Civic’s Community Benefit Policy enactment a study in #democracyfail
By Anna Daniels
The Civic San Diego Board of Directors and President Reese Jarrett scored a victory at their April 29 board meeting. Civic San Diego, which describes itself as a “city-owned non-profit that is the entrepreneurial development partner for targeted urban neighborhoods” approved its own Community Benefit Policy with one dissenting vote after two hours of board discussion and public testimony. The one dissenting vote was cast by Dr. Murtaza Baxamusa, who described the policy as “toothless, meaningless and unenforceable…It is the job of the City Council to tell us what to do … this is 1,300 words, non-enforceable and not approved by the City Council. ”
The Civic San Diego Board determined in the meeting that they could set their own policy without City Council review but would provide it to Councilmember Myrtle Cole’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
While the board vote was a victory for the policy’s passage, it was apparent that some board members were surprised– and clearly resentful–that Civic San Diego has had to fight so hard to avoid City Council oversight and that it has been subjected to so much public criticism.
Civic San Diego started to come under close public scrutiny in 2014, a few years after it was established by then Mayor Jerry Sanders and the interests that he represented and continues to represent. Citizens of Encanto and City Heights, the initial target neighborhoods for Civic’s expenditure of federally funded New Market Tax Credits, were concerned about the kind of economic development Civic San Diego had in mind. Their concerns were augmented by an extensive coalition that included community planning committee members throughout the city, community based non-profits, labor unions and the Community Budget Alliance.
These concerns were enough in October of 2014 to get the attention of City Councilmember Marti Emerald, who chairs the Public Safety and Liveable Neighborhoods Committee (PS&LN). The scrutiny became more extensive and critical in January of 2015, when CivicSD launched their Community Benefits Consensus Project.
Instead, the board has found itself in a highly destabilized environment, assailed from a variety of quarters, and not universally welcomed.
Out of this scrutiny has come advocacy for a comprehensive, concrete Community Benefits Policy that is enforceable by the City Council; San Diego assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez released an opinion that CivicSD does not have the authority to make final land use decisions; a legal complaint filed by Civic San Diego Board member Murtaza Baxamusa and San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council has requested clarification whether the powers delegated to CivicSD are legal; Councilmember Emerald requested additional city oversight and city representation on the CDE board. The San Diego Free Press has provided commentary on all of these issues and has questioned why CivicSD even exists.
It was obvious from that April 29 Civic Board meeting that this public scrutiny has countered the board expectation that CivicSD would continue to quietly morph into a powerful development entity with access to public funds and virtually no official oversight or the need for direct community representation and input. It was also obvious at that meeting that they expected that their interest in economic development in City Heights and Encanto would be met with open arms by community members.
Instead, the board has found itself in a highly destabilized environment, assailed from a variety of quarters, and not universally welcomed. The board won decisively on the 29th, but they were not happy victors. A few of them felt compelled to express their displeasure, providing unexpected drama to the proceedings.
Board Treasurer Cynthia Morgan and CFO Andrew Phillips have both recently resigned from CivicSD. Ms. Morgan set the tone for subsequent board remarks, prefacing her own with the reminder that it was her last meeting and that she could say what she wanted–the “with impunity” was implied, and that there would be some who would not like it. She then proceeded to name names, starting with fellow board member Baxamusa whom she found negative and disappointing in his dealings with the board. Morgan had found Baxamusa so negative and disappointing last year that she attempted to impose a gag rule on him while she was board chair.
Then she singled out the City Heights community for its negativity, stating that “no one there has ever expressed support for CivicSD so we won’t go there.” She did acknowledge the enthusiastic welcome that they had received from Encanto, glossing over the significant presence of Encanto and District 4 residents who expressed their opinions otherwise at the March 19 PS&LN committee meeting. A number of board members then reminded those of us in the audience that they were volunteers who spend substantial time working for the greater good of the city. The bad attitude of the City Heights community was noted a few more times.
While it is true that the CivicSD board is compromised of volunteers, the majority of these volunteers are registered lobbyists, real estate professionals and land use attorneys. Morgan will return to her partnership at Higgs Fletcher and Mack.
Cynthia Morgan-Reed practices in the areas of land use, real estate, and public agency where she drafts and negotiates development agreements; conditions of approval; amendments to ordinances, general plans, specific plans and community plans; zone changes; conditional use permits; variances; development entitlements; leases; purchase and sale agreements; easements; licenses, letters of intent, and memorandum of understanding.
Civic board member Ted Shaw’s remarks at the meeting included his observation that the advocacy for equity city wide “can’t be taken as the developer owes me something.” This begs the question of to what degree does Shaw feels that the public owes developers something in the form of access to public funds and expedited permitting and processing benefits.
Shaw is a Senior Consultant at the Atlantis Group. Atlantis touts its expertise in policy and permit processing stating “We understand a full range of land development permits including land development plans, subdivision maps, coastal permits, use permits, variances, and inter-agency processing; We can help with code violations, including processing of permits if required; We know the City of San Diego’s Land Development Code and have authored regulations in San Diego.”
The specific individuals who serve on the board at this time have virtually no significance beyond the professional relationships they maintain with powerful land use and real estate interests. Morgan will be replaced with someone indistinguishable from her in terms of those relationships. All of the board members will be replaced over time with interchangeable individuals who maintain San Diego’s peculiar symbiotic relationship between the lucrative private developer cottage industry and the public sector.
Civic released its Community Benefit Policy a week ago. There was no input solicited from participants in their Consensus Project to determine whether they had correctly reflected the community input. Nor is there any indication in the March 24, 2015 minutes of the New Market Tax Credit advisory board that they were provided the Community Benefit Policy for review. This is a significant point because Civic recently expressed a willingness to include official city representation from the IBA and economic development department on that committee and it shows that those appointments are meaningless. It is unknown at the moment whether the US Treasury Department which has jurisdiction over New Market Tax Credits will take note of these end runs around community input.
Those of us who are also volunteers, who sat on the other side of the dias and paid 18 bucks for parking to be told no soup for you will continue to demand city council oversight and continued public scrutiny.
Editor note: This article was corrected to reflect that Cynthia Morgan was Board Treasurer and that Andrew Phillips was CFO. The original post identified them as board members.
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.