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Merriam Mountains Project Rejected, Slush Fund Cut

Audio

Aired 3/26/10

The County Board of Supervisors had a busy week. First, the supervisors agreed to cut their $10 million discretionary fund in half. Second, Ron Roberts cast the deciding vote against the controversial Merriam Mountains housing development. What motivated these decisions by the County Board? And, what does Roberts' decision say about his reelection campaign?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): It’s not unusual for weeks or even months to go by with no news coming out of the County Board of Supervisors but this week that truly changed. We had two major developments within a few days. So, David, let’s start with Wednesday’s vote on a major housing proposal in North County, 2600-home Merriam Mountain project, it was rejected in a 3 to 2 vote but that only tells part of the story. What’s the importance of what happened?

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, the importance for me, as a politics watcher, is, you know, the behavior of a couple of members of the board of supervisor (sic), one being Bill Horn, who was – Basically, the evidence is starting to pile up that he was part of the development team, that he is – had been working with the developers, which is against county law, to ram this – well, not ram this through, but to get this thing passed. I mean, he was the one lobbying other supervisors. Phone records show that he was on the phone with consultants working for the developer, so that’s intriguing. And I am dying to know whether or not Bonnie Dumanis is going to investigate that further to see if Bill Horn committed crimes.

PENNER: I’m sure you’ll write about that, David.

ROLLAND: Well, maybe. And then the other supervisor is Ron Roberts, who back in December decided that he was not going to take part in the hearing which would have decided the fate of Merriam Mountains (sic) because he had to be up at a very important California Air Resources Board meeting that same day, which panicked Bill Horn, by the way, and he tried – he even admitted that he urged the developer to seek a postponement of that decision. Roberts came back and voted – voted with the majority to bring the vote back again…

PENNER: Well, it wasn’t really a majority, it was…

ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, National Public Radio): Three would…

PENNER: …a two-to-two vote, it was a tie.

ROLLAND: Well, it was a two-to-two vote but he…

PENNER: It became a majority…

ROLLAND: But he – Yeah, it became a majority…

PENNER: …when he…

ROLLAND: …when he became the third vote.

PENNER: Right.

ROLLAND: Which was terribly interesting politically because at the time he had to believe that Donna Frye was going to be facing him in the primary election. He’s in a district that’s overwhelmingly Democratic. Donna Frye would have attacked him from the left with all barrels blazing. So he decided – he could have just let the project die.

PENNER: Yes.

ROLLAND: He could’ve just let the project die.

PENNER: And why didn’t he?

ROLLAND: But he brings it back. Well, the only thing that I can think of is he wanted to make a big deal, a big public show of being an environmentalist, of saying no to the project because even though he doesn’t have Donna Frye to face anymore, he has Stephen Whitburn now, who will still come at him from the left.

PENNER: Okay, well, before I turn to the panel on this and get their opinions, let me get your opinion, dear listener. Do you think that Ron Roberts was staging his comeback on this vote in order to make some gains politically because he’s running for election in June? Or do you think he truly is an environmentalist who feels, as he said, that public transit has to be considered and it’s hard to consider it way up there on Merriam Mountain. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Alisa.

BARBA: You know what I find fascinating about this, and I have to admit that I do not follow local politics like David does. My job is different than this. But I don’t follow local politics because it’s usually really, really quiet and fairly dull. I mean, the five members of that council of supervisors (sic), they’re all Republicans, they all seem to vote in lockstep and they’ve never really been challenged in election. And I think what’s happening this year—correct me if I’m wrong—is that there are serious challenges to these seats for the first time and it’s a wonderful, wonderful rumbling and change and shifting around going on that’s just a delight to see, you know, wherever it goes.

PENNER: Well, we do have two seats up for…

BARBA: Two seats, yeah.

PENNER: …reelection. We mentioned Ron Roberts in the 4th District. But you also talked about Bill Horn. I’m not quite sure, David, if you mentioned, he also is up for reelection. John, do you think this is going to make a difference in the election?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, I think there are two things at work here. First of all, any politician worth his salt, like Ron Roberts, understands that it’s always good to have exposure. So here’s a good campaign shot in the arm without paying for it in terms of creating the discussion and then voting against it. But I look beyond that at the comments that he made in terms of the general plan and I see where this property was initially intended for only 348 homes and they want to cram 27,000 or 2700…

PENNER: Twenty-six, yeah.

