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North County: Vista Unified, Back-Country Upset, Flower Hill

Some people say at-large elections make it more difficult to elect members of racial minority groups to boards. And this issue is coming home to roost in Vista. Today we bring you a look at the news of North San Diego County. And we start by talking about the Vista School Board.

In San Diego County, school board members are typically elected by the community at large. Even though they represent certain districts, voters don't have to live in that district to vote for and elect board members. Some people say at-large elections make it more difficult to elect members of racial minority groups to boards. And this issue is coming home to roost in Vista.

Today we bring you a look at the news of North San Diego County. And we start by talking about the Vista School Board.


Logan Jenkins, columnist, San Diego Union Tribune

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: I'm Tom Fudge. In San Diego County, members of School Boards are typically elected by the community at large. Even though board members represent certain districts, voters don't have to live in that district to vote for an elect. The district's board member. Some people say at large elections make it more difficult to elect members of racial minority groups to the School Board. And this issue is coming home to roost in Vista. Today, we bring you a look at the news of north San Diego County. And we start by talking about the story with the Vista School Board. Joining me by phone is Logan Jenkins, he's a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who covers North County, and Logan, thank you very much.

JENKINS: It's my pleasure. Welcome back to North County, Tom.

FUDGE: Good to be here. And listeners give us a call if you want at 1-888-895-5727. Or send us a tweet at KPBS midday. Logan, Vista unified school district as come up with some new plans to elect board members that are floating around. Why does the board think a new plan is necessary?

JENKINS: Well, Tom, this is a defensive action against the possibility of a legal challenge from a group up in San Francisco called lawyers committee for civil rights. And they have a habit, some would say a nasty habit accident of suing school districts and municipalities for failing to live up to the California voting rights act, which as you know was passed about ten years ago, and basically makes it easier for minority groups to sue government entities. And they also force cities or municipalities to pay court fees even if there's a settlement. So the Court fees can get up there in a million dollars easily.

FUDGE: So Vista is taking a preemptive action here. Why would they be in violation of the voting rights act?

JENKINS: Well, this is a subjective decision on their part. They haven't absolutely decided to go this route. But they have not had any Latino board members in recent memory or even in long memory. And they have about 35% of the city's residents are Latino. So they believe, any rate, that they might be a rich target. There have been about 40 of these lawsuits, but there this would be the first time any of them would be leveled in San Diego County. Here before it's been mainly central California.

FUDGE: And some people would say that the problem, pardon me, some people would say that the problem in Vista is that they have these at large elections therefore making every school board representative subject to the white majority that votes in these elections?

JENKINS: That's absolutely correct. You'll find some dispute, people will say that it's actually preferable to have at large voting, but you'll recall that in San Diego you have district candidates, but we vote at large for all those candidates in the San Diego unified high school district.

FUDGE: In other words the district votes in the primary. So the district sends the two top candidates to the general election, but even in San Diego, general election is at large.

JENKINS: That's correct.

FUDGE: And so what are members of the Vista School Board proposing? Or what's the superintendent proposing to do? Are they proposing to go to district elections?

JENKINS: That's correct. So you'd have maybe 20,000 voters in each particular district, and it would be winner take all in that district. There'd be no voting from outside the district. It would be a pretty radical move. It would be the only school district in San Diego County to do it that way. And right now, we have two members that are being considered by the public. One of them has two zones with a Latino population majority, and the other one has just one Latino majority and four white majorities. So right now, they've already had one public meeting that happened in July. And in August, I think it's August†23rd at 6:00†PM at Rancho Buena†Vista high school, there will be another meeting in which the public can express their support or disagreement with this approach.

FUDGE: Finally on this story, Logan, do you see this as a test case? I don't know if that's what I mean. But if this goes ahead as planned, might this be the first of several such moves throughout San Diego County as other school districts are concerned about getting sued?

JENKINS: Well, it's my understanding that Oceanside, Escondido, La Mesa, Chula Vista, gross month, a lot of school districts look around at their School Boards and see themselves as possible -- possibility rich targets for what some call a shakedown of government. Others see it as a proof of social progress.

FUDGE: Well, my guest again is Logan Jenkins, columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune. We're talking about some of the top stories in northern San Diego E San Diego County. And San Diego County has just passed a new general land use plan that tells a lot of property owners in the rural back country that they cannot develop their land with housing tracks. Logan, what was -- just to get a little background, what was the motivation behind this new land use plan, and how is it supposed to affect population growth in the unincorporated parts of the county.

JENKINS: It's been 13†years in the making and millions of dollars, but boil down its -- maybe you could say this. This would make it harder to build in remote areas while encouraging construction in existing communities. Near roads and fire stations. So the idea is that it limits sprawl, and eases the strain on services within the unincorporated area, which is huge.

FUDGE: So the plan was adopted after a lot of time in debate. What's the problem with it in the opinion of some people?

JENKINS: There are at least 180 devils in the teethes. Really, this was a surprise. Ron Roberts put forth something that was supported by three members, and it was a workshop in November that would basically review and possibly grant exemptions to 200 -- no, I think it's 180 now, 180 property owners who were unhappy with the down zoning they received in the general plan update.

