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The balance of power at the San Diego Association of Governments just shifted.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed AB 805, a bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher that overhauls the regional planning agency SANDAG, following a year in which the agency has been besieged by scandal.
The changes at SANDAG will empower large cities like San Diego and Chula Vista, at the expense of small and rural cities like Del Mar and Santee.
In practice, that’s expected to shift SANDAG and its $1.3 billion annual budget to the left, making it more likely the board inks labor-friendly contracts and emphasizes transit projects over freeways.
Gonzalez Fletcher introduced the bill this spring, after Voice of San Diego revealed the agency is now billions short of what it needs to fulfill the promises made to voters as part of TransNet, a sales tax hike passed in 2004, and that SANDAG had knowingly overstated how much TransNet would bring in and understated project costs over a series of years.
SANDAG later commissioned an outside investigation from an Orange County law firm, which confirmed that agency staffers and executives knew its revenue estimates were overstated but presented inflated numbers to voters anyway. It also found that the agency hid and deleted public documents to cover up the scandal once Voice of San Diego began writing about it.
The agency’s longtime executive director, Gary Gallegos, resigned a week after the release of the investigation.
Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill capitalized on the scandal. The bill would create a new performance auditor and audit committee to oversee issues like those Voice of San Diego uncovered. It also remakes the agency in ways that boost Gonzalez Fletcher’s political goals – making the agency more labor- and transit-friendly – that aren’t directly related to the scandal.
Currently, SANDAG’s board takes two votes on every item. One is a simple tally of each board member’s vote, and the other is weighted to the population of the city the board member represents. Items need to be approved both ways.
Now, any four cities representing a majority of the county’s population could invoke a weighted vote on an item and overrule the tally vote. MTS has long had a similar voting structure.
That means the balance of power in San Diego no longer resides with the smaller, rural cities that are typically more conservative, but in the densely populated and more liberal areas in the urban core.
That could shape decisions in the short term, but it’ll be especially impactful in determining the composition of major SANDAG decisions in the coming years. Future tax increases could devote a larger share to transit projects than they otherwise would, or direct a larger share to San Diego or the South Bay.
Likewise, the composition of projects in SANDAG’s long-term transportation plan could over time change to reflect the agency’s new political power center.
AB 805 is also a boon to organized labor. It requires the agency to hire from state-approved apprentice programs for large construction projects, unless it signs union-friendly project labor agreements. Organized labor unsuccessfully lobbied SANDAG’s board to write a similar requirement into Measure A – a tax hike measure that failed – last year, but the conservative-dominated board wouldn’t budge. It’s now a requirement for any future tax increase.
The bill also gives the two transit operators in the county – the Metropolitan Transit System and the North County Transit District – the authority to propose tax increases of their own.
That could make it more likely that future tax increases to fund transit and infrastructure pass, since the geographic area covered by MTS, for instance, excludes many tax-averse areas. But as long as tax increases for specific needs, like transportation, still require support from two-thirds of voters, will continue to be a difficult political fight.
Republicans opposed the bill, as did many of the small cities poised to lose influence, including El Cajon, La Mesa, National City, Solana Beach, Poway, San Marcos, Vista and the County of San Diego.
But support didn’t break on clean partisan lines.
The San Diego City Council voted to support AB 805, with all five Democrats voting to support it and all four Republicans opposing it.
That meant Democrats would not have had the votes to overcome a veto from Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Yet Faulconer, who rarely attends SANDAG meetings but now holds a significantly more powerful vote there, chose not to veto the Council’s decision. It was at the least a tacit show of support.
Brown has in the past shied away from signing bills that solely apply to local, rather than statewide, issues. Two years ago, he vetoed a bill by Gonzalez Fletcher to overhaul the downtown redevelopment agency Civic San Diego on those very grounds.
But she prevailed upon him to sign this one, and in the spring hinted that she had mentioned the bill when Brown asked her to support the gas tax increase passed by the Legislature this spring.
“If he’s going to talk to me about my vote for transportation funding, I’ll talk about my bill to reform our transportation agency,” she said.
Since introducing the bill, Gonzalez Fletcher has discussed it as an attempt to undo the establishment networks that have run SANDAG for decades. She did the same while celebrating Brown’s signature.
“This is a good day for the silent majority in our region who have been ignored and paved over for far too long,” she said in a statement.
SANDAG, meanwhile, has discussed its own response to AB 805. The board’s chair, County Supervisor Ron Roberts, asked staff to pursue a ballot measure next year that could undo or counteract AB 805. It remains unclear what that proposal would look like, what authority the agency would have over the new state law and whether the agency wants to spend the millions required to run a countywide ballot measure.
Meanwhile, some Republican board members are pushing for internal changes at SANDAG separate from those in AB 805.
SANDAG staff last month said the agency needs to bring in $18 billion from state or federal sources to build everything it promised voters as part of TransNet – nearly $8 billion more than it had anticipated needing just two years ago.
The board said that could still happen, so long as the recently passed gas tax increase, SB 1, isn’t overturned, and as long as the state Legislature passes two more similar tax increases in the next 13 years.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey said those expectations are wildly unrealistic and that SANDAG needs to fundamentally change the way it plans for its transportation spending.
“If we’re building our budgets based on the dollars that are needed, versus the dollars we actually expect to receive, then we need to fundamentally change how we build our budgets,” he said.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond and San Diego Councilwoman Lorie Zapf all voiced related or supportive comments. SANDAG staff is expected to bring the TransNet funding plan back to the board at a future meeting.
In the meantime, the structure of the agency – and the balance of power throughout the region – has already been fundamentally changed.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated SANDAG’s new voting structure. There must be four cities to invoke a weighted vote.