The 101 Ash St. scandal is just one problem. Time for a grand jury to investigate
BY LISA ROSS
San Diego Union-Tribune AUG. 27, 2020 6:31 PM PT
“Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray!” So says Malcolm X, as channeled by Denzel Washington, in Spike Lee’s foundational film of the same name.
That is what Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno want taxpayers to believe about the purchase of the asbestos-infused 101 Ash Street building, which was intended to house city government offices, but cannot be occupied because of the health risks to workers.
A $127 million lease-to-own deal scandal brokered with a sleight of hand by Cisterra Development, it is not the first time, and unless we act, it won’t be the last time, that a connected developer hoodwinks public officials and staff into a really bad deal for San Diego taxpayers.
Ms. Moreno, who was elected two years after its approval, has referred the 101 Ash Street deal to the District Attorney’s Office, alleging fraud by the shadowy go-between with the city, Cisterra Development.
Former City Attorney and consumer advocate Mike Aguirre has filed a lawsuit seeking to cancel the 20-year lease-to-own deal altogether.
But no matter what the legal and legislative solutions to the Ash Street scandal, the behavior of professional manipulative developer representatives and perhaps gullible bureaucrats, convenient targets for elected official excuses, is just one side of the ever flipping City Hall coin.
Time has come for a government oversight San Diego County Civil Grand Jury investigation into how the city’s bureaucracy, under control of the mayor, has become so politicized that building industry clout seeps into too many corners of what should be professionally managed Planning, Real Estate Assets, Parks and Recreation, and Development Services departments.
How such a catastrophic blunder as 101 Ash Street could fester this long cannot merely lie in simple stupidity on the part of a few Real Estate Assets employees, some of whom have already left the building.
Such an investigation must also include how the outsized influence of developer lobbying and campaign contributions promotes cronyism on the city’s powerful mayor-appointed Planning Commission and a pay-for-play atmosphere at the San Diego City Council.
It is no exaggeration that the City Council office waiting room is a camp land for government relations firms representing real estate and builder interests.
Not everyone on the City Council has bought the Cisterra chicanery.
Barbara Bry has made 101 Ash Street a central issue in her mayoral campaign, as well she should. Her opponent supported the purchase.
Nor was she led astray — unlike six other City Council members — by a Cisterra Development dirty trick last summer that has fostered another lawsuit.
In August, City Council chambers were packed with community planners, environmentalists, recreational reps, testifying against Cisterra Development’s proposed massive 430,000-square foot office complex surrounded on three sides by Del Mar Mesa Preserve, a protected open space city park popular among trail users and naturalists.
Despite warnings from the public that such an upzone of highly sensitive habitat land in the former Future Urbanizing Area had to go to the ballot, as well as violating all sorts of California state environmental requirements, abracadabra! Cisterra got its project greenlighted.
With the exception of councilwomen Bry and Monica Montgomery and Council President Georgette Gómez, the Council did the dirty.
The flimsy excuse offered by Councilmen Chris Ward and Chris Cate at the hearing, asserting that the community would prefer the massive upzone of the 11-acre site to the limited existing planning designation, could not pass a smell test conducted on a grizzly bear near a camp site.
Ms. Moreno is ticked. Mr. Ward was took. Mr. Cate, hoodwinked.
And so we are left to wonder could such lawsuits be avoided if city staff were allowed to do their jobs unimpeded by political pressure from up top, and decision makers would work in the public interest over well-heeled special interests.
We should closely watch reforms in Los Angeles, including as of 2022 prohibiting developers and real estate interests with projects in front of the City Council from making campaign contributions, and a proposal for a government transparency commission.
The former could be unconstitutional; the latter possibly another politically appointed fox guarding the henhouse. But the intent of both initiatives are moves in the right direction.
In the meantime, San Diego taxpayers are due for a thorough revealing of the flimflam at City Hall that leads to what the late former councilwoman Judy McCarty liked to call “felony stupid” deals.
A San Diego County Civil Good Government Grand jury just might do the trick.
Ross is a freelance writer and spokesperson for Protect Our Preserves, a community group opposed to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve project. She lives in Carmel Valley.