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Why Bill Fulton's Resignation Isn't Shocking

The political winds shifted abruptly just after the planning guru was hired.

This story has been updated.

This probably wasn’t what Bill Fulton had in mind when he took the job as the city’s top planner.

He brought his national reputation to town when he started as the city’s planning director last July.

Mayor Bob Filner, the man who hired him, was wrapped up in a sexual harassment scandal within a month and resigned soon after.

“It wasn’t exactly a straight line,” Fulton said, of how his first year played out.

Then Fulton rung up his first victory: He stood behind his department’s new development plan for Barrio Logan, opposed by the neighborhood’s lucrative shipbuilding industry, and watched it win City Council approval on a party-line vote.

The shipbuilding industry quickly announced it would try to overturn the plan. Then-mayoral candidate Kevin Faulconer, who had just voted against the plan, lined up beside them.

By February, Faulconer was mayor, Fulton’s new boss, and by June the shipbuilders had successfully killed the Barrio Logan plan.

This spring, Fulton’s department rolled out the early stages of a plan it was pursuing to change development regulations along Morena Boulevard to create dense urban areas surrounding stations on the new light-rail line connection Old Town and La Jolla.

Residents revolted. This was in the midst of an election to represent that Council district — Faulconer’s old district — and Democratic challenger Sarah Boot seized on the issue against Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who Faulconer had endorsed.

Quickly, Zapf requested — with Faulconer’s support — that Fulton walk back the most controversial elements of the plan. He did. (Fulton had come under personal attacks by Bay Park residents who hated the plan).

Mayor Faulconer named David Graham, then Republican Councilman Mark Kersey’s chief of staff and former land-use and redevelopment guru to Mayor Jerry Sanders, as the deputy COO of neighborhood services. He’d be Fulton’s boss.

Faulconer also shook up the city’s organizational chart, diminishing Fulton’s influence by having the economic development department, which Fulton had been in charge of under interim mayor Todd Gloria, answer to Graham instead.

And in his first budget, Faulconer killed the funding for the Civic Innovation Lab, a four-staffer mini-department that also answered to Fulton.

And … you could say the message was pretty clear that Fulton wasn’t a Faulconer guy, or that the political winds had shifted.

But Fulton said that’s not a fair way to view it. The position he’s leaving to take, as director of an urban planning institute at Rice University, was just too good to pass up, he said. He hopes to influence local policy while also conducting research of national and international influence.

“Every mayor has a different approach, and I was up for this,” he said. “Graham and I are close, and one of my biggest regrets is that I won’t get to work with him on a daily basis. Faulconer has been totally supportive of community plan updates, and we currently have nine or 10 vacancies in the department to fill due to the biggest increase in the planning budget that anyone can remember.”

Faulconer’s office released a statement Friday saying Fulton would be missed, and praised him for bringing a creative perspective to neighborhood development.

So after a year, Fulton’s moving on to Houston. He says he’ll miss the daily fray of working with the public, and hopes he’ll get to experience it some at Rice.

“I was in the fray here, and it’s been both exhausting and refreshing,” he said.

Most of the plans he spent the last year ushering through the city’s bureaucracy — the now-killed plan in Barrio Logan, adopted plans in Otay Mesa and Ocean Beach, a new economic development plan passed when he still ran that department, and others — had been initiated and shaped long before he arrived.

And given the turmoil and change throughout his time here, there’s little that will last beyond him that will have his fingerprints on it. Even the initiatives that became news stories recently and under his direction — Morena Boulevard, Grantville — began before he came to town.

Graham said Friday he will launch a national search for Fulton’s replacement, posting a job listing sometime in the next couple weeks. The planning department will not be folded into development services, as had happened under Mayor Jerry Sanders.

“The mayor has made it clear there are three separate departments, with three directors, and three clear directives,” Graham said, referring to planning, development services, and economic development. “I tried to convince Fulton to stay, but it’s hard to convince a guy not to take twice as much money to go be in the national and international spotlight remaking a think tank.”

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