San Diego Association of Governments board members said Friday the organization needs improved internal procedures to prevent a recurrence of the breakdown that occurred when the group released faulty revenue projections for a tax-increase measure on last fall’s ballot.
To achieve that goal, the group plans to conduct a forensic investigation of documents stemming from the handling of Measure A and conduct a closed-session review of the performance of Executive Director Gary L. Gallegos, according to a motion board members approved after a three-hour meeting.
The board listened to an in-depth report by the Hueston Hennigan law firm on SANDAG’s over-estimation of Measure A revenues, followed by withering criticism from the audience.
Measure A would have raised the countywide sales tax by a half-cent to pay for transportation and environmental projects, but it fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage. SANDAG came under fire after revelations surfaced that its staff knew before the November election that its financial projections for the measure were faulty, but didn’t inform the board or the public.
The report on SANDAG’s over-estimation of revenues determined there was “no intent or deliberate effort” to deceive the public or the agency’s Board of Directors, SANDAG Chairman Ron Roberts said earlier this week.
Among the many findings in the report was an over-reliance on one economist who had worked at SANDAG for many years.
Attorney John C. Hueston told board members that “many red flags” were missed as the Measure A process moved along. One of those was SANDAG not having proper staffing for its demographic and economic forecasting model, dating back to 2006. Hueston said “there was severe debate within SANDAG, and delay in outing of the issues in correlation with the departure of Marney Cox,” who served as the organization’s chief economist.
When it came to handling the investigation, “everyone was cooperative; no one refused to meet with us,” Hueston said.
“There were a couple of misleading statements, but those were not intentional,” Hueston said.
Roberts said after the meeting that “while the investigation identified several red flag moments where the flaws in SANDAG’s forecasting formula could have been better highlighted and explored,” the attorneys “found no evidence any member of the SANDAG staff deliberately withheld concerns about the financial forecast from the SANDAG board of directors, or voters, in advance of last year’s election.”
Numerous civic leaders and private citizens demanded more honesty from SANDAG and its members, while at least two people called on Gallegos to resign.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, said she was appalled how the report was presented.
“A white collar firm white-washed how this happened,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.”SANDAG executives misled the public. They shot down whistle- blowers and then created a tool to possibly cover this up. … If you don’t see a problem here, I’m gonna suggest your residents just might see one.”
Gonzalez Fletcher is sponsoring legislation that would overhaul the way the San Diego region spends and tracks transportation money it receives from taxpayers.
Cori Schumacher, a Carlsbad City Council member, said the revelations about Measure A have damaged SANDAG’s credibility.
Board member Lorie Zapf described some criticism of the agency as “outrageous and uniformed.”
“Anyone looking at this board knows we’re not defending anything,” said Zapf, who also sits on the San Diego City Council. “When we found out, we unanimously asked for an investigation. Solutions shouldn’t be based on politics. This is an internal problem.”
Board member Mary Salas, who is also Chula Vista’s mayor, said she feels let down by what happened and that “SANDAG cannot fix this problem internally.”
Her colleague, Sam Abed, said SANDAG should have provided “a range of forecasts instead of one,” but accused local news media of not telling the whole story.
“Missed opportunities to prevent forecast errors does not mean a crime was committed,” said Abed, who also serves as mayor of Escondido.
— From Staff and Wire Reports