The chair of the San Diego Association of Governments board said the agency needs to rebuild public trust after Voice of San Diego revealed executives there knowingly misled voters about how much money a November tax increase would have raised.

“I’d like to tell you we all knew about this, but we didn’t,” said Ron Roberts, a county supervisor who as the chair of the SANDAG board led the campaign to pass Measure A, a proposal to increase sales taxes a half-cent for 40 years that was defeated on Election Day.

“I wish as chair or even just as a board member, I had at least been made aware of this,” Roberts said. “I know there are board members who think I’m responsible for this, and that’s fine with me. But I never would have stood out there if I knew it was only going to raise $14 billion, and told people it would raise $18 billion.”

Months before SANDAG’s board put Measure A on the ballot, agency staffers recognized a major problem: Internal forecasts were dramatically overestimating how much money the tax would generate for regional transportation projects. They exchanged colorful and panicked emails about the discovery.

The discovery also meant SANDAG had made the same error on TransNet, a similar tax voters approved in 2004, which is now suffering a significant revenue shortfall as a result.

The staffers in December 2015 brought their findings to the agency’s executive leaders, who sat on the information. They didn’t tell the board of directors, of which Roberts is a member, or an oversight group that monitors the 2004 tax. Four months later, the board put the new tax on the ballot, carrying the faulty $18 billion promise.


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Roberts, along with former San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, was the public face of SANDAG’s effort to sell the measure. He appeared at a debate to make the case for its necessity, where he argued the agency’s track record spoke for itself and warranted voter support. He wrote an op-ed urging its passage for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and another for Voice of San Diego defending the agency after it finally acknowledged TransNet’s shortfall late last year.

Now, though, he says he wishes SANDAG staff hadn’t kept him in the dark.

“I would have liked it if someone said, ‘We have a discrepancy here,’” Roberts said. “That didn’t happen, and to the extent it didn’t, that’s my disappointment. After spending time with (SANDAG Executive Director Gallegos and chief deputy Kim Kawada) on the phone, I don’t think the intention was to inflate this so people would be more receptive.”

Roberts is unwilling to say it was a “cover up” for SANDAG’s leaders not to publicly disclose the forecasting problems as soon as staffers discovered them.

“I’m not in a position to say why staff would do this,” he said.

Voice of San Diego revealed the forecast’s flaws, and the revenue shortfall that came with them, weeks before the November election. SANDAG staff insisted at the time that there wasn’t a problem. But the agency quietly acknowledged the issue late last year. It turns out they knew of the issue roughly a year earlier.

Roberts said the agency will need to win back public trust if it expects voters to ever approve another tax increase.

“We’re going to have to show with real clarity how these numbers are being derived,” he said. “Is the public going to say, ‘We’re going to destroy this organization because this thing happened?’ I think you have to re-establish that trust.”

SANDAG’s board has its annual retreat this week. Along with staff, the elected officials who make up the board determine the agency’s strategic agenda for the next year.

Roberts expects the meeting to address TransNet’s shortfall, Measure A’s erroneous revenue promise and SANDAG leadership’s decision not to disclose the forecasting problems earlier.

“If there are things that won’t be completed, people need to know that,” Roberts said. “But that’s based on a lot of assumptions, not just revenue, and I’d like them to be able to explain that to us. I don’t know if they’ll have those numbers available for us by Wednesday or Thursday.”

    This article relates to: Government, Must Reads, SANDAG

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

    14 comments
    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    I appreciate where he is coming from since SANDAG is known by anyone who has tried to inform them in their Chambers that they are staff led and staff driven and there are rarely any substantive questions and even if they are asked, Gallegos and crew are experts at either saying something reasonable-sounding or saying they will have to study it and get back and then they come up with something that sounds reasonable, but maybe it isn't. 


    When you overly trust staffers instead of listening from the place of having to hold them accountable - you don't spend time asking about the things you should or believing the public if they happen to tell them what's going wrong. And lobbying groups in town support this as long as they're getting what they think they need. 


    I did an analysis of TransNet 1 showing that almost all the published cost estimates were wrong and not slightly wrong, either. You cannot just look at the revenue side when you're concerned about whether the projects promised are actually going to be funded. 


    It's obvious that some projects are going to fall off the list. Which ones? It makes sense to drop the ones that made the Regional Transportation Plan out of compliance with climate change reduction needs. But SANDAG has fought to the CA Supreme Court the lawsuit against the RTP instead of seeking to comply.


    Where is the list of priority projects deciding which ones are going to fall off the list? Supervisor Roberts surely knows that the Trolley extension to UCSD was promised 40 years ago in TransNet 1, now being paid for by TransNet 2. Without TransNet 2 and no future tax increases likely without a change in leadership, the public deserves to know the consequences of existing cost increases and funding shortfalls.


    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Carolyn Chase  Mirabile Dictu! We may be approaching one of those rare periods of agreement; of process at least.

    Every once in awhile that happens; every decade or so. Last time it was agreement Proposition A should not pass; the 2004 vote to continue the 1/2 cent sales tax for TtansNet 2, and its list, mostly of transportation projects. Of course we had opposite reasons, you for more mass trans, I for less.

    Of course there was no alternative; either for leadership, or transportation projects.

    I had considered this opportunity for a comprehensive objective review, with principal criteria what the representative public would favor, and above all use. The review list would be SANDAG's list plus others that hay met understandable proven technology. The nature of demand, its objectives and environmental elements would be part.

    Perhaps the just barely passing vote was just as well

    Here we are 12 years later:

      -with more experience introducing transportation elements.