WARREN: …hundred into there, and the people in the county are looking at the water issue that we have and permits are down and Dianne Jacob certainly is not for this kind of expansion because in east county, she’s been a protector in terms of keeping out big developers. So we have a lot more issues playing into this.

PENNER: Just to tell you where the location is, it’s right near the Golden Door ranch up…

WARREN: Up 15.

PENNER: …up 15. It’s west of Escondido and a little bit north of Escondido, too.

BARBA: But, I mean, how many…

PENNER: Very rural area.

BARBA: I can’t believe that this is the first plan in San Diego approved – or, disapproved but there have been countless, I have to believe, plans where two hundred and twenty-four hundred homes (sic) went in where only 350 were planned, where water issues were not taken into account. I mean, there’s a certain amount of (gasps) oh, my goodness, you know.

WARREN: No, but, see, there’s a different plan with the Board of Supervisors with the county in terms of rural areas. About ten years ago, they started dividing the land up and they set a limit in terms of how large…

BARBA: Umm-hmm.

WARREN: …the lots had to be in order to guarantee there would not be this kind of congested development, and so this is a part of that.

PENNER: Let’s hear from one of our listeners who lives up in North County. Lori in Encinitas. Lori, you’ll have to make it very brief. We’re near the end of the show.

LORI (Caller, Encinitas): Very briefly, you asked our opinion on whether Ron Roberts was doing this politically or whether he’s actually an environmentalist. And I would say it was absolutely political. He’d have to go a lot farther to change my opinion of his non-environmental stance over all the years.

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Lori. So since Lori kind of brought it up and John’s been referring to it, the whole political thing, as you know this week also, the supervisors cut their discretionary fund, otherwise known as the neighborhood reinvestment fund, otherwise known as the slush fund, in half, from $10 million to $5 million so that the money they can unilaterally give out now is half of what it was. Was that political as well, do you think, David?

ROLLAND: Oh, sure. You know, there are supervisors who believe that they were handling that fund with care. I know that Dianne Jacob feels that she was doing it the right way whereas she had a process where, you know, and she had an advisory committee that would vet different projects. She had her own policy that said that this fund could not go to ongoing programmatic expenses. And, you know, an example of that would be what Pam Slater-Price was doing and that was funding arts organizations for ongoing operations. Jacob was opposed to that kind of thing and would only fund, you know, sort of brick and mortar projects, things that needed to be like, you know, a Little League needs a, you know, equipment shed or something like that. So the problem is that there was not uniform policy across the five districts in how these things were handled, you know, and it blew up sort of in Pam Slater-Price’s face when it was revealed that, you know, she was getting free tickets to the opera and the theatre and that sort of thing. So, you know, they had to do something. I wish that they had done more. I wish that they had either gotten rid of the program altogether or turned it into a competitive grant program, you know, where everybody basically applied for this money and it went through a process, you know, so, yeah, of course, it was political.

PENNER: Well, you know, it sounds as though they kind of didn’t completely revamp the system whereby there’d be more competition, more transparency, but a change was made and some nonprofit organizations are really upset. They’re dependent on those grants. What better way, Alisa, might there be to funnel this money to nonprofits?

BARBA: Well, it seems to me that if you hand a chunk of change to a politician and say you can do what you want with this, it’s just rife for, you know, kickbacks, you know, tickets, whatever. Whatever it may be, it’s not a good idea. I think, as Dave says, you need a system where people apply, where it is transparent, where there’s a staff that is consistent through all five districts so that you know, you know, who’s going to get it and why.

PENNER: You get the last 15 seconds, John. In your wisdom, what should be done here?

WARREN: Well, what’s going to happen is we’re going to give out the one million now and we’ll come back next year and maybe get the second million if the economy doesn’t improve.

BARBA: That’s right.

PENNER: Okay. Well, that’s from – that’s from John. Okay, well, I want to thank our editors, Alisa Barba and John Warren and David Rolland. I want to thank you. You can always go to our website, KPBS.org/editors and post your comment. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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