San Diego's Code Monitoring Team: Foxes guard the henhouse

Concerned more with crafting ordinances than drafting fixes

Despite community and planning-department support for Uptown building-height restrictions, the Code Monitoring Team voted against such as ordinance.
  • Despite community and planning-department support for Uptown building-height restrictions, the Code Monitoring Team voted against such as ordinance.

It reads like a page out of a comic book: an underground team of developers and building-industry professionals whose sole mission is to change land-use policies, in some cases easing development regulations.

But this isn’t a work of fiction; it occurs once a month at City Hall when a group of developers, lobbyists, and architects meet to reshape San Diego’s land-development code. Their suggestions appear on the front page of staff reports to council committees and planning-commission dockets.

The Code Monitoring Team, established in 1998, is an 18-person team responsible for finding holes in San Diego’s code and offering ideas on how to fill them.

But over the years, the team has become policy-driven, concerned more with crafting ordinances than drafting fixes to the current code.

Some residents are beginning to voice concerns about what they feel is an autonomous and largely unregulated group.

Unlike any other city committees, subcommittees, or even community-planning groups, the Code Monitoring Team is not required to follow even the most basic provisions from the Brown Act or other public meeting laws, such as posting agendas or documenting votes at meetings. Members are not required to file economic interest disclosures, as is the case with volunteer planners and city officials.

A spokesperson for interim mayor Todd Gloria confirms the group’s autonomy and justifies its composition and lack of bylaws by pointing out that it’s “not a legislative body and was not created by a legislative body” and therefore is not subject to any of the state’s open meeting laws.

The freedom has allowed the group to become a quasi-lobbying body, which weighs in on a variety of crucial planning issues, such as food-truck regulations and height limits for San Diego’s oldest and most established communities.

“Most of the public is not even aware there exists such a group,” says former deputy planning director for the City of San Diego and current environmental and planning consultant, Dave Potter.

“Most of the public is not even aware there exists such a group,” says former city deputy planner Dave Potter.

“Most of the public is not even aware there exists such a group,” says former city deputy planner Dave Potter.

“Based on my knowledge of the origin, composition, and operating procedures of the Code Monitoring Team, the team should not be involved in making recommendations on policy issues.”

When formed, the team was meant to represent a variety of community interests, from knowledgeable building-industry professionals to historical resource experts to community planners and environmental advocacy groups.

However, the current roster is anything but diverse. Of the 18 designated positions on the board, 3 are vacant. Developers, architects, and even land-use lobbyists whose job is to persuade city officials to adopt a more lax permitting process, dominate the roster. There is only one community planner.

And while locating agendas for meetings proves to be a difficult task, their recommendations on important community issues are not hard to find. That was evident on August 14 when only eight team members showed to provide recommendations on whether to adopt a permanent height ordinance for Uptown communities of Hillcrest, Mission Hills, and Bankers Hill.

The push for height limitations in Uptown is no small issue. The fight to keep building heights down began in 2007, shortly after the city’s planning department received a proposal for two residential towers, one a 19-story and the other a 17-story, to be built at the corner of University and Third Avenue in the heart of Hillcrest.

Despite being victorious in defeating the project, residents were unable to convince the city council to pass a permanent height ordinance. The best they could do was get a temporary moratorium on buildings above 65 feet in selected areas.

Four years later, residents are still lobbying the council to adopt a permanent ordinance. Dave Potter is one of those outspoken advocates. He was encouraged to find that a new ordinance was in the works with city staff fully behind the effort. But Potter soon learned that not everyone was on board.

At their sparsely attended August 14 meeting, the Code Monitoring Team voted against the permanent ordinance. Those present included John Ziebarth from the American Institute of Architecture, John Leppert; from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Steve Silverman; Council of Design Professionals, Sean Cardenas; former city planner and current project manager for Tierra Environmental Services, attorney Rebecca Michael; Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs for the San Diego County Apartment Association; Marcela Escobar-Eck, former director of San Diego’s Development Services Department; current land-use lobbyist Joan Dahlin from the League of Women Voters; and Guy Preuss, the sole community planner on the team.

According to notes from that meeting, seven of the eight members present went against staff’s recommendations and suggested a different tact; to do away with any height limitations and allow council or planning commissioners to decide if the project, regardless of height, should be built. Only one person voted against the motion — Guy Preuss, the sole community planner.

