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Vargas elected SANDAG chair, board members walk out to protest 'weighted vote'

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Matthew Bowler
/
KPBS
After the San Diego County Board of Supervisors elected Nora Vargas to serve as its chair, Vargas answered questions about her plans for the board over her coming term, San Diego, Jan. 10, 2023.

County Supervisor Nora Vargas was elected chair of the SANDAG board Friday and almost immediately faced a revolt, as nine board members walked out of the meeting to protest the agency's voting procedures.

Some time after Vargas was selected, nine board members, mostly Republicans from North County, got up and left the room in protest to the board's use of a "weighted vote." That voting procedure gives the city of San Diego greater power in deciding where and how to spend transportation dollars.

Vargas, who represents South Bay communities and was also recently appointed chair of the County Board of Supervisors, said she hoped to build consensus and collaboration with her board colleagues, including those who voted against her.

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"Know that my vision includes being a united front within our region, really focused and centered on equity, innovation and economic prosperity," Vargas said. "I am committed to being a true partner in our region when it comes to sustainability and equitable regional planning."

Vargas' elevation as chair was opposed by representatives of several smaller cities who instead sought to appoint Del Mar City Councilmember Terry Gaasterland to the job.

Gaasterland made remarks in the meeting decrying the board's use of a weighted vote, which has been used to dedicate more funding to public transit and less to freeway expansions, and to force smaller, wealthier cities such as Coronado, Del Mar and Solana Beach to zone for significantly more affordable housing.

"I hope the SANDAG board can pursue balanced planning that treats all jurisdictions and all residents' needs equitably and fairly," Gaasterland said.

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Prior to a 2017 reform law, most SANDAG votes were counted with a simple tally of board members. That system gave Del Mar — with its population of less than 4,000 — the same decision-making power as San Diego, with its population of 1.4 million.

The reform law, AB 805, allowed two board members to call for a weighted vote, where each board member's vote is weighted proportional to the population of the jurisdiction they represent. That allows the city of San Diego, plus one or two other smaller cities, to effectively control SANDAG policy.

San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who was elected as the board's vice chair, called the walkout "a legislative tantrum."

"The residents of the region of San Diego are counting on us to get things done here," Elo-Rivera said. "The idea that we're going to throw a fit and walk out of meetings if we think things aren't going to go our way is not how democracy is supposed to work."

He added that the weighted vote ensures residents of San Diego have the same representation at SANDAG as residents of smaller cities.

"I do not believe that the residents of Del Mar are 350 times more important than the residents of San Diego," Elo-Rivera said.

After the walkout, the meeting continued without further incident.

SANDAG is responsible for planning and building transportation infrastructure, and for implementing California's goal of achieving "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, largely by reducing car dependence. Its governing board includes one elected official from all 18 cities in the county, plus two county supervisors and a second elected official from the city of San Diego.