Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Omertà, San Diego style

Let’s pretend we’re hotshot detectives in a Netflix blockbuster about a real estate deal gone bad…really bad.  The action takes place in San Diego, where most every city official--past and present—is hell-bent on burying the evidence.  

An apt name for our show is “Omertà, San Diego style”  (a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities) But prepare yourselves: this whodunit is a true story about real perps, real victims, real consequences, and a labyrinth of backroom deals, tangled networks, secret handshakes, and a really convoluted chain of events. 

As icing on the cake, Omertà has a star-studded cast of characters whose private/public perversions, criminal negligence, gross incompetence, deception, dereliction of duties, coverups, and relentless assaults on the public welfare are guaranteed to knock your socks off.   

Now let's do what TV detectives do.  On a big posterboard we’ll pin up a rogues’ gallery of names, faces, and traces of evidence linked to the villainous activities in question.  And then try to connect the dots. 

So far, here's what our rogues’ gallery looks like: 

EXHIBIT A: the centerpiece of this true crime procedural is a 21-story steel frame, concrete and glass high-rise office tower in the central business district of downtown San Diego.  In its heyday it housed the world headquarters of Sempra Energy (parent company San Diego Gas & Electric).  Today it’s a building of ill-repute known simply as 101 Ash Street.  

Backdrop: in late 2016 the city of San Diego entered into a lease-to-own agreement with the owners of the 101 Ash St building, Cisterra Partners, a local real estate development company.  By September 2020, the city had paid more than $23 million (in monthly increments of $535,000) to lease the building.  The city spent an additional $40 million on upgrades, maintenance, operating costs, and legal expenses, even as the building sat useless and empty.

EXHIBIT B: All we want are the facts (just the facts, ma’am). 

  1.  The city was well-aware that 101 Ash St. contained decades-old asbestos.  But the city chose not to perform its own inspection to determine the extent of contamination. 
  2. City officials also chose not to call for an independent assessment of the building’s various systems before signing a lease-to-own contract with the seller Cisterra.
  3. Instead, the city accepted a “property condition assessment” submitted by a firm hired by the seller. 
  4. The Cisterra assessment was “based on a Site visit, in which AEC (consultants)performed a visual, non-intrusive and nondestructive evaluation of various external and internal building components… not a building code, safety, regulatory or environmental compliance inspection.”  
  5. The Cisterra consultants gave the building a passing grade.
  6. City staff was instructed to tell the City Council that the building would only need “a $10,000 power wash” before workers could move in.  
  7. In reality, $66-$115 million in repairs were required to make 101 Ash St. safe and habitable.
  8. The lease with Cisterra stated—upfront--that the city would take the building “AS-IS” and that the “LANDLORD (Cisterra) SHALL HAVE NO RESPONSIBILITY OR LIABILITY” for repairs of any known or unknown defects with the building.
  9. In 2016, the City Council went along with a motion by then-Councilmember Todd Gloria to approve a 20-year lease-to-own contract with Cisterra.

EXHIBIT C: Warnings to the Mayor 

  1. An independent report on the building’s automation systems (March 2019) found that “Many of the temperature and duct static pressure transducers have been removed, relocated or are damaged beyond repair,” rendering the heating system useless…”
  2. And worse--the consultant stated that “If there had been a fire, there was no way to isolate it.  We went to the City and told them that the fire system was no longer functioning the way that it was designed.” 
  3. Later in 2019, a contractor in charge of renovating the vacant office tower warned the mayor and city officials about serious problems with the building’s water and sewer infrastructure and fire alarm system. 
  4. Nevertheless, Mayor Faulconer and his senior aides recklessly moved 1,000 city workers into the 101 Ash Street building, hiding behind spurious documents falsely attesting to the adequacy of the building’s safety.
  5. Within a month, the County Air Pollution Control District declared the building unsafe due to asbestos contamination and shut it down.  

EXHIBIT D: Lawsuits and Investigations 

  1. The city now confronts dozens of legal claims by city employees and contractors alleging exposure to asbestos.  
  2. The city is suing Cisterra and real estate broker Jason Hughes for defrauding the city over secret fees swept into the $128 million lease the city signed. 
  3. The city has sued CGA lenders, whose investors have countersued the city. 
  4. The city is negotiating settlements with lobbyist Chris Wahl. 
  5. The city is being sued for illegally indebting the city without a public vote and the fraudulent waste of public funds.  
  6. The city, Cisterra, and previous owner Sandor Shapery are being sued for concealment of facts that enabled a one-sided real estate deal.  
  7. The investment management firm is countersuing the city for violating the terms of the 101 Ash St. lease.
  8. District Attorney Summer Stephan is conducting criminal investigations into 101 Ash St. dealings.  Subjects include Jason Hughes and Cisterra, among others.  