Their recommendation appeared on the front page of a staff report to the Land Use and Housing Committee, directly underneath the staff’s recommendation, above the recommendation from Uptown’s planning group.

Frustrated with the process, Potter requested that the mayor’s office reevaluate the Code Monitoring Team’s responsibilities and the appointment process and adopt a strict set of bylaws detailing their mission. “Transparency is seriously lacking for this group,” Potter complained.

He is not alone.

Joe LaCava, community planning committee member, worries about the lack of oversight of the Code Monitoring Team.

Joe LaCava, community planning committee member, worries about the lack of oversight of the Code Monitoring Team.

Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planning Committee, a land-use consultant, and an expert on the local planning process, also has concerns about the autonomy of the Code Monitoring Team and agrees that the city should hold the team to the same standards and requirements as any other committee.

“Without having bylaws and a set time for reconfirmation by the council and mayor, the team may drift from their mission. And, instead of the group focusing on monitoring the code, it has sometimes veered off into judging policy issues.”

La Cava continues, “The mayor and council should work together to compose the group of the right members. And, the city attorney should draft bylaws and ensure Brown Act compliance. Over the past several years, most of the city’s advisory committees have been brought up to today’s expectations of how they should operate. It is time to relook at the Code Monitoring Team. They provide a valuable service, let’s get the right process documented to inspire confidence by the public and the decision-makers.”

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So they kept a high-rise development off that site. But then a big Walgreens was approved (http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20...). Most Hillcrestians didn't want another drug store, since they already had Rite Aid and CVS stores.

Wasn’t Marcella Escobar-Eck the City official who signed off on the plans for the illegally too-high Sunroad building near Montgomery Field? Just describing her as the former director of the Development Services Department doesn’t quite do her justice. Also, it seems that her current job is a consultant for developers. Ads for her company (http://atlantissd.com/ ) are all over the pages of VoiceofSanDiego.org these days.

The way to lessen the impact of this good article is to make it personal and take cheap shots at individuals. These are good people doing good stuff within the framework that has evolved over time. Much like the City has restructured community planning groups and other city recognized advisory committees and task forces, the time is now to reset this "team" as well. Keep the good people if they still want to serve but give them a better format within which to operate.

Fixing the process matters, but facing reality is also important, Mr. La Cava. Marcela Escobar-Eck is not "good people doing good stuff." She WAS involved in okaying the too-tall Sunroad building near Montgomery Field and at least her boss Jim Waring was fired by embarrassed Mayor Sanders over it. But all such folks have nine lives, at least, in San Diego, and return to the scenes of their crimes in some paid capacity or another. Ms. Escobar-Eck is now a paid consultant for developers.

"A spokesperson for interim mayor Todd Gloria confirms the group’s autonomy and justifies its composition and lack of bylaws by pointing out that it’s “a legislative body and was not created by a legislative body” and therefore is not subject to any of the state’s open meeting laws." What the heck does that mean? How can you have a legislative body not created by legislation???

That is just Political CYA "speak"...

First thanks for the important story.

After our complaint back in 2006 the Code Monitoring Team (CMT) promised to abide by the Brown Act and post their Agendas online before meetings are held. Prior, the CMT would publish the Agendas after the meeting already took place.

It is sad City Attorney Goldsmith and Interim Mayor Gloria are under the impression a legal loophole exists to Brown Act compliance. It does not. If the City Council refuses to act, our State Attorney General Kamala Harris should be asked for a legal opinion to overrule our timid City Council and City Attorney. One of the main issues former City Attorney Mike Aguirre pushed was compliance with the Brown Act for all public meetings in the City of San Diego.


"In addition, this Office is very concerned about the legality of certain “ad hoc group” meetings (attended by representatives from three Council District offices, the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst, the City Auditor and Comptroller’s Office, the San Diego Housing Commission, and the Mayor's policy staff), which have been conducted in private (and which the “ad hoc group” intends to continue conducting in private) to review the history of the City's management of the CDBG Program, recommendations for future CDBG Program years, and the City’s CDBG Strategic Plan for FY 2010. Under the Ralph M. Brown Act, California Government Code section 54952.2(b) (also known as the “serial meeting prohibition”) states, in relevant part, “[A]ny use of…personal intermediaries,… that is employed by a majority of the members of the legislative body to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken on an item by the members of the legislative body is prohibited.”

