Hasan Ikhrata explains the SANDAG vision at a press conference following an April board meeting. Photo by Chris Jennewein

The San Diego Association of Governments fired three high-level staffers Tuesday as the agency continued its transition under Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata.

Ikhrata, who has shifted the agency’s focus toward expanding the county’s public transit options in lieu of adding more freeway infrastructure, announced in an email to staff that the agency ousted Chief Deputy Executive Director Kim Kawada, Land Use and Transportation Planning Director Muggs Stoll and Communications Director David Hicks.

“I understand the changes I’ve announced today may be hard to accept at first and please understand they’re part of a larger plan designed to help us be a stronger organization, where each employee can do their best work, and achieve great things,” Ikhrata wrote.

The three staffers worked closely with Gary Gallegos, the agency’s former executive director. He resigned in August 2017 amid a scandal in which the agency knowingly overstated how much revenue would be collected from 2016’s Measure A, which would have raised the county’s sales tax rate by a half-cent to fund local infrastructure projects.

Hicks, Kawada and Stoll served within the agency during the scandal while the latter two were significantly involved in the agency’s most recent regional transportation plan update in 2015, as well as an update that was expected to be adopted this year before Ikhrata scuttled it.

Stoll, in particular, had played a significant role in the agency’s transportation infrastructure planning efforts since 2009 and oversaw the last two regional plan updates in 2011 and 2015.

“All three have been important and valuable team members during their time at SANDAG and I want to publicly acknowledge and thank each of them for their hard work and dedication which has shaped the agency as we know it today,” Ikhrata wrote in the email.

Earlier this year, Ikhrata announced that the agency would abandon its previous transportation plans, which focused on improvements to the county’s network of roads, in favor of a transportation plan that boosts funding for public transit projects with the goal of moving the county away from the use of personal vehicles.

While the plan has drawn the ire of elected officials in east and north county where public transit is limited or nonexistent, Ikhrata has forged ahead. The agency expects to begin holding public meetings on the plan later this year, with a goal of adopting it by the end of 2021.

SANDAG staffer Coleen Clementson will be installed as the agency’s acting land use and transportation planning director.

Irene McCormack, a former journalist and veteran government communications official who blew the first whistle on the Mayor Bob Filner abuse scandal, will take over as communications director in an interim capacity.

Kawada’s role will be filled by three of the agency’s chief deputies, according to Ikhrata. Those roles are expected to be filled in the coming months. Until then, the agency’s directors will rotate in the acting chief deputy executive director position.

“I believe we’re at a unique point in time to shape the future of the region and make a significant, lasting impact and I’m committed to doing the work to get us there,” Ikrata wrote.

— City News Service

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