EXHIBIT EPrivate sector players in this true crime procedural (in alphabetical order)

🎯 CGA Capital, a Maryland-based corporation providing debt and equity capital for “credit net lease real estate transactions” for corporate and government agencies.  CGA provided the loan for Cisterra Development’s purchase of 101 Ash St. in January 2017.  Cisterra then created a lease-to-own agreement with the city of San Diego, assigning responsibility to the city to pay off the loan with monthly lease payments to CGA $128 million over 20 years.  By September 2020 the city had ceased payments.  CGA sued the city for defaulting on the loan. 

🎯 Chris Wahl, prolific political fundraiser and chief executive at Southwest Strategies--one of the most successful public relations/crisis communications/government affairs/lobbying firms in San Diego—with direct access to top officials in city government.  For example, in the summer of 2015, Wahl met personally with Mayor Kevin Faulconer, chief of staff Stephen Puetz, director of Real Estate Assets Cybele Thompson, and Deputy COO Ron Villa to promote city leasing of 101 Ash St. on behalf of the building owner Sandor Shapery. 

Earlier this year, in mediation efforts on behalf of his client Cisterra, Wahl had private meetings with city attorney Mara Elliot, Mayor Todd Gloria’s chief of staff, and the city’s COO Jay Goldstone. 

🎯 Cisterra Development, San Diego private real estate developer.  Impressive company portfolio includes new downtown corporate headquarters for Sempra Energy (completed in 2015), as well as Sorrento Gateway, Gateway at Torrey Pines, Biogen IDEC Research Campus, 7th & Market (home to new Ritz Carleton Hotel), Carmel Valley Corporate Center, Peregrine Systems Campus, and the San Diego Padres Tailgate Park.  

In mid-2016, Cisterra purchased 101 Ash St. from owners Sandor Shapery and Doug Manchester for $72.1M, predicated on an explicit understanding that the city would promptly buy or lease the building from Cisterra (aka double escrow--"the simultaneous purchase and sale of a real estate property involving three parties: the original seller, an investor (middleman), and the final buyer.”)  

An additional $5M was quietly tacked on by Cisterra for a tenant improvement loan plus $14.4M more for undefined fees, bringing the total loan amount to close the 101 Ash St. deal to nearly $92M.   

Although the building had recently been appraised at $62 million, then raised to $67.1 million, Cisterra commissioned yet another building appraisal (unearthed and revealed only recently) that came in at $92 million--conveniently folding in Cisterra’s extraneous lobbying expenses by inflating the size of the loan charged to the city.  The deal with the city closed in January, 2017. 

🎯 Doug Manchester, controversial public figure, influential developer, former owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Mayor Faulconer’s largest donor.  In 2015, Manchester purchased 49% of 101 Ash St. from Sandor Shapery for $20 million (suggesting the building’s true appraised value at around $40 million). 

Shortly thereafter, Manchester met with Mayor Faulconer to promote city purchase of the building and set up a walk-through of the building. “Dear Kevin and All…Thank you for your time yesterday…Sandy (Shapery) and I look forward to your tour on the 27th. Warmly, Papa Doug.” 

But it would be the kiss of death for Faulconer to do public business with Manchester.  According to Cybele Thompson, when CFO Mary Lewis promoted outright purchase rather than lease of the property, this was his response: “(Faulconer) said something along the lines of, you know, ‘Mary, I know you’re no political genius, but imagine the optics of me writing a check to Doug Manchester for this building. You know, he’s the biggest Trump-loving, gay-hating, womanizing’ — he went on kind of a tirade about Doug,” Thompson said. ‘So how could I possibly be seen writing a check to him?’”  

It is said that, Manchester may have sold back his minority share of 101 Ash St. to Shapery prior to the Cisterra acquisition, for certain taxation benefits. 

🎯 Jason Hughes, commercial real estate broker.  In 2015 presented himself as an unpaid adviser to the city of San Diego to broker a 20-year lease-to-own transaction between the city (buyer) and Cisterra (seller) of downtown’s Civic Center Plaza tower.  The deal was overseen by city real estate director Cybele Thompson, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.  

By 2017, Hughes had walked away with $9.4 million in compensation paid by Cisterra for his work on both the Civic Center Plaza deal and its carbon-copy lease-to-own transaction at 101 Ash St.  Hughes’s huge fees were silently rolled into the loans (i.e., charged to the city) and expertly obscured in public records. 

🎯 Jason Wood, Cisterra Development principal, played a key role in structuring the transition and development of Sempra Energy Corporate Headquarters out of 101 Ash St. and into a new $165 million, 16-story office building overlooking Petco Park.  

Shortly before the 101 Ash St. deal was struck, Wood played a key role in the lease-to-own deal between Civic Center Plaza and the city.  He was able and willing to “rig a formula” to deceive San Diego's debt management director Lakshmi Kommi and others about the $1 million buffer and $10 million payoff to Jason Hughes that Cisterra embedded in that lease proposal.  Cisterra successfully netted unreported millions in that transaction. 

