Civic San Diego – ‘like a hole in the head’

by on April 13, 2015 · 8 comments

in California, Economy, Environment, History, Politics, San Diego

hole in headBy Norma Damashek

We need it like a loch im kopf. A hole in the head. It’s what people in the old days would say about a bad situation. It’s what I say about Civic San Diego –the reincarnation of our former downtown redevelopment agency.

We need Civic San Diego like a hole in the head. It’s time to get rid of it.

A quick backtrack: It’s been three years since redevelopment agencies throughout California were terminated and instructed to wind down their uncompleted redevelopment projects and make good on their financial obligations. Other cities complied by doing the job in-house, under public supervision.

Not so in San Diego. To take care of the job in our city, former mayor Jerry Sanders created an unaccountable, autonomous corporation named Civic San Diego.

Previous redevelopment agencies were required to answer to state and local law, to the City Council, and to citizen committees. The private corporation called Civic San Diego is not required to answer to anyone – the public least of all.

If we get rid of Civic San Diego, won’t everything fall apart? No. Take a minute to look at the city’s organization chart. You’ll see that our city has plenty of resources to get the winding-down job successfully done.

The city has a Planning Department, a Park and Recreation Department, a Real Estate Assets Department, an Economic Development Department, a Development Services Department, a Public Works and a Public Utilities Department, a Debt Management Department, a Financial Management Department, a City Comptroller, a City Treasurer, and a Housing Commission. We have options to hire consultants for specialized services.

We have an independent City Auditor and publicly-elected officials – a Mayor, a nine-member City Council, a City Attorney – to take responsibility for city business. We’ve got active, willing, and informed constituents to share the load.

The city already has the tools and capacity (backed by a $3 billion annual budget) to wind down redevelopment and to move ahead with the repair and revitalization of our neighborhoods, communities, and local economy. There’s no doubt that city could function more efficiently but that’s no excuse for trying to privatize public business.

So why did former mayor Sanders hand over responsibility for the multi-million dollar redevelopment-decommissioning process to an appointed group of land-development private interests and grant them full exemption from public supervision?

And why did he give Civic San Diego control over planning, development permits, and financing schemes for future multi-million dollar redevelopment-style projects, not only in downtown but in huge swaths of the San Diego landscape like (take a deep breath) Barrio Logan, City Heights, College Grove, Crossroads (eastern El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, College Avenue), Grantville, Linda Vista, Liberty Station (former Naval Training Center), North Park, North San Diego Bay (Pacific Highway, Morena Boulevard, Loma Portal, Claremont), SDSU area, and San Ysidro? You don’t have to feel left out – there’s probably a big development project coming to a neighborhood near you…

What about our current mayor Kevin Faulconer? Why is he fully onboard with the downtown power bloc of developers, bankers, law firms, Wall Street brokers, financial middlemen, and other vested interests who promote and defend Civic San Diego? (Okay, we know the answer to why. The important question is how to find leaders with enough smarts and integrity to hang onto their principles despite relentless pressure from big money.)

There are some who say we should reform Civic San Diego by imposing “community benefits” stipulations. But that’s going nowhere so I’ll say it again: Civic San Diego – we need it like a hole in the head. It’s time to get rid of it.

If you need further convincing, read on: Civic San Diego was given the power to make private decisions about public functions like planning, public works, and community development in dozens of San Diego neighborhoods but isn’t required to listen to or be monitored by the public. It’s a tax-subsidized fiefdom run like a private club – immune to public control, direction, or oversight.

What started out as a tool for winding down redevelopment has morphed into a shadow government with its own board of directors, paid staff, numerous departments, and stand-alone subsidiaries serviced by private lawyers and investment consultants. It’s on the receiving end of half a million dollars in annual funding from city coffers.

There’s a new twist: Civic San Diego has a leg-up when it comes to competing for federal subsidies called New Market Tax Credits – a new breed of tax-saving incentives for Wall Street investors to stimulate new development in low-income neighborhoods. Civic San Diego is permitted to skim its cache of New Market Tax Credits to offset its own tax liabilities or for its own administrative costs. But in contrast to how this program is set up elsewhere in the state and country, under the Civic San Diego arrangement neither the city nor targeted neighborhoods have a say in how, where, or for what purpose these tax credits are used.

Still not convinced? Keep reading: The truth is, no one on the outside understands Civic San Diego’s inner workings, not if you’re trying to “follow the money.”

Huge sums have been socked away while projects sit idle. The operations, financial management, business arrangements, policy decisions, and other moving parts of Civic San Diego are an enigma to the public and incomprehensible to the City Council. Even its own board members are often kept in the dark and out of the loop.

