Environmental Lawyer Sues City, Sunroad Over Development Deal - Voice of San Diego

Bob Filner

Environmental Lawyer Sues City, Sunroad Over Development Deal

On the same day progressive advocate and environmental attorney Cory Briggs released a public letter asking Mayor Bob Filner to resign, he also filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego and developer Sunroad Enterprises.

On the same day progressive advocate and environmental attorney Cory Briggs released a public letter asking Mayor Bob Filner to resign, he also filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego and developer Sunroad Enterprises over a controversial project approval that has dogged the mayor’s office.

Briggs’ complaint says the city’s decision to grant Sunroad a nine-foot easement of city parkland to make way for an apartment complex violates San Diego’s City Charter and municipal code as well as the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

U-T San Diego and 10News have reported that federal investigators are looking into Filner’s actions involving Sunroad.

In Briggs’ separate request for Filner’s resignation, he said he reluctantly came to accept that Filner’s office doesn’t uphold the principles of open, accountable and responsible government to which Briggs has dedicated his career. But that letter doesn’t offer any specific transgressions that Briggs believes are resignation-worthy.

The lawsuit, however, makes clear that Filner’s actions surrounding Sunroad played a significant role in persuading Briggs that Filner is unfit to continue as mayor.

The City Council unanimously voted on April 30 to grant Sunroad its easement on portions of a two-acre park it was required to build as part of its Kearny Mesa residential development. Filner vetoed the approval two weeks later. The City Council then unanimously voted to override the veto on June 11, after the mayor’s chief of staff told the council Filner wanted them to do so and that he no longer objected to the project.

The lawsuit makes four basic allegations:

• The mayor demanded a quid pro quo $100,000 payment from Sunroad in exchange for his agreement to urge the City Council to override his veto, and that the payment had no legal “nexus,” or relationship, to the Kearny Mesa community.

• Or, alternately, that Sunroad initiated a quid pro quo $100,000 offer of payment in exchange for Filner’s agreement to urge the Council to override his veto, and the mayor accepted the offer.

• One public official — the lawsuit doesn’t say whom, and Briggs himself declined to reveal — had a conflict of interest in approving the project.

• Even if there wasn’t a quid pro quo, the city’s approval of the project was still illegal because it didn’t follow proper legal procedure.

Briggs’ complaint with the project itself comes in a few forms.

His lawsuit challenges the city’s right to approve a reduction of public park space without additional environmental review, since the easement approval didn’t include a statement of its environmental effects.

Briggs also says in the suit that the easement represents a sale of city property, and the municipal code requires any sale of city property to include a number of details at the time the City Council approves it: the reason for selling the property, a description of the property being sold, a statement of the value of the property and statements about how the sale will be conducted.

And he alleges the agreement violates Section 55 of the City Charter, which says any parkland owned by the city can’t be used for any other use without approval of two-thirds of the electorate.

Briggs is asking the court to halt the project until each of those concerns is remedied, along with awarding attorney fees and legal expenses.

On the allegation of the quid pro quo arrangement between Filner and Sunroad, the lawsuit zeroes in on the role it says the mayor’s office played in the City Council veto override: “City Council overrode the mayor’s veto of the project’s approval on or about June 11, 2013, based upon the mayor’s request that his veto be overridden,” the lawsuit reads (emphasis added).

That’s a different assessment than one California Western Law professor Andrea Johnson offered to me earlier this week —she said an investigation into the mayor’s actions might get tripped up because the mayor didn’t have an official role in the council’s decision to override the veto.

But Briggs is pointing to the fact that the mayor’s chief of staff, Vince Hall, appeared before the City Council before the vote and told the nine Council members that the mayor wanted them to override his veto.

Councilman Scott Sherman asked Hall during the meeting whether the mayor changed his mind on the project because of the $100,000 contribution to the city, which was set to pay for a veterans memorial in Ocean Beach and a bicycling event in August.

Hall said the donation had nothing to do with the mayor’s change of heart. Filner’s former deputy chief of staff Allen Jones contradicted Hall’s claim and said Filner was well aware the donation was made in exchange for dropping his opposition to the project.

On Friday, June 28, Filner announced he had returned the $100,000 after learning of a memo between Jones and Tom Story, an executive at Sunroad, making explicit the connection between the donation and Filner’s changed position on the project.

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