In 2016, Wood continued to work his magic in the 101 Ash St. transaction and could confidently assure his associates: “We made a deal today with the City…using the same lease as [Civic Center Plaza]… The Mayor signed off today and we hope to have council member briefings and buy-in by the end of the week. Committee hearing will be in 2 weeks then City Council hearings with lease execution in November.” 

Wood made $1.3 million when the deal was sealed.  Cisterra’s chairman Steven Black collected over $4 million.   

🎯 Sandor Shapery, longstanding downtown developer and owner of 101 Ash St. for more than 20 years before negotiating unsuccessfully to sell the building to the city (2014) with an asking price of $100 million.  The following year, Shapery sold a 49% share in the building to local hotel developer “Papa” Doug Manchester for $20 million (imputing the building’s value at just over $40 million).   

A couple of years later, Shapery bought out his minority partner for $25 million.  Although protesting his innocence in the local press, Shapery may have hooked up as a silent partner with Cisterra as the city’s 101 Ash St. landlord. 

🎯 Steven BlackChairman of Cisterra Development and Manager of a Delaware limited liability company called 101 Ash, LLC (created at the end of 2016 and owned by Cisterra )--the official owners of the 101 Ash St. property.  

Black’s substantial development interests in the city’s recent real estate deal for a two million square foot mixed-use project at Tailgate Park are temporarily on hold.  He has been convinced to lay low and wait for the noxious 101 Ash St. winds to blow over or at least die down.  

EXHIBIT F: Public sector players on the city payroll in this true crime procedural (in alphabetical order) 

🧩 Cybele ThompsonDirector of San Diego’s Real Estate Assets Department, appointed by and answerable to Mayor Kevin Faulconer.  Her team was instrumental in securing a similar lease-to-own deal for the Civic Center Plaza. 

In 2016, Thompson perpetuated the myth that the 101 Ash Street building was in excellent condition and required only a $10,000 cleaning, caulking, and pressure wash of the exterior.  She was aware that city staff had been working for months on a deal to purchase the building and that a direct purchase could save $17 million over the cost of a lease-to-own arrangement.  But she yielded to heavy pressure from the mayor to promote the fiction that the timing of the deal made a direct purchase all but impossible 

Thompson arranged for Jason Wood (Cisterra) to lobby Todd Gloria to promote the lease-to-own arrangement that Mayor Faulconer had privately endorsed. She resigned from the city in August, 2020. 

🧩 Jan GoldsmithSan Diego’s City Attorney from 2008– 2016 (and, curiously, one of the most protected figures in San Diego politics, running a close second to former mayor Jerry Sanders).   He oversaw and signed off on Cisterra’s lease-to-own scheme to transfer office space in the Civic Center Plaza building to the city.  He was still in office when the spitting image proposal for the now-notorious lease-to-own proposal for 101 Ash St. was being readied for city attorney sign-off. 

Purportedly, Goldsmith issued a confidential memorandum defining terms and risks associated with Cisterra maneuvers , which is not, so far, publicly available.  It appears he’s getting off scot-free.  Not true for his successor, current City Attorney Mara Elliot.  She is now juggling the hot ball of wax inherited from Goldsmith and must answer for his sins of comission and omission in addition to her own. 

🧩 Jay GoldstoneChief Operating Officer appointed by Mayor Todd Gloria.  In behind the scenes attempts to protect the mayor and other city staff, Goldstone responded to meetings and communications with Cisterra lobbyist Chris Wahl and Cisterra’s chairman Steven Black to advance a settlement and/or strike a deal between the city and these private sector actors in the 101 Ash St. legal morass. 

Goldstone saw fit to retract some of the sworn testimony he gave in a lawsuit deposition related to his role in facilitating the lease-to-own agreement between the city and Cisterra operatives.   

🧩 Johnnie Perkins, San Diego’s ex-deputy chief operating officer of Infrastructure and Public Works (2019-20), was assigned by Mayor Faulconer’s COO (Kris Michel) to oversee building renovations on the 101 Ash St. albatross.  He witnessed asbestos screwups by subcontractors.  He heard complaints and warnings about “an obsolete heating and ventilation system, corroded sewer piping, clogged asbestos tests, a whistleblower raising red flags, a flawed fire system the fire marshal never signed off on, and an unrealistic timetable driven by significant political pressure.” 

He was a lobbyist, advocate, and past president of San Diego Fire-Rescue Foundation, so what could induce him to remain silent about the harm his fellow workers and buddies were facing inside that noxious building? What blocked his ears to the city fire marshal’s warnings of the about the lack of safety for over 1,000 city employees being moved into the building per instructions from the mayor’s office? 