        - which have contributed bst?

        -which ones the public wants to use.

         -new emphasis on energy efficiency, and meeting stiff air quality standards.

         -new systems, not available in2004 for  on call transportation available to all

         -a better basis for predicting future performance.

         -there is a new Administration running USDOT.

         -I have listed some current concerns.

         -etc.

        -a system oriented basis for the long term would be expected, as well as initial specific projects.

    ( I have not tried to describe, if desired, top leadership options.)

    Frequently, in past years, I and others, have suggested this. We both remember San Diego County Taxpayers Association attempts when Scott Barnet was Director.

    So that's my suggestion. Big remaining question; What independent organization is in charge, and what is its analysis source?

    You have mentioned the many players of  interest in San Diego. It is like what computer people call the cloud.  Type in some key words, and out comes the person or organization with its point of view.

    Transportation inputs, current and new are needed. But overall we probably have to go outside.

    Is this useful under current conditions?

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Is the following SANDAG Staff information related to transportation in approved San Diego Forward  known to all?


        About 95% of energy reduction responsible for GHG reduction, and emissions comes from on road vehicles.

        Daily fuel reduction by improving autos is nearly 3 million gallons. Mass transit savings ill defined, but less than 50 thousand gallons likely.


         Passenger-miles carried daily by new and improved mass transit of about 2 million, is less than 10% of need to absorb projected growth.


        Time to work saving during peak periods for mass transit is 5 mintes;10% of 50 minutes average. Automobile nodes not improved; 27 minute average.


          New mass transit and capital for improvements spend 50% ; $40 billion, of  total Plan capital; resulting in performance above.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    No, Ron, we ALL should have been told about this.

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill subscribermember

    To paraphrase Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards in another context, "the only way anyone on the SANDAG directorship can lose their job is to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy"

    Even that is not assured given the current political climate. Ron Roberts and the SANDAG staff count on a somnambulant voter. I fear they are right.

    Stanton
    Stanton subscriber

    I'm not buying the Ron Roberts' Sergeant Schultz, "I know nothing !.." defense. Either Roberts knew...or he should have known. SANDAG needs reform and new leadership.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Bottom line is this.

    SANDAG is not trustworthy and are now proven liars.

    The annual retreat will have a lot of "happy talk" about this  and then it will be back to business as usual. The executive leaders committed fraud yet will not be held accountable.

    The lack of holding the executive leaders accountable is on you Mr. Roberts and the rest of SANDAG board.

    Your inaction is thunderous


     

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    @Mark Giffin Sadly, while I hope you're incorrect and that heads will roll this time because it's gotten some publicity, the odds sir, are in your favor. They have been shown to obfuscate, manipulate etc. in the past and nothing has been done because the elected officials think Gary Gallegos can do no wrong. Therefore there is no need to hold him accountable, even if shown otherwise. Moreover as long as each jurisdiction is given enough of the stuff that they want, then everything else will work out. There really is no regional thinking, because the Board members are not accountable regionally to population needs, but understandable getting the most for what they can for their part of the region. Weighted voting only makes up for this partially. There's no good answer to this on the horizon and so our transportation system has no chance to apply global best practices. We're stuck with a $65++ Billion Plan that says a lot of fine progressive things but is basically continuing at worst a 19th century approach and at best, a 20th century approach: slow trollies and freeways. Better proposals are ignored claiming they can't change TransNet. But when the staff says they have to, they do. With leadership, they could. Odds are, they won't.

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    Obviously the only thing Ron Roberts is concerned with is that they got caught trying to misled the public with this sales tax increase.  It is by no means a surprise; it is the way they operate.  They figured the majority of the electorate is too apathetic to even care.  And for the most part the average San Diegan still has no idea about this story.  If it weren't for the VOSD this would never have been revealed.  This is just typical and par for the course.  It will continue for some time to come.   The only reason the new Charger stadium proposals lost was because it was so much in the press.  Again this is what will continually happen until we see less apathy.  Obviously some people who got SANDAG to go forward with this BS was going to make a some really big money off of it.  That is how things work here and have always worked here in San Diego going way  backfor decades.

    Thomas Theisen
    Thomas Theisen subscribermember

    "Good luck on the next matter put before the voters."  In order to restore voter confidence, we not only need to hold people accountable for knowingly misleading voters last fall, we need need to make substantial structural changes to ensure transparency, honesty and accountability going forward, and even that may not be enough.

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    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Well, who lost their jobs over this, Mr. Roberts?  You're the chair, what's the plan, to simply accept incompetence and lying?  I thought so.  


    "I wish  I'd been made aware of this" is not an adequate response.  


    Good luck on the next matter put before the voters.

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw ... I guarantee you no one will lose their jobs on this.  Quite the opposite, they will get promoted in hopes of doing a better cover-up next time.  Again SANDAG and all of the politicians associated with it will simply learn that they need to do a little bit better job at covering up the facts put forth to a very apathetic and uneducated voter base.   

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Phillip Franklin @Bill Bradshaw Maybe, but the November proposal failed, so the apathetic, uneducated voters must be at least breathing.  The next SANDAG proposal is likely to meet fire breathing voters and organized groups opposing it.  It'll probably get about as much support as the Chargers' scheme.

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw @Phillip Franklin Bill keep in mind that the 2016 election was a major presidential election which got many people to the polls.  The more people who show up to vote in this city the better things will be for all San Diego.  San Diego's main problem is voter apathy. These politician crooks who have for the most part been running things in this city and county are more aware of that than anyone.  Let's hope more citizens become aware of this corruption and show up at the polls even in an off year election.