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In Closed Session, Faulconer Blocked Decision on SANDAG’s New Leader

Board members representing small cities have discussed withholding a quorum so the board can’t make any decisions, if it keeps using its newfound authority that gives more weight to larger cities. A vote on Friday could put that resolve to the test.

SANDAG board of directors

A meeting of the SANDAG board of directors / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer led a move to block the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors’ attempt to hire a new executive director last month.

In a May 11 closed session meeting, agency staff told SANDAG’s board their top choice to fill the position – Josh Brown, executive director at the Puget Sound Regional Council – had withdrawn from consideration, according to four sources familiar with the situation. Voice of San Diego has granted the sources anonymity because they are legally barred from discussing what happens in closed session.

A majority of the board then voted to offer the job to Kim Kawada, SANDAG’s chief deputy executive director, who has led the agency since longtime director Gary Gallegos’s resignation last year amid a scandal over the agency’s existing sales tax program, and a new tax it put on the 2016 ballot. Kawada had been closely involved in the agency’s response to the scandal.

But after the board voted to give Kawada the job, Faulconer and other board members effectively vetoed the decision.

Faulconer called for a weighted vote, which allows a minority of board members, who together represent a majority of the county population, to overrule the rest of the board. It was the first use of the authority since it was created by a state law passed last year in response to the scandal.

Enough cities joined Faulconer in blocking the decision to hire Kawada and forced the agency to re-open its search for a new executive director.

Because the vote happened in closed session, it has not been publicly disclosed.

But the action casts new light on a tense SANDAG board meeting two weeks later, when the board used the authority publicly for the first time.

The private, weighted vote Faulconer engineered occurred the same day the board voted to ask state regulators to lower the number of homes the county would be expected to build in the coming years.

Board members representing more than half of the county voted against that decision, but without explanation did not invoke a weighted vote to block the decision. That perplexed us. We were unsure why they would not take advantage of that option. But now we know that, later that day, they instead used the authority in closed session.

Then, two weeks later, board members requested a new hearing to reconsider the housing decision. Led by the city of San Diego, they used the weighted vote for the first time in public to get their wish.

Mayors from National City, San Marcos, Escondido and El Cajon decried the heavy-handed process, and San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond stormed out of the hearing, declaring that he wouldn’t participate in the vote.

We now know that was the second time in as many board meetings that representatives from a collection of big and small cities together representing more than half of the population opted to overrule the rest of the board.

In a statement, SANDAG board chair and Del Mar Mayor Terry Sinnott said candidates for the agency’s executive director position deserve privacy and confidentiality, and that the agency will protect that privacy until it announces a final selection.

“It is unfair to the candidates and unprofessional for anyone who participated in those meetings to reveal the discussions or any actions that did or did not occur,” Sinnott wrote.

A Faulconer spokesman said the mayor cannot comment on any closed-session items or discussions.

But the tension over the cities’ use of their newfound authority could increase soon.

The rescheduled discussion of the housing item is set for Friday. Unless some representatives have changed their position in the last two weeks, the board would again need to invoke a weighted vote to overturn the previous decision.

Increasingly concerned board members in the minority have weighed striking back. They’re discussing withholding a quorum from the board – in one way or another, refusing to be present for a vote so that there aren’t enough members to hold an official meeting.

On that, Faulconer was willing, through a spokesman, to comment.

“The weighted vote on housing included representatives from cities of all sizes in favor, including Chula Vista, Coronado, Del Mar, Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Oceanside, San Diego and Solana Beach,” Faulconer spokesman Greg Block in a statement. “The SANDAG board has a history of working in collaboration for the advancement of the entire region and should continue to do so, particularly in addressing the region’s housing crisis.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post attributed a statement to Mayor Kevin Faulconer; the statement came from Faulconer spokesman Greg Block. 

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