Where’s (Waldo) Robert Vacchi? Found!

by on June 9, 2021 · 12 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Robert Vacchi

By Geoff Page

The City of San Diego’s former Deputy Chief Operating Officer Robert Vacchi, also the former head of the city’s Development Services Department, walked away from his high-profile job on July 2, 2020, and no one would say why.  In over a year, no one had  obtained any more information about his departure or where he went.   Vacchi has finally been spotted and where he landed adds to the mystery.

To refresh everyone’s memory, Vacchi’s appointment to head the DSD coincided with a flood of 30-foot height violations because of how Vacchi interpreted the law.  The ultimate, most blatant violation was allowing developers to measure the 30 feet from the inside of tall planters the developers built on their project.  Vacchi allowed the surface of dirt in the planters – that the developers put there – to be called finished grade. This allowed buildings 35 feet high and more.

No one with a modicum of experience with construction would call the dirt in a planter finished grade.  In order to have a “finished grade,” there has to be “finishing” like fine grading earth or placing hard pavement.

Vacchi was appointed to the DSD by our new mayor back when Gloria was the temporary mayor during the Bob Filner crucifixion.  Having had some experience with Vacchi, this reporter was surprised at this action by Gloria.  After three tries to get an answer from Gloria, he had his chief of staff respond.  She said “Council President Gloria remains confident in his leadership and knowledge of all aspects of his position.”

Former mayor Faulconer moved Vacchi to a new position, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, Neighborhood Services, shortly before Vacchi disappeared. A March 10, 2020, memo from Chief Operating Officer Kris Mitchell stated, “Deputy Chief Operating Officer Robert Vacchi is acting as the City’s chief point of contact with the County and is coordinating all City activities related to COVID-19.”

Vacchi only lasted four months before he walked off his job.  Lisa Halverstadt of the Voice of San Diego wrote about Vacchi’s disappearance in an August 5, 2020 article. https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/government/city-official-managing-coronavirus-response-abruptly-left-last-month/

According to the city’s public information, Vacchi’s 2019 salary was $204,000.  Vacchi has turned up working for the City of Carlsbad as the assistant director of community development, hired in February of this year.  The salary, according to the City of Carlsbad, $124,762. The salary differential is one curiosity.

Vacchi lives in Point Loma, minutes from downtown San Diego. Carlsbad’s city offices are 33 miles north of Point Loma.  San Diego City Hall is six miles from point Loma. Carlsbad has a population of 114,000.  The city of San Diego has a population of 1.4 million.

It is a mystery why anyone would take such a salary reduction to work for a city one tenth the size of San Diego and commute 33 miles to do it?  Even more curious is that Vacchi is also an attorney with an active license to practice law in California, admitted to the bar in 2000.

Vacchi had worked for the city for a number of years before leaving to go to law school.  From there he went to work for a downtown law firm Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace or Wertz McDade Wallace Moot & Brower. He was listed as a Registered Lobbyist for the firm in 2007. One of the firm’s specialties is land use.

Two questions come to mind.  Why did Gloria appoint a land use attorney to lead the DSD instead of someone with at least some construction or engineering experience?  And, why would an attorney take a position for so little money, surely the law degree and experience would qualify Vacchi for a better salary with a law firm.

One reason why Vacchi may have ended up in Carlsbad could be that Carlsbad’s Director of Community Development is Jeff Murphy, who worked for the City of San Diego, until February of 2018, in the same city department Vacchi headed as department director, the DSD.

Before he worked for the city of San Diego, Murphy was the Planning Director for the City of Encinitas.  His tenure was rocky as he tried to push developer-friendly changes in Encinitas codes.

According to an activist blog “Encinitas Undercover,” http://encinitasundercover.blogspot.com/2015/09/house-cleaning-begins-planning-director.html the Encinitas city council wanted to change the code to eliminate a controversial exemption used by developers on big projects that can allow the projects to move forward without a public vote but Murphy opposed that.  Sound familiar?  “residents say Murphy’s Planning Department often encouraged property owners to build denser developments out of character with their neighborhoods. The City Council famously ripped into Murphy in 2013 when he tried to replace the 4/5 majority rule for upzoning with a 3/5 simple majority.”