🧩 Kevin Faulconer, Mayor of San Diego (2014-2020), jumped on the opportunity to expand working space for city personnel once Sempra Energy vacated their headquarters in an Ash Street tower conveniently adjacent to City Hall.  But a glitch emerged: the building was owned by Sandor Shapery but Doug Manchester was a minority shareholder.  It was not politically feasible for Mayor Faulconer (much less for councilmember Todd Gloria) to engage in public business with Manchester.  

The game of deception was on.  Faulconer’s reasonable desire to acquire adequate space to conduct city government devolved into a chain of events that are revealing the innermost dirty secrets long embedded in San Diego political life.   

🧩 Kris Michel, COO appointed by Mayor Faulconer and perennial go-to person (fabled woman behind the throne?) for past decades of San Diego mayors.  Michel was ultimately responsible for overseeing renovations and improvements in the 101 Ash St. building and in early 2020, as problems mounted, assigned the task to Deputy Chief Operating Officer of General Services Alia Khouri and fellow Deputy Chief Operating Officer Johnnie Perkins.  

🧩 Mara ElliotSan Diego’s first female City Attorney, took office two months after the City Council approved the 101 Ash St. lease-to-own agreement and 10 days before  Jan Goldsmith’s name was crossed off the final lease document and Elliot’s signature added. 

At the time the 101 Ash St. contract was signed (true also for the mirror-image Cisterra contract for the Civic Center Plaza building), San Diego City Charter Section 225 required a “full and complete disclosure of the name and identity of any and all persons directly or indirectly involved in the application or proposed transaction and the precise nature of all interests of all persons”.

Elliott (but not Goldsmith) is being lambasted for violating Charter Section 225 by failing to confirm that all of the people who benefited from the lease (specifically, Jason Hughes) were properly disclosed. 

🧩 Mary Lewis, the city’s CFO from 2008 to 2017, oversaw the city’s $3 billion annual budget and managed city departments of the Comptroller, Treasurer, Debt Management, Risk Management, and Financial Management. 

Lewis, the city’s most qualified financial expert, opposed the proposal to acquire 101 Ash St. through a lease-to-own arrangement when the city could opt for a less expensive straight purchase arrangement (saving $16 million).  She and other senior staff members (COO Scott Chadwick, Deputy COO Stacey LoMedico, Assistant COO Ron Villa, Director of Real Estate Assets Cybele Thompson, and Chief of Staff Stephen Puetz) were reportedly met with fierce opposition by Mayor Faulconer, who was determined to choose the Cisterra option of a lease-to-own arrangement. 

🧩 Mike Zucchetonce a city councilmember and for the past 13 years the General Manager of the Municipal Employees Association--the city union representing over 4,000 city employees and one of the most ardent supporters of the 101 Ash St. lease-to-own deal. 

Zucchet was rewarded for his vigorous advocacy of the 2016 Cisterra lease-to-own deal.  He was appointed to a prized position as commissioner on the San Diego Unified Port District Board.  And in the blink of an eye he’s became Chair of the Board, obvious conflicts of interest notwithstanding.

Fundamentally disturbing is the fact that Mike Zucchet (like Johnnie Perkins) folded to political pressure to cynically betray his fellow city workers.  He closed his eyes and turned his back to the dangers surrounding city staff in a building plagued by floating asbestos, electrical malfunction, and fire system failures, putting his personal interests--and those of previous mayor Kevin Faulconer and current Mayor Todd Gloria--over and above the health and safety of people he presumably serves. 

🧩 Ron Villaformer Assistant Chief Operating Officer--long in charge of 101 Ash St. acquisition and renovation--resigned in mid-2020 in the midst of mounting accounts of health and safety violations in the building.  All the while, the city was making rent payments of $18,000 per day for a vacant and dangerous building.

Villa--along with Cybele Thompson—bowed to direction from Mayor Faulconer to advise city councilmembers that the Cisterra lease-to-own option was the only feasible choice they had.  

He went much further than that to demonstrate his loyalty to the mayor’s interests over the public interest.  In March 2018 he responded to city worker complaints about the building safety: I hear you. I heard every single complaint that was brought because [the City’s Asset Manager] shared with me every single complaint. The reason why it took so long is there was no way for us to break the lease and we would have been held liable for all of that. Now, that is over a $1 million. Is that worth everybody’s whatever? Maybe, maybe not. The fact of the matter is there is a cost to that and we would have been in litigation over that.”

🧩 Stephen Puetz, former chief of staff for then-councilmember Kevin Faulconer.  In 2012 he managed Carl DeMaio’s losing campaign for Mayor.  He then managed Faulconer’s successful campaign for mayor.  In 2014 was appointed chief of staff by Mayor Faulconer.  He was the mayor’s point person in the city’s 101 Ash St. lease-to-own transactions (particularly with Southwest Strategies lobbyist Chris Wahl and Jason Hughes).  In his deposition for a pending lawsuit concerning 101 Ash St., Puetz has acknowledged that he  routinely deleted text messages from his phone that involved official city business in that matter.  

