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Co-CEOs? SANDAG board floats idea for new leadership

Newly appointed San Diego Association of Governments board chair Nora Vargas, left, speaks with SANDAG attorney John Kirk, middle, and CEO Hasan Ikhrata during a meeting on Jan. 13, 2023.
Sandy Huffaker
Newly appointed San Diego Association of Governments board chair Nora Vargas, left, speaks with SANDAG attorney John Kirk, middle, and CEO Hasan Ikhrata during a meeting on Jan. 13, 2023.

Leaders of the San Diego Association of Governments say they hope to hire a new chief executive by May to succeed outgoing CEO Hasan Ikhrata — and early talks about how to move forward included a discussion of decentralizing the position’s power altogether.

One board member proposed hiring two co-CEOs to lead the agency, an idea that could work in the short term with interim leadership, but not for a permanent solution, the agency’s attorney said, citing state laws that govern SANDAG.

Ikhrata submitted his resignation in July, indicating that he will step down as CEO officially in December. Whoever gets the job next will take over a public agency with a $1 billion annual budget that helps make transportation and other long-term regional decisions.


Ikhrata’s supporters, especially environmentalists, have praised his commitment to reducing emissions, including efforts to stop freeway widening projects and increase public transit options. But he’s also received heavy criticism over his support for a plan to impose a vehicle mileage charge on drivers, a new fee the SANDAG board has rejected, and poor oversight of the regional agency.

Under Ikhrata’s watch, internal auditors found patterns of improper severance payments, employee credit card misuse, millions of dollars worth of increases to consultant contracts without proper documentation, and a loss of $1.8 million in revenue for ignoring disconnected toll stations.

As SANDAG’s board of directors looks forward with recruitment, community stakeholders made up of the region’s mayors, council members and transportation agencies say they want to weigh in on the process. Next month, SANDAG will begin public outreach to get feedback from community stakeholders, community groups and staff. Engagement efforts may include online surveys, public meetings and focus groups.

During the directors’ meeting this month, board member Rebecca Jones, mayor of San Marcos, suggested the board should rethink the agency’s top leadership structure, adding she would like to see the CEO position filled by two co-CEOs instead of one.

Jones suggested promoting SANDAG’s current deputy CEOs Coleen Clementson and Ray Major to jointly lead the agency, either in the interim or long term, describing the two as “extremely competent.”


“I feel like there might be more of a collaborative approach that maybe we haven't done before, and if it is a policy decision, I think that the board should make a policy decision,” she told other board members.

Jones later told inewsource that SANDAG should explore new ways to lead the agency, especially given that under Ikhrata’s leadership and the current board structure, where some of the 19 regions represented have more voting power than others, she and other members have felt “disenfranchised” at times.

As an example, she pointed to Ihkrata’s efforts to push a fee on drivers based on the number of miles they travel. Environmental groups and other supporters have backed the mileage fee, saying it will force more affluent electric car owners to help pay for roads and other types of transportation infrastructure and help curb emissions by reducing the number of miles people travel in gas-powered vehicles. Most, but not all, SANDAG board members have opposed enacting the road user fee on the county’s residents.

Construction is ongoing on Pershing Drive in San Diego, July 4, 2022.
Zoë Meyer
Construction is ongoing on Pershing Drive in San Diego, July 4, 2022.

Jones’ idea didn’t gain much traction in the public discussion at its board meeting earlier this month. But it did prompt some questions from board members Melanie Burkholder, a Carlsbad councilmember, and Dane White, Mayor of Escondido.

SANDAG General Counsel John Kirk said “as a permanent solution” having two CEOs would be “inconsistent with SANDAG’s governing statutes,” which “point to the board appointing a CEO, not a group of deputy CEOs. So it would not be viable in the long term.” However, he added, as long as the CEO position is vacant, a co-CEO leadership team could work.

“There certainly has been precedent that the position of CEO has been vacant and in the vacancy of this CEO, the deputy CEOs are then able to act with the full power of the CEO,” Kirk told the board.

White requested that either one of SANDAG’s two deputy CEOs be added to the six-member board subcommittee tasked with helping the firm CPS HR Consulting with finding candidates for the job.

Board Chair Nora Vargas, a San Diego County supervisor, said board members not included in the subcommittee will have a chance to weigh in on selecting their next CEO. All members will vote on the CEO in May, according to the agency’s recruitment plan.

Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz told inewsource that he supports a broad search for CEO candidates, but that promoting having two CEOs seemed to be an effort to “short circuit” the recruiting process.

“While I don’t have a problem considering this unusual solution, I think it’s best to do so with a list of applicants for the current job which is the more traditional one-person-accountability approach,” Kranz said.

Sean Elo-Rivera, SANDAG first vice chair and San Diego’s city council president, did not weigh in on the co-CEOs idea but said in an email that he trusts “our process will ensure SANDAG has the executive leadership necessary to achieve the agency’s very important goals.”

CPS HR’s Pamela Derby, who will be leading the recruitment effort, said her firm will kick off their search later this month with the goal of filling the interim position by Dec. 8.

Afterward, the firm will then search for a permanent CEO, first taking input from SANDAG board members, staff and public stakeholders about what they would like to see in the agency’s next leader.

The firm plans to review feedback by Dec. 15 and post the job opening on Jan. 1 for eight weeks. The board plans to announce a new CEO on May 10.

The public will have a better idea in the coming months of what a new CEO could look like.

“This could be an international search,” Derby said. “It depends on what the board is looking for.”

It’s the best way to stay connected with the latest news from the award-winning investigative team at inewsource.