Do Community Planning Group ‘Reforms’ in San Diego Mean the End of Local Democracy?

by on March 6, 2023 · 8 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Mat Wahlstrom / Times of San Diego/ March 4, 2023

Every March, the 42 community planning groups in the City of San Diego hold public elections for new board members. These unpaid volunteers are required to meet residence or business or property ownership qualification to hold office.

For over 50 years, they have served as the official advisers to the city on land use, development and project review in our neighborhoods

Every March, that is, until next year.

On Feb. 28, the Community Planners Committee, composed of the chairs of the 42 CPGs, heard more details about what the latest “reforms” approved by the City Council last September will entail.

Roundly criticizing them for introducing burdensome conditions, the chairs’ greatest concerns surrounded the need for CPGs to apply for recognition from scratch.

Starting next year, any group can compete for this recognition, without having held a public election or even having residence or ownership qualification. Worse, the city refused to disallow outside actors or to treat them as less qualified.

Instead, the foremost consideration will be whether a group meets the city’s criteria for “diversity” — the definition of which has yet to be provided.

Here is the link to Zoom recording of the meeting, with the discussion beginning at the 21-minute mark.

State law requires that there be general plans and community plans that govern land use development. And the process of drafting them is coordinated with CPGs.

CPGs are the most local level of democratic government in California. Enshrined in city law and subject to the Brown Act, they are the closest many of us get to direct access to and demanding accountability from elected officials.

But under these new rules, CPGs will be subject to passing purity tests and be less about honest representation than playing along. And volunteers will be unable to meet quotas or do more outreach than expected of paid city staffers, thereby ensuring that only private enterprises with the necessary resources will be able to qualify.

Begun under Mayor Kevin Faulconer and accelerated by Todd Gloria, CPG “reform” has been a wholly bipartisan effort to disenfranchise community input and remove any brakes on runaway development.

Back in 2018, the city auditor and the county Grand Jury were each induced to investigate the claim that “CPGs tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities.” Not only did neither substantiate this, but both also blamed delays on the city itself for not providing CPGs needed staff, education and resources.

Despite this, city leaders refused to implement those recommended changes, and instead called for a raft of restrictions that critics of CPGs cynically claimed were made in response. And in February 2020, the City Council approved them.

And still not satisfied that this sufficiently hobbled CPGs, city leaders came up with the changes approved last year.

But again, since neither the city auditor nor the county Grand Jury determined any discriminatory intent or ulterior motive, and the city isn’t following through on their recommendations anyway, what exactly is being fixed?

To give just one example: CPGs have been cut out from being able to directly refer code and zoning violations and public safety concerns to the city for enforcement. Now the general public has no one to represent their interests and their protests disappear into a phone app. Where’s a reform to reverse that?

Are the current CPGs perfect? Of course not. Like any human endeavor, especially one made up of volunteers, they can make mistakes. But even those mistakes demonstrate that they are people working as fairly and transparently as possible to get things right. And that is more than anyone will be able to say about external organizations favoring their vested interests over assigned constituents.

Winston Churchill famously stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Neighbors in San Diego are about to find out how true that is.

Mat Wahlstrom chairs the Uptown Planners Community Planning Group and is an occasional writer for the OB Rag.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom March 6, 2023 at 12:36 pm

Thanks for sharing, Editordude.


kh March 9, 2023 at 12:49 pm

The way I see it, community planner’s solitary duty is to represent their community’s interests, through the lens of the community plan.

Many communities in SD are not racially diverse. It’s quite segregated compared to other places I’ve lived. No one should be surprised if a CPG reflects that. And frankly it’s irrelevant. 85% of OB however, are renters. Their concerns are cost of living, and quality of living. Homeowners, business owners, and even absentee property owners all have a stake in it too. The CPG members need to give fair consideration to all these interests.

But we are NOT obligated to serve the interests of developers, political movements, or city planners. If the CPG isn’t creating some barriers on certain projects or development policies, they aren’t doing their job. Likewise, CPGs also advocate and push for projects and policy changes.

I’m really sick and tired of hearing Circulate SD’s unsubstantiated talking points get parroted by the city and others. Circulate is a special interest lobbying group that does not represent our community members. Certainly they are always welcome to lobby for their interests at our meetings, but they rarely do. I suppose they have more success conspiring with city staff to dismantle CPGs instead.


Mat Wahlstrom March 9, 2023 at 1:23 pm

Agreed, kh. And what is especially galling is that all this is being done in the nationwide shadow of election deniers alleging that the ‘right people’ didn’t win, so obviously they must have been cheated and we need to ‘fix’ the process. The failure to recognize these CPG ‘reforms’ as the same Trumpist strategy should rightly alarm everyone.


Phil March 9, 2023 at 3:00 pm

KH, do you know how many of your fellow board members are renters vs. homeowners?


kh March 9, 2023 at 3:10 pm

I mentioned 85% but it may be closer to 80%. It’s been a bit since I checked the census data.

Here’s some more demographic data from SANDAG. But it only covers age, race, and income. Note that OB is below the median household income for San Diego. So much for the narrative that we’re a bunch of entitled bourgeoisie beach dwellers.


kh March 9, 2023 at 3:11 pm
Phil March 9, 2023 at 3:29 pm

Oh I’m sorry kh, I mean how many OB planning group members are renters vs. homeowners. It was your statistics above that made me wonder what the representation is on the planning group itself.


Jeff March 10, 2023 at 2:17 pm

Nary a Trumpist in sight on this City Council or the Gloria administration. That being said, we should be thankful for CPGs and their check and balance on the city running roughshod over the will of residents. Please tell us what we can do to retain power in these groups or get it back.

In the future, I hope instead of following lock step with party or ideology, we need to start to look at actual candidates and what they plan to do. I am a very conservative fellow on the broader political spectrum but when it comes to local, I tend to be much more liberal, tolerant of different opinions and open to my fellow residents. Maybe that ‘s something to build on for me.

I look for candidates that care about my community. I thought I saw that in Gloria (even crossed ideology to vote for him) before his foray into the Assembly. Now I see he has a different agenda and loyalty. Pretty much goes for most of the City Council as well. Politics are changing.


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