This whodunit takes an odd twist with the appearance of Puetz’s wife Diana Palacios, who had previously worked as an aide to Councilmembers Carl DeMaio and Scott Sherman.  One year after Puetz became Faulconer’s chief of staff, Palacios was hired by Chris Wahl’s lobbying firm Southwest Strategies to lobby both Mayor Faulconer and her husband, the mayor’s chief of staff, on behalf of assorted clients, including the San Diego Padres.  She is now the VP of Public Affairs for the Padres and lobbies city officials on Petco Park issues (e.g., the city’s recent Tailgate Park agreements). 

🧩 Todd Gloria, current San Diego mayor, has been trying to lay low in the face of the 101 Ash St. tsunami.  (He is scheduled to be deposed next month in a taxpayer lawsuit.)  In 2016, after a superficial walk-through look at the building, then-city councilmember Todd Gloria reported his impression of the condition of the 101 Ash St. building “…it’s extremely well maintained.”   

Based on meetings arranged for Councilmember Gloria and his chief of staff Jamie Fox with Cisterra lobbyists Chris Wahl and Jason Wood… coerced by city staff force-feeding of Mayor Faulconer’s orders… armed with the assurance that mention of LGBT-antagonist Doug Manchester had been expunged from view… and, above all, gullible enough to swallow the deceptive package whole hog, Gloria took the lead and made the motion to approve Cisterra’s lease-to-own deal.   

To this day he takes no responsibility for his bad judgment and passive acceptance of spurious information.  “From the beginning,” he claims, “the public and the members of the then-City Council, including myself, were deceived.” 


Our rogues’ gallery has been pinned up.  You've been introduced to the players.  But the final episode of this whodunit has not yet been written.

Who’s the chief culprit? Who should be punished? Locked out of office? Sent packing? Lose city contracts? Pay the city back for damages and expenses?  

Are the mayor and city council complicit or simply inadequate… over their heads… no match for the fraternity of big boys who own our city?  

Is it just a systems problem? Does the problem lie in our “strong mayor” system, in which the chief operating officer (aka city manager) and all department heads answer directly to the top official, the mayor?  Was it better when they answered to a full complement of elected councilmembers and (by extension) to the general public?  We remember that bad deals were done under the old system.  Were they this bad? 

The San Diego public is ready for a proper, grand scale,  town hall meeting to take stock of where we are and where we're going.  In fact, we're more than ready. We’re entitled to one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

San Diego's dance fetish


Did you know that San Diego has a dance fetish?  Our obsessive routine goes something like this: We take one step forward, then two steps back… one step forward, two steps back...  one forward, two back…. 

Year in and year out, the city makes a bit of progress toward the common good and then pulls back--undermining and diminishing the quality of life in our communities.  To jog your memory, here are some random past examples of how we step on our own toes:
Once (circa 1980s), the city had a deal with SDG&E: we permitted them to exact surcharges on customer bills.  In exchange, they were to bury the overhead power lines that crisscross our city.
Somehow, millions of dollars of customer fees mysteriously evaporated.  Nevertheless, former Mayor Susan Golding (and her City Council cohorts) did a switchback step: SDG&E handed over a one-time $3.4 million cash payment to the city…a bandaid on the profligate mayor's overburdened city budget.  In exchange, the city freed SDG&E from its previous undergrounding obligations.
Once (ante 2000), we had a stable pension system and a functioning, well-staffed city government.  Then (following the lead of City Manager Jack McGrory) our elected officials took backward steps that crippled the city’s pension system, tripped up San Diego’s financial stability, and hollowed out City Hall.  Today, around 2,000 essential city positions are rattling around City Hall…unfilled.  Might that explain why current San Diegans experience chronic gaps in basic public services?
Once (ten years ago), Mayor Jerry Sanders got the blessings of then-City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to pretend he was participating as an ordinary joe blow and not as the Mayor of San Diego when he actively promoted a “pension reform” ballot proposition (Prop B).  The State Supreme Court said: "NO WAY."  
Although this subterfuge is currently costing the city at least $100 million to unravel the resultant mess, you’ll notice that these two dance mates have waltzed away, scot free. 
But no need to look to the past for deleterious examples of our dance fetish.  It’s happening right before your very eyes.
Once, an independent Redistricting Commission was added to our City Charter by San Diego voters.  Its purpose was to ensure that Redistricting activities would be conducted independent of and separate from the Mayor and City Council.  It was a forward step for our city. 
But Councilmember Chris Cate recently attempted to influence the mapping outcome 0f our independent Redistricting Commission, claiming he was participating as an ordinary citizen, not as a duly-elected Councilmember.  Wasn't the Court's "NO WAY" injunction loud enough when Jerry Sanders tried that ploy?  Cate's fancy footwork may or may not pay off for him personally, but the eventual cost to the public is yet to be seen.
Once, our city codified a system of Developer Impact Fees (DIFs).  The rationale was that new development should pay its own way...or at least that developers should facilitate the provision of community benefits and public facilities (roads, utility hookups, public spaces, etc.) made necessary by denser neighborhood development. 
But with a hop, skip, and jump backwards, Mayor Todd Gloria now proposes to redirect these DIFs away from the neighborhoods that are directly impacted by new development.  He wants to funnel DIFs into the city's General Fund... under his personal control... to be doled out as it suits his political agenda... never mind neighborhood impacts....  Is this legal? A judge may have another "No Way" to say about this maneuver.
Once, the city had a system for permanent retention of "official business" emails.  Undaunted, political consultant Stephen Puetz (chief of staff to former Mayor Kevin Faulconer) admitted he destroyed electronic messages integral to current legal investigations of the botched acquisition of 101 Ash Street.  
But Mayor Todd Gloria has a fix for this issue, as well.  He'll change the retention limit for important city emails/texts to a maximum of five years before they're destroyed.  Compared to his previous decision to delete and destroy city emails each and every year (he was interim-mayor at the time, following Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation), today's proposal looks like a baby-step forward.  But at a time when permanent storage is cheaper and more feasible than ever before, this signals a significant step backward for open government, transparency, and the public good.
So whoa, Nelly!  We're beginning to see how today’s dance moves by our current elected leadership threaten to take the city not just steps--but a GIANT LEAP BACKWARDS.
Our Mayor and individual City Council members may have reasonable personal convictions about what constitutes civic progress.  But collectively, they've espoused the myth that urban super-growth will be San Diego's savior to rescue us from the dire straits of housing unaffordability and the perils of climate change.
Abandoning principles of sensible zoning, they’ve taken a reckless dive into the YIMBY mosh pit to join assorted Growth Machine proselytizers and politically opportunistic lobbyists like Colin Parent (and his Circulate San Diego think tank).