Good to know this information, Dorian Hargrove! San Diegans were robbed of a genuine planning department years ago and instead got a "Code Monitoring Team" of "experts" that exists "outside of the bubble that is city hall" as well as the fundamental sunshine requirements of the Brown Act. That would be extra-legal if not illegal and needs to be remedied asap.

Wow, I never know about this group and I serve on the Clairemont Planning Group. Thanks for another informative article, Dorian.

Great reporting like always, Dorian. I doubt that many people knew about this group, lurking in the shadows! (I sit on a planning committee too, and never heard a word about it!)

As long as the residents, planning groups, and above board developers (yeah, there are some...) allow this to go on, we will always see our neighborhoods eroded by unwanted and just plain bad development, despite the best efforts by community plan updates, watchdog groups, and involved residents trying to ensure existing code is enforced!

Hey, Todd! If you want to "fix the problems" that plague this city, how about addressing this big one? Put this group in the same playing field as the rest, and set them on track for their original mission.

A surprise that is not really a surprise, since our City which claims to be open is really filled with these types of semi-secret groups filled with our City Official selected insiders to steer us, instead of us steering our Government!

City Council appointees are just another way to game the system, while our elected officials all smile back at us and tell us they are listening to all sides before they do what is best for business.

Another example was the $400,000 that Hess Brewery got from Mayor Sander's office to open in North Park, which was not publicized, since many in North Park feel that they have too may alcohol licensee's already.

Voters should be asking each of their elected officials to publicly state any monies given out and/or how they selected the people chosen to fill seats on all advisory Boards!

Please consider posting a listing of all of the semi-secret advisory Boards along with who is serving on them and who appointed them... That listing will expose why the fix is in and how the majority of San Diego voters are being played fools by those elected to serve us.

After the next election, expect things to get much worse, since BOTH our candidates have accepted record amount of donations which will translate into every more spending that will benefit those that gave the BIG donations!

Wow. I should have approached Mayor Sanders’ office when we constructed our new facility in Grantville. Maybe he would have given us $400,000. Yeah, right!

Good investigative reporting. The current Code Monitoring Team principals named here have many community planning group connections and long histories in land use/development businesses. Nine lives, indeed. I hope to see the Brown Act strictly enforced for this unelected group in the future.

To Mr. La Cava: simply examining histories and actions of people isn't taking a cheap shot. If the record is one of self-serving and corrupt behavior, that's the record that was created. The Reader article is appropriately titled: foxes eat chickens - it's what they do. If the chickens could decide on the overseer of their community, they would not choose a fox. They would at least like to know when the foxes were meeting and what they were planning. A lot of chickens might be able to overwhelm a few foxes.

To Janet O'Dea: Community Planning groups are not always what they appear to be. Code Monitoring Team allies in the business community and City DSD, in 2010/2011, infiltrated the Greater Golden Hill Community Plan update meetings, with a goal of suppressing any negative discussion of companion units ("granny flats"). The City, with complete support by the SD Planning Commission and the realtor/builder business community, was then quietly changing the Land Use code to allow these second units in single-family-zoned neighborhoods such as South Park. The tables at the Greater Golden Hill meetings each had a at least one pro-companion-unit community member who worked for the City, was the partner of a City worker, or was in the building/development trade, but who did not identify themselves as being such, to monitor and suppress any antagonistic discussion of companion units. This happened: if the discussion at a table led to the subject, the plants would say "Oh, I don't think this is the right place to discuss this..." and the whole consensus set-up would move the talk quickly away from bringing that issue up to the room at large.

That said, one of the CM Team members, a very good fox, attorney Rebecca Michael, has a long history of rallying the realtor/developer community to change the code to allow companion units. In 2005, she wrote an article for the SD Daily Transcript decrying the code. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to allow second units in 2011, as reported in the Reader. I'm sure that the CMT had a great deal to do with that.

So much for transparency.

Good reporting, Dorian.

Circumventing the Brown Act could be actionable. Our Interim Mayor and our City Attorney allow this kind of lobbying? These people take money from developers and then give impartial advice. How kind. The usual suspects again. If I were a big developer, I would know exactly who to call to get around regulations and zoning while making it look like recommendations from disinterested people.

Do they astroturf as well, or it that extra? I know some unemployed bloggers....

Paradise Plundered Redux.

And who do you think actually writers the "draft" of all of the municipal code changes?

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