August 1, 2008

Steve Padilla

Tony – Don’t Suffer the Fools

San Diego City Councilman Tony Young did the right thing. Sometimes the price in politics of doing so means definite headaches and pains. Unfortunately, the world of politics often values patronage and relationships over principles, and places emphasis on appeasing other politicians instead of on community objectives and delivering results. Many politicians talk the talk but few walk the walk, showing the courage to make even long time friends angry for the public good.

An effort was announced this week to recall the District 4 representative in large part, because he had the gall to sign a letter along with colleague council-members Ben Hueso and Donna Frye demanding the resignation of Carolyn Smith, the now former President of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. Smith, who was ousted by the SEDC Board of Directors last week after 14 years has been a long time prominent figure in Young’s district and is the daughter of Rev. George Walker Smith, long time activist and founder of the Catfish Club. The recall is a ludicrous and vain effort that should fail, and Councilman Young will not likely loose much sleep over it. But what he will need to worry about in the coming months and the high-wire act he has had to perform in recent weeks are what are truly important for his district and the city at large.

The SEDC is the non-profit action arm for redevelopment efforts by the City of San Diego acting by agreement with the City and semi-independently. It was formed to implement efforts to revitalize some of the city’s most economically distressed areas – many of which are within Young’s district. There have been some great success stories as a result of the organization’s work, but very much remains to be done. In recent weeks and months, the issues and scandals dogging SEDC have increased, resulting in perhaps the next embarrassing chapter in San Diego civic history.

For months, Young and others worked behind the scenes to try to get new appointments to the SEDC Board of Directors, as it had been operating with almost all of its members well beyond their terms of office. Then of course were revelations that housing stock produced in part with public support to be available to low and moderate-income earners, wasn’t, and enforcement was badly lacking. Add to that the discovery of large unbudgeted bonuses and “acknowledge-ment payments” in excess of $200,000 dollars paid to the top two officers in the corporation which helped increase administration costs to nearly 38%, without the knowledge of most of the board and city officials. The Mayor’s office had to cut funding to the agency, and the SEDC board eventually forced Smith out. Did I mention that Board Chairman M. “Chip” Owen had large financial interests in development enterprises with business before the SEDC while simultaneously solely approving the salary of the ousted president? The revelations continue, and could very well result in more investigations, the kinds that are conducted by agencies other than the city.

While balancing the need to fill vacancies which have lasted far too long, and dealing with the continuing bad news, Councilman Young has to worry about how all of this could ultimately affect the potential redevelopment his community so badly needs. It is bad enough his district has historically at times had to fight for some fairness, attention and a little respect. Now he has the added headache of an annoying recall effort, organized by some who either gained financially from the old regime or who feel he somehow betrayed his own community. Nonsense.

All of these circus acts coupled with the departure of Nancy Graham from another major redevelopment arm, the CCDC, have some San Diego city officials questioning the continued existence or at least the current structure of both organizations. The last thing Tony Young or District 4 needs is talk like that.

Tony Young did the right thing. In demanding Smith’s resignation, he, his colleagues and the Mayor noted the contributions she had made to her community while pointing out the continuing scandals were an unnecessary distraction from important work. But he and the council should do one more right thing – demand the resignation of “Chip” Owen and amend the operating agreement with SEDC with new safeguards, and get them back to work doing what they are charged to do – eliminate blight, encourage investment and create opportunities and hope.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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