable wages and quality affordable housing.
And all four committee members (Marti Emerald, Myrtle Cole, Chris Cate and Todd Gloria) voted to forward the resolutions to Councilmember Cole’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations committee.
“Public funds come with strings” While the committee meeting was short on actions, there was no shortage of significant revelations. At the very end of the meeting, Councilmember Todd Gloria commented that access to”public funds comes with strings” and those strings are “higher standards” that should reflect civic needs. The whole two and a half hours spent on CivicSD issues were a revelation of who was pushing back against those higher standards and who was in support of them.
The issue of oversight The resolution regarding the appointment of a representative of the IBA (Independent Budget Analyst) to the Board of Directors of CivicSD’s Economic Growth and Neighborhood Investment Fund generated over an hour of discussion. Emerald’s office provided a comparison of the governing boards of municipal sponsored community development entities (CDEs) in the United States to CivicSD. CivicSD is clearly an outlier.
Of the 20 cities surveyed across the country, 95% of those other cities maintain the oversight and accountability of their community development entities and have one or more city council members or high level city official as part of that oversight. Hence the tentative step of the appointment of a representative of the IBA. Councilmember Emerald initially suggested appointing the City’s Chief Operating Officer in addition to the IBA representative, but the resolution was modified to address the concerns of CivicSD.
When Reese Jarrett, President of Civic San Diego, was asked if he had an objection to the IBA appointment, he said that the topic should be part of upgrading CivicSD’s operating agreement with the City. He then said that while he was not opposed to the appointment, it might expose the City to liability with a city employee on the board. His initial statement however was that he “had not made a commitment to what the resolutions [regarding IBA appointment and community benefit language] want to do.”
Todd Gloria said that he would not support an IBA appointment because he saw it as incompatible with the maintenance of independence essential to the Office of the IBA.
But it appears from what Ricardo Flores, Emerald’s chief of staff, said in his presentation about how other municipal sponsored CDE’s operate that members of the city council and/or high level city officials are routinely appointed to the CDE board in all of the four other applicable cities in California as well as outside of the state. That means that Councilmembers Marti Emerald, Myrtle Cole and Todd Gloria could all be appointed to the board. Why not?
But why stop there,with the CDE board? Why not democratize the CivicSD board? “With the mayor appointing eight of the nine members of the board and the City Council controlling one seat, the current board of directors is made up largely of land-use lawyers, real-estate professionals and registered lobbyists.” Where are the people who can provide expertise geared toward “challenged neighborhoods” or geared to any of the other neighborhoods which comprise the CivicSD portfolio?
How much of this discussion is really about protecting Downtown interests and maintaining the status quo there? If there were any happy campers at the committee meeting they were the representatives of Downtown redevelopment and its latest iteration with CivicSD. These Downtown residents, member of the Downtown Community Planning Council and Kris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership emphasized that past redevelopment efforts really worked for them and that they should be able to keep what is working. For them. Downtown. “Don’t impede the partnership downtown if other communities make different choices” was the very clear message.
And why would they want any changes? “Since redevelopment of Downtown San Diego began, nearly $15 billion has been invested and $1.45 billion has been spent on public improvements.” CivicSD maintains CCDC’s prior land use and project management rules there. Downtown continues to afford developers with opportunities that eclipse those in built-out communities like City Heights, if for no other reason than they can build up there.
The president of the Hotel Workers Union provided a less sunny assessment of Downtown redevelopment as “a fiefdom by developers for developers.”
Was the word “community” stripped from community benefits? One of the more confusing aspects of the meeting was the decision to refer all further discussion about the CivicSD issues raised in PS&LN to Councilmember Myrtle Cole’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations (ED&IR) committee. That committee, comprised of Councilmembers Lightner, Kersey and Cate in addition to Cole, has CivicSD listed as under its purview.
For reasons that remain yet unclear, the scrutiny of CivicSD’s operations was not generated in ED&IR. It is not surprising however that so many residents would look at CivicSD through the lens of public safety and livable neighbors. District 4 resident Kevin Alvin provided particularly powerful public testimony about the relationship between economic development and livable neighborhoods.
He noted that Civic San Diego receives public funds and with those funds comes a responsibility to communities. Economic development “should open gateway careers…Promises and personal assurances are not the same as a policy…We’ve helped build other communities, we’ve worked in other communities, shopped in other neighborhoods.” Like so many of the other speakers, Alvin wanted commensurate investments made in his neighborhood. Will the robust discussion of CivicSD be continued at ED&IR?
The City and CivicSD are in the process of negotiating an operating agreement between the two entities. Up to this point CivicSD has had consulting contracts. The negotiations for FY’16 are being carried out by Mayor Faulconer and the agreement will be presented to ED&IR. The public should pay particular attention to that presentation which is tentatively slated for June 4th.
The Wildcard! Former City Councilmember and current open government advocate Donna Frye wrote an opinion piece “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Civic San Diego” that was published the same day as the PS&LN committee meeting. Lorena Gonzalez’ sponsorship of Assembly Bill 504 was the elephant in the room–ignored but obviously generating concern. AB504 would require the San Diego City Council to approve land-use decisions made by CivicSD. “Without such oversight, delegating decision-making authority to the nonprofit could violate state law, Gonzalez said. ‘It’s not just illegal; it’s bad policy. It lacks transparency and accountability.’ ”
Frye broadens that discussion in her article, asking “While the debate [development efficiency versus public process] is important and interesting, it does not answer the most basic question about Civic San Diego: Is it legal?”
Katheryn Rhodes’ one minute testimony at the committee meeting included the statement “I don’t understand what’s going on with Civic San Diego and neither do you.” The only way to resolve this lack of understanding is to support the public process side of the debate. That will hopefully continue in the Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations committee. The public has an interest in making sure that it does.
Anna Daniels is a past president and board member of the City Heights Community Development Corporation and long time resident of City Heights. She is also a retired member of MEA, the Municipal Employees Association. She is a current member of the Community Budget Alliance, representing the Library Organizing Project. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.