Their rallying cry is Affordability! and their voices are well-nourished by financial infusions from the building industry and corporate real estate investors.   Whatever their motivation, they seem intent on leading San Diego backwards to an era of haphazard growth and environmental carelessness.  
But the evidence mounts daily that “supply and demand” in the housing market does not increase affordability.  High levels of density haven't made Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Tokyo affordable places to live.  It won’t be the magic bullet for San Diego, either. 
This bears repeating: growth is not a dirty word.  But growth--the quantity, quality, rate, impacts, losers, and beneficiaries--comes laden with enormous challenges for which there are no quick and easy answers.  
In the ongoing challenge to manage our growth and to continue efforts to make San Diego a more livable, well-run, environmentally sustainable, across-the-board affordable city, with social justice and fairness as our signature dance routine, one thing is certain: the role of and support for San Diego’s Community Planning Groups should be strengthened--not truncated--by our Mayor and City Council.  
Current proposals to promote super-growth--combined with plans to lobotomize Community Planning Groups and muffle rational neighborhood voices--are backward leaps that corrupt the public process to benefit private and corporate interests of the Growth Machine.  We should all be saying: NO WAY!

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Scamming San Diego in 4 easy steps

Warning: this commentary is standing on its head and starting with its conclusion:  

The aftermath of San Diego's 2020-21 Redistricting process may prove to be more destructive to good government in San Diego than any monetary loss from past Ponzi schemes and political heists.  

The parties of interest in this latest con game colluded to divide and conquer the San Diego public.  They were willing to shred and tear at San Diego’s civic and moral fabric for their own economic and political gain.  

In a cynical abuse of the public trust, they capitalized on specters of racism, elitism, ageism, and nimbyism to gain their private objectives.  

The Redistricting conflict was never about social and racial justice.  As in all scams, it was about profit-making.  And for the foreseeable future, these latest operators will be laughing all the way to the bank.


STEP 1:  If a city has a personality, how would you describe ours?  

The term that pops into my head is: GOOD-NATURED.   Aren’t San Diegans a cordial bunch of people?  Civil… undemanding… polite… nonjudgmental… forgiving?

Yes, we are definitely a good-natured, easygoing city.  Have we ever condemned former Mayor Susan Golding and City Manager Jack McGrory for foisting on us a city worker pension scam that still--to this very day--dessicates the city budget? 


Did we punish ex-Mayor Jerry Sanders for his sketchy scheme to saddle the public with an additional $94 million debt for a bogus Comprehensive Pension Reform initiative—for which we’re still picking up the financial pieces?  And didn't we forgive and forget his responsibility for reprobate police behavior, which resulted in tragic shooting deaths of many ordinary citizens in San Ysidro ?

And when nice guys like Jerry Sanders, Todd Gloria, and Kevin Faulconer handed exclusive control of a civic project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Balboa Park Panama-California Exposition to a private corporation stacked with political cronies--which cost the city $3 million but produced nothing--weren’t we too polite to raise a stink?  

