SANDAG Fires Three Top Staffers - Voice of San Diego

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SANDAG Fires Three Top Staffers

The San Diego Association of Governments fired three senior staffers Tuesday, marking a leadership shakeup for an agency that has been changing direction since late last year.

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

The San Diego Association of Governments fired three senior staffers Tuesday, marking a leadership shakeup for an agency that has been changing direction since late last year.

In an email to staff obtained by Voice of San Diego, SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata announced that he had made “some difficult but important decisions regarding executive-level leadership within the agency that I believe are necessary to help us accomplish our goals.”

It clears out three staffers who worked closely with the agency’s former director, Gary Gallegos.

Gone are Kim Kawada, SANDAG’s chief deputy executive director; Muggs Stoll, the director of land use and transportation planning; and David Hicks, director of communications. Each have had high-profile and public roles at SANDAG, including during a 2016 scandal in which Voice of San Diego revealed the agency had knowingly misled the public about how much money it was bringing in, and how much it planned to collect from a proposed sales tax. That led to Gallegos’ retirement, Ikhrata’s hiring and state legislation reforming the agency.

Kawada has been the director’s top deputy since 2013, and oversaw internal affairs at the agency. She was nearly hired to run the organization last year, before San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer vetoed that decision in closed session due to her involvement in the scandal that opened the position in the first place.

Stoll, meanwhile, had led the agency’s transportation planning efforts since 2009, a role that largely made him the face of the agency’s decision-making for the region’s highway, rail and bus investments.

But in February Ikhrata pushed the agency to abandon the 40-year blueprint for the region’s transportation system that it was due to adopt by the end of this year. He did so, he said, because the the plan was incapable of meeting state carbon emission reduction mandates. That plan was largely an update of the agency’s last two regional transportation plans, adopted in 2011 and 2015, that had been helmed by Stoll.

Since adopting that new direction, Ikhrata has said SANDAG’s previous transportation plans had only complied with state mandates on paper, and wouldn’t have really reduced emissions countywide.

Hicks ran SANDAG’s communications department during the agency’s scandal. An outside investigation concluded staffers were told to delete emails to prevent them from being released as public records and were directed not to discuss sensitive matters in writing.

“All three have been important and valuable team members during their time at SANDAG and I want to publicly acknowledge and thank each of them for their hard work and dedication which has shaped the agency as we know it today,” Ikhrata wrote in his email to staff.

Ikhrata said he could not comment on personnel decisions. The agency is moving forward on its 5 Big Moves – the name he’s given to its new approach for a more transit-focused transportation plan – and its attempt to build a massive transit hub with an airport connection as part of a redevelopment of the former SPAWAR property in Old Town.

“That’s really all I can tell you,” he said.

On an interim basis, Coleen Clementson will take over for Stoll. Clementson had in recent months become the lead staffer on the 5 Big Moves plan, and briefed the agency’s board of elected officials on the new direction.

Irene McCormack will take over for Hicks. She’s a former Union-Tribune reporter who has worked for years in government communication roles, including at the city of San Diego and the Port of San Diego.

Kawada’s position will be replaced with three chief deputies overseeing different areas of the organization, Ikhrata’s email said.

The staff shakeup comes as Ikhrata’s vision has been met with vocal criticism from many of the agency’s board members. Leaders from North County and East County have objected to his proposal, which they think shortchanges their constituents who rely on cars to get around.

TransNet, the agency’s countywide sales tax for transportation related projects, is now expected to be short at least $10 billion from what officials were expecting when voters approved it in 2004. As a result, Ikhrata has said some of the freeway projects included in it that haven’t broken ground yet do not have funding. But the officials from those areas are pushing for a commitment to build those projects if funding eventually becomes available.

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