Cities sue SANDAG over plan that greatly increases goals for new affordable housing

Solana Beach City Hall
(Staff file photo)

Board members criticized Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata for using SANDAG funds to defend the lawsuit


Coronado, Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove and Solana Beach are suing the San Diego Regional Association of Governments over what they argue was an unfair voting process when the board approved a plan that increased the amount of new housing required in their cities.

The suit, filed in Superior Court on Sept. 24, contends that SANDAG did not provide a fair hearing on the issue because it denied the city’s appeal on a weighted vote, meaning members that represented areas with large populations had more votes than small cities. In a one-city, one-vote tally, the appeal would have been heard.

The lawsuit was brought up at the Friday, Oct. 23, SANDAG board meeting when some members said they were disappointed to learn that Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata approved the use of agency funds to fight the lawsuit after the proposal died when brought before the Executive Committee last month.

The suit claims small cities were disenfranchised when the board used a weighted vote to squash their appeal to a revised housing plan that dramatically increased the number of units they are expected to produce over the next decade.

Coronado City Manager Blair King said SANDAG’s new formula for allocating affordable housing in the county placed the city’s goal at 1,001 new units by 2029, an increase of 1,800 percent from its 2011 allocation of 50 units.

The allocation stems from the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment plan, with the latest update called Cycle 6. The plan dictates how many new affordable homes must be built in each of the 18 cities in San Diego County and in unincorporated areas.

The assessment calculated 171,685 new units in the county by 2029. Units were placed in four different income categories ranging from very low to above-moderate, and SANDAG was required to allocate the units among its member jurisdictions.

According to the lawsuit, Imperial Beach’s allocation increased from 254 units in the 2011 cycle to 1,375 units in the new cycle. Lemon Grove’s allocation increased form 309 to 1,359 units and Solana Beach’s allocation increased from 340 to 875 units.

The cities appealed to the board to adjust the allocation, but their request was rejected June 26. A tally vote had sided with the small cities, but the appeals were rejected by the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas and National City in a subsequent weighted vote.

The SANDAG board approved the allocation plan a few weeks later. According to the lawsuit, a motion to approve the allocation failed in a tally vote July 10, but a motion that used a weighted vote passed with support from the city and county of San Diego, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Chula Vista and National City. Nine members refused to participate.

The lawsuit argues that the use of the weighted vote to consider the cities’ appeal was inappropriate.

By September, SANDAG staff members were expecting that the allocation and the voting process would be challenged in court.

At a Sept. 11 Executive Committee meeting, members were split 3-3 against transferring $100,000 from a reserve fund to defend SANDAG in a potential lawsuit regarding its allocation vote. At the time, no lawsuit had been filed.

“I think it’s a little bit premature to allocate funds for this,” said David Zito, a committee member and Solana Beach councilman.

He also noted that the lawsuit was to defend an action that the majority of the board had opposed, and he suggested that money to defend the lawsuit should come from the state.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we should spend money defending that,” he said.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who is also a member of the committee, agreed that setting money aside would be premature.

“We don’t even have a lawsuit right now,” he said. “ If one hasn’t been filed yet, what are we doing here?”

He also agreed with Zito about whether they should spend their money defending the decision, since 14 out of 19 jurisdictions were against it.

The motion failed with Desmond, El Cajon Mayor Bob Wells and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones voting against it and San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gómez, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas in support.

At the Friday, Oct. 23, SANDAG board meeting, Zito, Jones and Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey made some barbed comments directed at Ikhrata after seeing an informational item on the agenda noting that $56,000 had been transferred in the agency’s budget for legal fees related to a challenge to the housing allocation, despite the earlier Executive Committee decision.

“If any of our city managers took this type of action against the wishes of majority of board members, none of us would stand for it,” Bailey said. “In my opinion, this further erodes the integrity of the organization and if unchecked, continues to consolidate power away from the elected representatives that rep the 3.3 million residents of San Diego County and into the hands of one person. I don’t believe we should tolerate this type of activity.”

Jones said Ikhrata’s action “further erodes the confidences many people will have in our organization.”

Ikhrata defended using SANDAG funds while also saying he did not go against the Executive Committee’s direction from September.

“The Executive Committee did not authorize the use of that fund, and we honored that decision,” he said, referring to the September vote on reserve funds. “No direction was given regarding any other funding source regarding the lawsuit in general.”

Jones and Desmond said they were at the Executive Committee meeting and recall that the discussion was not about whether to use reserve funds, but whether to fund defense of the lawsuit at all.

Ikhrata again defended using agency funds in the lawsuit.

“I believe I would not be doing my job if I did not take the action I did,” he said. “You took an action as a board, and I’m defending that action. And somebody needs to defend the agency. I would expect many of you to be angry at me if I didn’t.”

— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune