By Tanya Mannes / San Diego Union-Tribune / May 17, 2008
OTAY MESA – Mayor Jerry Sanders yesterday ordered work to stop on Blackwater Worldwide’s proposed military training facility in Otay Mesa. The mayor was prompted by a legal opinion issued earlier in the afternoon by San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre. The opinion found problems with Blackwater’s permits.
A Blackwater vice president responded last night by accusing Sanders and Aguirre, who are running for re-election June 3, of political posturing in an election year. Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has drawn protests and scrutiny for its work in providing security for officials in Iraq. In March 2004, Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah killed four Blackwater employees, and in September 2007, Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. The company has leased a 61,600-square-foot warehouse in a business park three blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border near Brown Field. It’s installing a shooting range, a simulated Navy ship and classrooms.
San Diego’s Development Services Department issued permits in March for Blackwater’s interior improvements. The site was zoned for a vocational school, and city staff members decided that Blackwater’s training qualified. The permits were obtained through two companies with which Blackwater does business: Southwest Law Enforcement and Raven Development Group.
Once people heard of the company’s plans, Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, organized a rally with San Diego City Council President Scott Peters and Councilman Ben Hueso. They said Blackwater tried to keep its plan secret.
On May 5, Sanders sent a memo to the city’s chief operating officer asking for an investigation into the permits and requested a report by May 23. Bill Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said yesterday that Sanders will re-evaluate the proposal once the investigation is complete.
Aguirre’s opinion called for a stop-work order and a more rigorous application process. He said the Municipal Code requires City Council approval, as well as a state environmental review, for most firearms use within city limits.
Also, Southwest Law Enforcement did not provide accurate information in its permit applications, Aguirre said. It listed several purposes for the warehouse in permit applications, he said. One said it would be a training facility, another an indoor firing range, and another application said the warehouse would continue to be used for storage.
In a statement last night, Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, said, “Every person involved with the project identified themselves as representing Blackwater.” Bonfiglio said that the Navy needs the training the company would provide and that the city needs “all the taxpaying businesses it can get.” “It is tragic that City Attorney Aguirre is driving Mayor Sanders to turn our troops and the San Diego economy into unwilling pawns in an Election Year game,” he wrote.
In March, Blackwater abandoned a proposal for an 824-acre center in Potrero, citing noise tests that showed gunfire would exceed local standards.
Tanya Mannes: (619) 498-6639; firstname.lastname@example.org