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Omar Passons’ Road to Politics Marked by Struggles and Successes in Community Activism

Many of Passons’ community efforts, and more recently his campaign proposals, favor an approach that counts on both the market and public and private partners to help solve community problems rather than rely on government alone to get the job done.

Omar Passons speaks at San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidate forum. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

North Park attorney Omar Passons committed to many local causes long before he kicked off his campaign for county supervisor.

Passons years ago rallied the North Park community behind a controversial school for students with past disciplinary issues and started a successful neighborhood graffiti program, among other efforts.

Yet Passons, 42, has also sometimes fallen short.

He’s held a couple short-lived posts and lost a high-profile case against the city that became a defining milepost in the fight over vacation rentals.

As he campaigns for the county supervisor seat being vacated by Republican Ron Roberts, Passons often emphasizes his longtime commitment to community issues.

Passons, a Democrat who would represent much of the city of San Diego if elected to the county board, is a former foster child whose birth mother struggled with homelessness and mental illness. He has said that history and the support he later received propelled him to get involved in his community and to run for supervisor.

“I always wanted someone to run for office, to do one of these jobs and to be honest and to actually do the thing that they set out to do and not wait to see which way the wind is blowing or not slide around some corner because they were worried about this group or that group,” Passons said.

Passons decided he fit that bill.

Many of Passons’ community efforts, and more recently his campaign proposals, favor an approach that counts on both the market and public and private partners to help solve community problems rather than rely on government alone to get the job done.

In that vein, Passons stepped up in 2009 amid community concerns about a plan to shutter North Park Elementary and replace it with ALBA, a San Diego Unified School District school for students expelled from other campuses. Neighbors feared that the already struggling North Park Community Park, also the planned site for the school, would become a haven for unruly students. Some worried about property values.

Passons, then president of the North Park Community Association, promised former ALBA school principal Vernon Moore and other district officials he’d help.

He and others walked door to door in the community to build support for the school. Passons also pushed for security plans and park improvements to make the new school more palatable to neighbors.

It worked. Both Moore and Lynn Elliott, chair of the North Park Recreation Council, credit Passons.

“I don’t think we could have done it without the assistance of Omar,” Moore said.

For the next two years, Moore said, Passons helped broker key partnerships with community members and organizations. He also came in twice a month to tutor students.

Fellow North Park resident Graham Blair said Passons saw similar success nearly a decade ago when he launched a graffiti removal project.

At the time, he said, North Park was besieged with graffiti. Residents were exasperated. Passons decided residents, rather than city teams, were best equipped to help.

Passons researched graffiti removal, purchased supplies, gathered volunteers and assigned them to clean in 20 zones across North Park, Blair said. “He just saw a need and took action and got it going.”

Passons worked on the project for about five years. The city’s since contracted with nonprofit Urban Corps to handle the graffiti clean-up, lessening the load for North Park volunteers.

Passons has also made strong commitments to nonprofit boards, including the San Diego Workforce Partnership and the United Way of San Diego County. Many, including these two, regularly engage in formal and informal public-private partnerships with government agencies.

Andrew Picard, a Partnership vice president, said Passons consistently focuses on outcomes for youth and young adults served by federal funds the Partnership doles out. Passons is on the board’s executive committee.

“He’s really good at helping us – as staff and board members – think of every angle and every outcome of a decision,” Picard said.

Sometimes Passons and other board members have had to make tough calls. Two years ago, the board voted unanimously to recommend against renewing a contract with Urban League of San Diego County. The nonprofit wasn’t meeting targets to aid students who had dropped out or were at risk of dropping out of San Diego Unified schools.

“I was pretty vocal about saying, ‘I think it’s unfortunate that we are where we are but there are young people who are not getting served and that’s what is most important to me,’” Passons said.

Meeting minutes don’t clarify how pivotal Passons’ arguments were in the 2016 vote. Picard and Partnership board chair Phil Blair said they couldn’t remember Passons’ specific comments that day.

The outcome of at least one other effort Passons worked on is less clear.

Passons left the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation last February after only about a year on the job.

The Jacobs Center, founded by a Pasadena family years ago, has long sought to partner with community leaders and local government agencies to lure businesses, retail and housing to a southeastern San Diego area that’s long been disinvested.

Passons, who had for years worked as a land-use attorney, joined the southeastern San Diego nonprofit in January 2016 hoping to apply that know-how to Jacobs’ mission to develop dozens of barren acres. That mission also aligned with Passons’ longtime focus on public-private partnerships.

Passons said he ended up focusing more on workforce development and human resources issues once he arrived at Jacobs. He also served as the nonprofit’s liaison with a resident group that owns a 20 percent stake in Market Creek Plaza.

It’s unclear how much Passons accomplished at the Jacobs Center.

Jacobs CEO Reginald Jones did not respond to a request for comment. Several others who once worked with Passons during his time at the Jacobs Center declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Joseph Kelly, treasurer of the citizen-led advisory council that advises residents who have invested in Market Creek Plaza, said he appreciated Passons’ efforts to try to answer investors’ questions.

Kelly and others were caught off guard by Passons’ abrupt departure.

“The fact that he left without warning to us was disappointing to me because I did think that I was making more progress with him than any of his predecessors,” Kelly said.

It wasn’t Passons’ only short-lived venture.

In 2010, Passons and his wife unveiled Park-2-Park Shuttle Service, which ferried customers around mid-city neighborhoods. It was yet another effort to address a need Passons saw through market rather than government forces.

The service halted just a few months after it started. Passons said the business lost money but notes it was at the forefront of ride- and bike-share services that have since proliferated.

Passons was also in the vanguard of the vacation-rental debate.

In 2015, Passons represented North Park resident Rachel Smith, who was initially fined tens of thousands of dollars for renting out two rooms in her home on Airbnb, a vacation rental platform.

The story drew national news coverage and Passons was outspoken about the case. He unsuccessfully argued that city permitting rules for vacation rentals, specifically those where the homeowner remains on site, were unclear and that the city’s crackdown on Smith was unfair.

Passons did, however, manage to persuade an administrative hearing officer that other code issues should be thrown out, substantially lowering the fees levied against his client.

Smith said she had hoped the city would be forced to clarify its rules and cancel her fines. But she still came away a fan of Passons.

“He’s exactly the kind of person you want representing the public. He cares, he listens. He gets involved,” Smith said. “He’s already doing things. He’s not waiting to be elected to be engaged.”

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