That’s old history, you say?  What about the get-out-of-jail pass we’re poised to give to high city officials like current-Mayor Todd Gloria, ex-Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and previous-City Attorney Jan Goldsmith as we shrug our shoulders over their criminally dodgy actions to acquire useless property like (but not limited to) the albatross at 101 Ash Street?

And yes, we've occasionally turned the other cheek to non-political scammers-- defrauders like John Alessio and C. Arnholt Smith; underworld dabblers like Dick Silberman and Allen Glick; Ponzi-schemers like J. David Dominelli and Gina Champion-Cain; and don’t forget those slick manipulators like Alex and Dean Spanos, John Moores, and 'papa' Doug Manchester.  

In other words, we’re not just good-natured--we’ve been trusting hosts to grifters of every shape, size, and denomination.


STEP 2:  I’ve spilled plenty of ink during these past months on the subject of San Diego City Council Redistricting, the once-every-every-ten-year ritual to redraw the map of City Council districts for the purpose of creating fair, equitable, and balanced voting opportunities through the city.  What makes this subject so riveting?

First, there's my longstanding commitment to promoting good government practices in our city.  

Then, there's the meteoric landing in San Diego of the “life sciences” economy, an industry joined at the hip with the enormously profitable real estate and development industry—which, in turn, is dependent for its prosperity on political goodwill over decisions concerning land use, zoning, taxes and fees, environmental regulation, and so on. 

And finally, there's the sudden strange disappearance of San Diego’s unofficial trademark: good-natured civility.  Something about the Redistricting process had set us at war with one another.  A noxious smokescreen--thick with orchestrated accusations of racism, elitism, ageism, and nimbyism--was pumped into the air.  Boldly but stealthily, the public was being manipulated.  But why?  And by whom? 


STEP 3:  Could it be that San Diego Redistricting was just another swindle? The answer is NO!  And then again YES! 

NO, because--to their credit-- San Diego Redistricting Commissioners (despite a few hiccups) played by the rules.  The Commissioners (most of them, anyway) succeeded in keeping their end of the process above board. 


And YES, because the basic elements of a scam--deception, diversion, pretense, smokescreens, graft, payoffs--were deployed throughout the Redistricting process in the service of hidden agendas and monetary gain.  


It might take a grand jury investigation to reconstruct this latest San Diego scam.  But we can take an early stab at identifying some of the pieces on our own.  


Here are a few things we know about City Council Redistricting:

§  We know that the city of San Diego has written guidelines that exclude elected officials from engaging or interfering in the Redistricting process. 

§  We know that gerrymandering to cater to political parties or political ambitions is a no-no.  Same goes for gerrymandering to promote the financial interests of a private business or industry.

§  And we know the Redistricting process must satisfy basic requirements for proportional population numbers, community integrity, and fair racial and ethnic representation.  

§  Also, we know that widespread agreement existed throughout the city to promote a strong “Black” political bloc in District 4, a strong “Asian” political bloc in District 6, and strong “Latino” political bloc in District 9.


Here are a few things we did NOT know: 

  •  Most of us did not know that San Diego City Councilmember Chris Cate--in violation of acceptable behavior for an elected official--was actively engaged in attempts to influence the outcome of the mapping process.  
  •  Who knew that Councilmember Cate’s fingerprints were on a prefabricated Redistricting map? And on a shell organization called Neighborhood Voices of San Diego? And on a “Confidential Plan” with $100,000 budgeted for consultants, social media, scripted talking points, and financial bonuses for recruiting students and other "community members" to deliver dictated public comments at Redistricting hearings?
  •  And how could most of us know that the aggressively-publicized "Collaborative Communities” map promoted by some of San Diego’s well-respected social justice nonprofits was basically a Neighborhood Voices/Confidential Plan hand-me-down?

STEP 4: How far were the parties of interest willing to go?

What could be a cleverer way for an extended family of venture capitalists and Wall Street investors to dominate the direction of San Diego growth and land use policies than to create a hand-tailored Redistricting map that would consolidate into a single council district (District 6) prime real estate opportunities ripe for acquisition and commercial development? 

And then to facilitate the election of a suitable councilperson for the district?


The icing on the cake was to be the transfer of the entire campus of UCSD out of its environment-conscious district and into a district designated for intense growth and development, alongside University City, Mira Mesa, Scripps Miramar Ranch, and Kearny Mesa.  

Parties of interest in this underground scheme (in addition to Councilmember Cate) included industry heavyweights like the self-proclaimed Uniter of the Life Sciences Industry, Biocom; entrepreneurial developers like IQHQ; REITs like Alexandria Realty Equities; and in constant battle with neighboring San Diegans over his aggressive plans for university growth and expansion--the ambitious UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.

More parties of interest included local lighter-weights like political consultant Ryan Clumpner; Clumpner’s partner and Chamber of Commerce director of public affairs Sara Kamiab; some members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community; and college student Aidan Lin.  And it was often hard to determine when Redistricting Commisioner Justine Nielsen was upholding her good government responsibility or lobbying on behalf of her Biocom clients.