FUDGE: Property owners don't like to be down zoned because that reduces the potential value of their land if they're told they cannot develop it.

JENKINS: That is correct. Many farmers see that underlying zoning as really part of their equity. And so they believe that they've suffered a kind of financial taking and that they're not being reimbursed.

FUDGE: So you've got 180 unhappy property owners, and the county is saying to them, well, let's have a talk on November. Maybe there's something we can do for you?


FUDGE: Some members of the county board have said that this might derail the plan that they've approved.

JENKINS: Diane Jacob is the most vitriolic on that score. She sort of wonders, well, why did we pass a general plan, which supposedly closed the door on these kinds of last minute reprieves? Others see it as fairness. These are people who may or may not deserve exemptions. It's going to be a very sticky event on November because some of the people who are unhappy are large developers or potential developers. So we're going to be looking at the money trail to see if there's been any large campaign contributions, if there's anything kind of untoward about an exemption that might take place. And there's another consideration that if something very significant happens in happen, then there are going to be costs associated with redoing the general plan because they're going to be -- you're just going to have to kind of refigure the thing.

FUDGE: New environmental reviews --

JENKINS: Yeah, you open up this Pandora's box. So this is what makes this just so troubling. What is going to happen in November and each exemption is going to be looked at to see if there's something shady about it.

FUDGE: I actually attended the meeting of the county board where this --

JENKINS: I pity you.

FUDGE: Oh, I love sitting through long government meetings. It's kind of what turns my crank. But I was there when Ron Roberts came forward with his amendment where he said let's meet with some of these unhappy property owners in November. Now, what has Ron Roberts said to Diane Jacob's claim that this is an effort to derail the plan?

JENKINS: He's predicting as you know that there probably won't be any changes. In other words, he calming the waters, which just raises the question, if you don't intend to really make any changes, why do it? So let's say it would be 180, 175 are rejected, but five are granted, then the scrutiny on those five is going to be pretty intense.

FUDGE: You're listening to Midday Edition, I'm Tom Fudge, and my guest is Logan Jenkins, a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who covers North County. And this is a North County news update, I guess you could say. One last issue we want to talk about, Logan is, is Protea Properties is the owner of Flower Hill Mall in Solana Beach. And it has gotten unanimous permission from the San Diego City Council to update, renovate, and add square feet. And they've already started construction; correct.

JENKINS: Well, yeah, they're doing some grading right now. And I'm going to have to correct you, it's flower hill prom nod.

FUDGE: Flower hill prom nod. Nothing shopping mall about this place, I guess.

JENKINS: About 5 or 6†years ago they changed the name in anticipation of this face lift. And it's debated and scaled back and so forth. But the City of San Diego in April unanimously approved it. But sort of running parallel is this dispute between the City of San Diego and the California coastal commission over jurisdiction. And the coastal commission believes that it has the final say, not the City of San Diego. So we have this turf war between the City of San Diego and the coastal commission. And it's pretty ugly.

FUDGE: What might, before we get to that ugliness, what might go into this flour hill promenade? A new whole foods for one?

JENKINS: That's one. That's 35,000†square feet, and that's roughly where the theatre was, which has been shuttered. And then I think it's about 25,000†square feet of office space, and then some retail space, and then a four level parking garage. So that's the -- that's where the owners want to go. And the question is whether the coastal commission is going to exert its authority. They've already threatened to slap them with a $15,000 a day fine for every day that they do construction. So this really won't be worked out until September when there's going to be a meeting in northern California of the coastal commission. And at that time we'll see if the coastal commission is going to hang tough or, in my view, they could lose one for the gipper, and just let this project go.

FUDGE: So is jurisdictional conflict, is that what it's all about?

JENKINS: It is totally what it's about. It's a very arcane issue. The city adamantly believes that they have jurisdiction relating back to some map that was agreed to, like, 20†years ago. And the commission says this particular part of the plan or map was never adopted. Of it's just something only a land use attorney could love. And unfortunately the project could be delayed because of this dispute.

FUDGE: Logan, I know you have an opinion on this because I've read your column about it. What do you think should happen, and what do you think are the truly important issues when it comes to this flower hill mall?

JENKINS: To me, it's past the threshold. Some will disagree. Some will say it's too big, and what a shock, in California, NIMBies might suggest that the project is two large or projects creates too much traffic. But it received a unanimous support at the City Council. And I see it as kind of a jobs issue at this point. Let's give the local economy a goose and let's not have this get caught up in some endless debate.

FUDGE: Finally, there is a bit of a gad fly lawsuit you were talking about NIMBies who complain about development and traffic. And I think we've got one of those attached to this project.

JENKINS: That's true. Last week a superior court judge tentatively denied a request for an injunction by this group of opponents. And I don't know if there's been a final report out from that court, but it appears that this particular lawsuit won't be able to stop the work.

FUDGE: Logan Jenkins is a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who covers North County. He joined us to talk about three big stories happening in North County. And Logan, thank you very much.

JENKINS: Thanks Tom.

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