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Gonzalez Bill Would Reform SANDAG – and Make San Diego’s Mayor Way More Powerful

The bill would not only give each of the cities on the SANDAG board a vote proportional to their population — making San Diego and Chula Vista far more powerful — it would make San Diego’s mayor the permanent chair of both SANDAG and the Metropolitan Transit System.

This post has been updated.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez released the details this week for her SANDAG reform bill – and it would not only shake up how the agency makes decisions, it would hand far more power to San Diego’s mayor.

“I’ve never been impressed by SANDAG,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a staff-driven organization that thinks its purpose is to build roads. I think a regional agency should do more than that.”

AB 805 would create an audit committee and hire an independent auditor at SANDAG, in hopes of preventing another budgeting scandal, after Voice of San Diego revealed that SANDAG leadership knowingly overstated how much money a sales tax hike would bring in and understated costs of transportation projects voters already approved.

It doesn’t stop there.

The bill would overhaul SANDAG’s voting structure, giving each of the cities on the board a vote proportional to their population. That would make the county’s most populous cities – San Diego and Chula Vista — far more influential in regional decision-making.

Gonzalez also wants to make San Diego’s mayor the permanent chair of the Metropolitan Transit System, the county’s primary transit operator. The chair and vice chair of the SANDAG board would always be the mayors of the county’s two largest cities − San Diego and Chula Vista − and they would alternate those positions.

Gonzalez said the change would make the agencies – which currently have boards composed of elected officials from around the county who then choose a chairperson – more accountable, because typical residents know who the mayor is and how to hold him or her accountable.

The bill would also stipulate that the representatives from cities on SANDAG would be mayors – cities couldn’t choose to appoint a council member instead. She said that’s because the mayors of smaller cities have more resources available to double-check the information given to them by SANDAG staff.

“They’re used to demanding different things of staff, and so we’ll see that more,” she said. “It’ll be more accountable.”

Plus, she said the change to proportional representation would make SANDAG and MTS more reactive to the concerns of the constituents their decisions affect.

“The communities most affected by these decisions are in the browner areas, and the people making these decisions are the ones least affected by them,” she said. “What’s been happening hasn’t produced a result that anyone who cares about transportation funding can be happy with.”

Her bill would also make it possible for MTS and the North County Transit District to levy their own transit-only taxes. That could make it easier to pass a future tax increase, since the areas served by MTS are more willing to vote for new taxes than the county as a whole.

Another bill proposed by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a former SANDAG board member, would have a similar result by simply letting SANDAG impose a tax on a smaller area within the county – such as in the tax-friendly South Bay.

Gonzalez said she’s open to that approach, but not without imposing the accountability-focused reforms in her bill, too.

“I do not want to see their taxing authority made easier without significant reforms,” she said.

In a statement, Gloria said he couldn’t comment on Gonzalez’s bill until he sees the full language, but said his bill – AB 1324 – addresses the problem of suburban, urban and rural areas not always sharing priorities.

“I have always advocated for repairing our crumbling infrastructure, and this provides a way to do it,” he said.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, who represents one of the small cities that would potentially lose sway under Gonzalez’s measure, said the Coronado City Council will vote to take a formal position on the bill on April 4.

“The section of AB 805 calling for an independent audit committee is a concept with merit that should be considered,” he wrote in a statement. “However, it should be considered by the SANDAG board, not implemented through state legislation. The rest of the bill jeopardizes the current level of regional cooperation throughout San Diego County.”

A SANDAG spokesman said it would be more appropriate for board members, not agency officials, to react to Gonzalez’s reform bill.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect information provided by Gonzalez’s office after this story published. Gonzalez’s office said the intent of the bill, though it has not yet been written into the proposal, would be for the mayors of San Diego and Chula Vista to always be chair and vice-chair of SANDAG, and that they would alternate those positions.

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