Murphy left Encinitas to take the position of the City of San Diego Director of Planning in February 2018, which would be considered a step up. Hs salary was $231,504.  He left the city after two and a half years went to work for the City of Murrieta for a salary of $167,567, like Vacchi, taking a serious salary reduction to work for a city one tenth the size of San Diego and 65 miles north of San Diego. This would hardly be called a step up.

After only two years in Murrieta, Murphy moved to the City of Carlsbad to be the Director of Community Development.  The salary range for that position was from a low of $137,000 to a high of $200,000, still less than the city of San Diego salary.

It is possible that a pattern is emerging. Why would two people take such salary reductions and take positions so far from San Diego when they had good jobs for the second largest city in California?  There have been rumors for years of people being moved around like this, financed by, and at the behest of, developers in the background, to help push developer friendly changes in various cities.

The San Diegans who paid Vacchi’s salary for years deserve an explanation why he departed the city so suddenly and without explanation.  Perhaps someone knows and can add some illumination to this mystery.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy Swink June 9, 2021 at 7:54 pm

Hmmmm. My only encounter with Bob Vacchi was in a meeting requested by Kris Michell to meet with me, Diane Coombs and Chuck Kaminski, all long-time Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (C-3) advocates for parks and open space in the San Diego region.

The 3 of us had been visible opponents to Kevin Faulconer’s 2019 RFP to “develop” Inspiration Point with maybe a hotel and other revenue producing businesses, suggesting unrealistically that this would create a revenue stream for Balboa Park. The fact that the RFP had had absolutely no public discussion and was absolutely counter to what the existing Balboa Park Master Plan, the Central Mesa Precise Plan and the draft (never adopted) Inspiration Point Precise Plan was completely ignored. In any case, I had never heard of Vacchi before that meeting.

Geoff, your research and implication of why he & Murphy moved around in ways that seem counterintuitive for professionals who one would expect to keep moving up in positions and salaries casts a whole new light on the Inspiration Point RFP which seemed to come out of no where and no one “seemed” to know where the idea originated. Thankfully,


Geoff Page June 10, 2021 at 11:19 am

Interesting, Judy. I’d like to hear more, if you have any more. I gave you an email address for sending the the old landfill report you sent me.

My experience with Vacchi goes back years and was what got me involved in planning boards. My biggest beef was his department using a very twisted interpretation of authorities to allow a contractor to measure the 30-foot height limit from the inside of planters saying that was “finished grade.” I spent my whole career in construction and this is ludicrous, no one in the industry would call unfinished soil dumped into planters as finished grade. So, when I read about his abrupt departure, I went looking.


kevinscott June 10, 2021 at 6:49 am

Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further post thanks once again.


obcliffhanger June 10, 2021 at 11:05 am

it’s a cliff hanger! Judy, finish the story pleeeease!


Don Wood June 10, 2021 at 12:16 pm

Ever since the city changed the name of the Planning Department to the Development Services Department and ran Mike Stepner, the City Architect, out of city hall, the city’s land use and zoning process has been owned and operated by local developers. As noted in this article, Mayor Gloria appoints developer lobbyists to run the misnamed department, and worked with his predecessor to upzone the whole city to allow developers to build whatever they want, wherever they want. This city council appears happy to do whatever Gloria tells them to do. If people want real change, it has to start with voting Gloria out of office, along with Jen Campbell and the rest of the city council.


OBer June 10, 2021 at 8:10 pm

This is good ole journalism with a twist…. jake


Peter from South O June 11, 2021 at 6:11 am

Thanks for the heads up on this guy and his new boss, Geoff . . . I passed your article along to a good friend of mine in Carlsbad. He is active in the community. Stay tuned!


Geoff Page June 11, 2021 at 2:09 pm

Thanks, Peter, let me know if you hear anything.


Paul Webb June 11, 2021 at 2:10 pm

Anna Vacchi Hill is the senior public information officer for the City of San Diego. Any relation?


korla Eaquinta June 14, 2021 at 7:15 pm

Thanks Geoff for the info but after that 30′ debacle we fought to get rid of, I cringe when I even hear the name! Curiouser & Curiouser!


Nithi Vandhana October 7, 2021 at 12:55 am

Thanks for sharing


Jane Fraser April 26, 2022 at 5:48 am

Thanks, Your Post Such a great & informative post. Useful wording is a great way to highlight the significant aspects of the NFTs. Keep it up.


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