By Miriam Raftery
February 8, 2023 (San Diego’s East County) – For years, the mayors of East County’s four cities (El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Santee) have met informally to recommend who should represent the region on San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) committees. But on January 31, with the mayors at an impasse, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells put forth a proposal for what he called “an equitable process for tie-breaking” that would keep El Cajon represented on SANDAG committees.
Mayor Wells’ list of proposed appointments would have given every city a primary member on at least one committee.
In the end, newly elected SANDAG Chair Nora Vargas followed SANDAG procedures to break the tie and announce the final appointments, which leave El Cajon with only alternates, no regular members on any SANDAG committee.
Wells’ letter named seven committees, but one, Regional Energy, is no longer listed on SANDAG’s website. Another, Audit, lists Lemon Grove Mayor Racquel Vasquez as a member but does not list an alternate.Members of those two committee are not nominated by the regional primaries; instead,, the SANDAG Board Chair appoints them
The final appointments for the other five policy committees include primary members from three East County cities, but not El Cajon. El Cajon does have two alternates. (Alternates can attend meetings and get staff support and access reports, but may not vote.) A majority of both primary members and alternates chosen to serve on SANDAG's policy committees are Democrats, a reflection of the new SANDAG board majority:
Mayor Wells, who formerly chaired the executive committee, objected to what he viewed as a slight against his city. “It is inconceivable that the voice of the sixth largest city in the county and the largest city in East County be silenced by not participating in SANDAG’s committees,” Wells wrote in a letter to Vargas.
In his letter, Wells further claimed that in 2021, the East County mayors agreed that Santee Mayor John Minto would replace Wells on the SANDAG Executive Committee, with Lemon Grove Mayor Raquel Vasquez as the alternate. Wells says the arrangement including reversing that order for the next year, seating Minto on the Executive Committee. Instead, Wells says, Vasquez “privately approached the SANDAG Board Chair and had herself placed as the primary member on the Executive Committee with Mayor Minto as the alternate.”
Wells contends that the once congenial East County mayor’s meeting has “frayed under the pressures of double-dealing and mistrust.” He claimed Vasquez “declared herself Chairperson” and that anyone disagreeing with the committee assignments would be reported as abstaining. He also characterized actions of La Mesa Councilman Jack Shu as “bullying.”
Mayor Vasquez did not respond to ECM’s request for comment.
Shu provided extensive comments in a phone call and emails sent to ECM, disputing many of Wells’ contentions.
“I think his description of us being bullying is far-fetched, given his behavior at SANDAG board meetings in the past two years,” Shu fired back. He noted that some mayors including from rural areas walked out of recent SANDAG meetings as a means of protest, seeking to force shut down due to lack of a quorum.
“By walking out, they are not fulfilling their obligation to participate in government,” Shu states. “Chair Vargas wants us to participate together and work—not walk out on meetings. We cannot work together on public safety, land use, transportation and border issues – these are critical regional challenges.”
To understand these conflicts, it’s necessary to examine the history of SANDAG. The group started as a council of governments from across our region, then became a metropolitan planning organization. As San Diego’s population grew, the city of San Diego controlled 40% of the vote on SANDAG under a weighted vote rule based on each city’s population.
Then Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez introduced AB 805, which was enacted. It gave San Diego 42% and Chula Vista 8% of all votes on SANDAG. So by persuading just one other small city to vote with them, these cities now controlled by Democratic councils now dominate SANDAG and can outvote nearly all other local cities combined. In the past, SANDAG was largely ruled by Republicans, before the city and county demographics resulted in a seismic political shift.
Shu contends that a vote not weighted by population would give too much power to small cities that only have single digit percentages. Together, all the members who recently walked out totaled 23% of the vote, he pointed out.
Wells has been outspoken against the weighted vote at SANDAG, though in his letter, he asked Chair Vargas ton consider as an option choosing committee assignments based on a weighted formula with proportionate voting by each city’s population, which would have given El Cajon more clout than Lemon Grove or other smaller cities.
Shu notes than back when Republicans were in charge of SANDAG, ”you didn’t hear Democrats complaining and walking out of meetings.” He likens the situation to Congress, where committee chairmanships are doled out only to majority party members, though committees have members from both parties.
Wells, in his letter, suggested that omitting El Cajon is racist, since the city has a high population of Arab-American immigrants and Latinos. Shu suggests that minorities might be better represented by himself, an Asian-American, and by Vasquez, who is Black.
Wells contends that his proposal showed no preference toward party politics, while SANDAG’s is skewed toward Democrats. He slammed what he calls “the outright and fundamental dysfunction and circus-like atmosphere that now prevails at SANDAG at all levels.”
Some East County voters have voiced concerns over feeling marginalized, with urban and coastal representatives pushing forward decisions that can negatively impact some rural and inland residents. Those include a proposed mileage tax that would hit hardest on residents in rural areas lacking transit, prioritizing investment in urban transit rather than easing freeway congestion, and approving massive wind and solar projects that industrialize backcountry communities instead of pressing for solar on roofs and parking lots near where the most power is used.
Shu, however, contends that the shift in power at SANDAG reflects the will of the majority of the voters in the county, if not in each city. He believes those voters want a compassionate approach to solving issues such as homelessness and bold progress to reduce greenhouse gasses fueling climate change.
“For overall governance, if we work from our heart, we’ll be better off,” Shu concludes.
Please refrain from name-calling.
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Didn’t Say He Was
But Desmond has Chaired other Boards. Did representations ever walk out along Party Lines on his? I doubt the SANDAG walkout was spontaneous. Did you ever walk out of a Lemon Grove City Council Meeting? Many of us are aware of the challenges that took place when you served there in recent years.
You Forgot India!
Engaging in "Whataboutism" doesn't advance the discussion. This is San Diego County. Did Democrat's walk out when Desmond was in charge? Not a good look.
Community Sovereignty Matters
Air Pollution, And It’s Effects, Doesn’t Recognize Sovereignty