By the end of many months of Redistricting Commission public meetings an acceptable City Council map was produced.  It’s tempting to issue a good-natured report that all’s well that ends well.  

But it wouldn't be the truth.  


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Redistricting San Diego--ten years later

Take a long look at the outcome of San Diego’s 2010 Redistricting Commission process.  You’ll be impressed by the success of that former Commission in drawing boundary lines for our City Council districts that have enabled San Diegans to elect a range of culturally diverse leaders in our nine council districts.  

We now have what is popularly desinated as a Black District (D4), an Asian District (D6), a Gay District (D3), and two Hispanic Districts (D8, D9).  All five of the councilmembers elected from these districts are “of color.”  Two councilmembers identify as belonging to the gay community.  Four councilmembers are women.  And eight out of nine councilmembers call themselves Democrats. 


Nothing's perfect in the world of politics.  But if you happen to be a forward-thinking, reformist Democrat in San Diego, this would be called good progress.  (Not so much for our Republican constituents, though.)


Now zoom ten years later to San Diego's 2020 Redistricting Commission process.  You'll notice that something peculiar is underfoot.  

With only a few weeks left to finish its job, the current Redistricting Commission is being bombarded by demands to drastically rearrange San Diego’s map of neighborhoods and communities.  The demands are for changes that far exceed necessary boundary adjustments due to new census data or community streamlining due to population shifts. 


Most peculiar about this turn of events is that the very groups that would be negatively affected by a drastic overhall of community boundaries are partnering in the pressure campaign to force the Redistricting Commission to enact these changes.  It is ironic that their involvement threatens to reverse ten years’ worth of forward momentum toward fair representation at the City Council. 


Which is why a person might be driven to ask herself: What’s going on behind the scenes to generate such an incongruous disconnect?  How can we connect the dots?


Here's what it looks like from the outside: Starting this past summer, individuals and organizations were invited to submit maps of their own making to the Redistricting Commission, creating their ideal boundaries for their personal district or for the entire city.  And all San Diego residents were invited to participate (via zoom) in regular Commission meetings to voice their comments and recommendations to the Commissioners.


Working under a tight schedule, the Redistricting Commission approved a tentative map at the end of October--a composite of public recommendations from the previous months of public petitions and testimony.  Another round of public discussion devoted to fine-tuning this map was scheduled to promptly begin.


But at the very last minute a new redistricting vision--dubbed the San Diego Communities Collaboration map (let’s call it the SDCC map)--was submitted for consideration by a Chula Vista resident.  This map deviated sharply from the map generated by the Commission.  It wiped clean the boundary lines north of I-8 that traditionally defined five council districts (D1, D2, D5, D6, and D7) and sketched in completely new ones. 


Some supporters of the SDCC map say they jumped onboard as a statement of solidarity with the ethnic goal of Asian undergraduates at UCSD and other Asian residents and businesses to guarantee them an even stronger ethnic concentration in the existing Asian District.  They claim they can achieve this goal by moving the entire UCSD campus and greater environs out its present district and into D6.


The SDCC map is actually a dead-end for any San Diego resident who wants to see our city move forward.   It's a devious setup that forecasts an undesirable return to the San Diego of old, when conservative perspectives dominated the City Council.

On the one hand, it supports a stronger Asian district and many supporters of the SDCC map are among San Diego’s most socially progressive advocates who regard this use of identity politics as a positive force. 

➤On the other hand, it creates new concentrations of conservative-leaning voters in its newly-invented council districts, strategically diluting the voting clout of liberal cohorts in the northern and coastal sections of San Diego while also diluting the influence of the Hispanic population in five districts.  

So why support a redistricting map that would weaken the voices and clout of Democratic allies to the north and ultimately undermine progressive momentum citywide?  

Look closely and the dots will start to connect as you:

  • identify the cadre of savvy Republican operatives who have seized the redistricting opportunity to make a comeback;
  • catch sight of certain other proponents of the SDCC map expertly undermining the redistricting process and manipulating public opinion;
  • come across student organizers encouraging fellow students to unleash their frustrations by condemning local neighborhoods over the inadequacy of social opportunities and housing rather than criticizing the policies of their own university chancellor; 
  • notice the stamp of approval provided by BIOCOM and related business industries;
  • get wind of the corporate real estate investors calculating their next moves into environmentally sensitive regions--formerly protected from development but soon to be in the hands of compliant newly-elected city officials.  

Redistricting is dirty business in many other parts of our country.  We can close our eyes and hold our noses and pretend that San Diego is immune to partisan politics and sneaky actors with self-serving agendas. 


Alternatively, we can support the better angels among our Redistricting Commissioners by encouraging them to gird their loins and move forward in the public interest to prevent San Diego’s backward slide into a politically retrograde, unpromising future.