Still unsure? Read more: Key commercial corridors in southeastern San Diego are ripe for the picking – there’s development-gold-in-them-thar-hills. But Civic San Diego’s ambitious plans to expand operations into new neighborhoods – buttressed by powers to direct, control, acquire, rezone, issue permits, build, and otherwise reap bounteous private profits – come with no guarantees that residents, communities, and ordinary citizens will be the beneficiaries.

Getting tuckered out? We’ve come to the bottom line: Does Civic San Diego operate within or outside federal, state, and local law? Did the city act illegally when it farmed out its legislative powers to this corporation? Is the setup ethical or compatible with the public good?

Why wait for the courts to embarrass and ultimately force the city to do the right thing? It’s time to get rid of this hole in the head.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

John P. Falchi April 13, 2015 at 2:21 pm

I agree with Norma Damashek on Civic San Diego. It operates outside of our regular San Diego political system that is accountable to the general public and needs to be reigned in !


brian April 13, 2015 at 2:53 pm

great article!!!


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman April 13, 2015 at 11:06 pm

“Civic San Diego?” What does the estimable City Attorney Goldsmith have to say about this? Nothing? Given this description, how can he remain passive and silent? Could he be friends with a lot of the principals who are spending public money without an ounce of public accountability?
I have lived in a lot of iffy cities, but never in a place so thoroughly corrupt as San Diego. Maybe this is a job for crusading lawyer Cory Briggs who is the subject of a current witch hunt by San Diego State’s KPBS and its twin, inewsource, for having ruffled the feathers of city mothers. Briggs has brought numerous successful lawsuits against our municipal government on environmental grounds.


South Park April 14, 2015 at 9:01 am

Among many things that are difficult to understand about Civic San Diego: why is one of the board members, Murtaza Baxamusa (representing the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO), suing CSD? The case, 37-2015-00012092-CU-PT-CTL, was filed 4 days ago. There is a Civic San Diego Special Board Meeting tomorrow to discuss the lawsuit. Does anyone know what this is about?


South Park April 14, 2015 at 9:54 am

I just read about Baxamusa’s lawsuit in the San Diego Daily Transcript:

“The lawsuit filed Friday by Baxamusa and his employer, the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council, seeks for the court to determine whether the scope and oversight of Civic San Diego is proper.”

“‘Without the framework of redevelopment, I cannot clearly conceive of the public interest in this institutional setup,’ Baxamusa said in an interview. ‘What I want to do is ask the judge whether the authority vested in Civic San Diego is properly delegated and conducted with the oversight to be administered correctly.'”

“Baxamusa, director of planning and development for the Trades Council’s Family Housing Corporation, said the real target of his suit is the city, which he accuses of doing a ‘sloppy’ job in rushing to set-up Civic San Diego after redevelopment’s demise.”

Read the entire article here:


Michael A. Gardiner April 14, 2015 at 1:11 pm

OK. So…..what is WRONG with Civic San Diego? I get that its less accountable in theory than that which went before it. I get that, in theory, you could devolve its functions to other disparate agency. But those steps would actually DECREASE the accountability, wouldn’t they?

The REAL questions seem to be different ones:

* What’s wrong with what Civic San Diego is actually doing on the ground right now?
* Would fixes do more harm than good?
* And one very important one: What went wrong in the process of creating Civic San Diego.

Civic San Diego is a tempting target, no doubt. It seems to tie in a nice, neat bow all of the systemic San Diego problems. But maybe it is a relatively harmless symptom rather than a disease in and of itself.


South Park April 14, 2015 at 6:39 pm

Here is one small and somewhat trivial example of the authority delegated to CSD:
We have a city department that handles such permitting. Why should an unelected group of people operating as a nonprofit have authority equal to our city personnel and departments, who answer only to our elected officials? That is privatization and is fundamentally wrong and certainly subject to unchecked abuse. If you approve of this privatization approach, why stop with CSD? Why not confer similar authority to other nonprofits? I think “fixing” that and removing such power and redundant authority, giving it all back to our accountable city departments, would do more good than harm. What went wrong is that Jerry Sanders and now Faulconer have decided that circumventing elected officials who don’t share their philosophy and don’t always vote t do implement it was a great way around that inconvenience.


Norma Damashek April 14, 2015 at 5:38 pm

If Civic San Diego were a private development firm, fine. They’d go through the same development process as other private developers.

But Civic San Diego is a one-of-a-kind hybrid using public funds and exercising unprecedented control over zoning and development rights in many of the city’s neighborhoods. Hardly a description of a harmless symptom.

No matter what one’s personal preferences are about community planning and land development, there are basic legal questions about the city’s arrangement with Civic San Diego that demand clarification and resolution.


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