San Diego If you think volunteer advisory boards are rubber stamps for San Diego's municipal shenanigans, meet attorney Bob Ottilie. As a member of the Park and Recreation Board, Ottilie has lately been causing heartburn in at least three offices of city government. And Park and Recreation Department director Ted Medina told Ottilie in the fall that on the advice of a lawyer he wouldn't answer Ottilie's questions.
At the root of Ottilie's mischief lies an ad hoc committee holding "Fox Canyon Neighborhood Improvements Coordination Meetings." By phone Ottilie tells me, "Of all the goofy things done at city hall in the last several years -- and there have been many -- the activities of [this group] have got to be the goofiest. Its meetings are variously attended by a city councilman, or his staff, and employees from the Real Estate Assets, Development Services, Community and Economic Development, and Park and Recreation departments. The group is responsible for expenditures of $375,000 of the city's money. Yet it is accountable to no official body under control by the mayor or, formerly, the city manager."
In December Ottilie made public seven boxes of documents relating to the Fox Canyon committee's work that he obtained through a California Public Records Act request. A timeline kept by the group -- from late March 2002 through November 2005 -- is helpful in figuring out what the group has been up to. A cryptic November 16, 2002 entry, "Madaffer supports road," gives the first major clue.
Already by 1999, however, Madaffer seems to have had interests in a Fox Canyon road. Jose Lopez, a resident of the Fox Canyon neighborhood, in East San Diego, and president of the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association, tells me that in that year former councilwoman Judy McCarty agreed to support a road through the canyon that some locals felt would relieve traffic congestion near their homes. "When Jim Madaffer was McCarty's chief of staff back then," says Lopez, "he came to one of our meetings and promised to help her get us Ontario Avenue, which had been a paper road on San Diego maps since 1916."
Throughout 2003 the Fox Canyon ad hoc committee was trying to figure out ways to come up with money. Yet Park and Recreation employee notes from September 4, 2003, state, "Madaffer committed to new road. Consider it funded! Go ahead, need schedule."
A timeline entry for the committee's November 19 meeting reads: "Determine that we cannot comply with [Chollas Creek Enhancement Project] & have road. Decided to show road as vacated in graphic for Grant."
Two aspects of this entry are significant. First, the "Grant" refers to a plan the committee was developing to obtain a California Parks and Recreation grant to build a park partly on the same site as the up-to-then-contemplated Ontario Avenue. Second, "vacated in graphic" seems to mean that the committee had no intention of telling the state about the road. For when the grant application was finally submitted on January 15, 2004, no mention of the road was made in either written text or map graphics. According to the application, San Diego was applying to the state for money to develop a park only.
As they waited for the grant to be approved, ad hoc committee members decided on June 21 to add to the project $900,000 in "special park fees" from the Mid City Park Developer Fund. And on July 12 they submitted a "preliminary review package" to the Development Services Department for a "multi-family" development. In a later city council meeting (March 21, 2006), Madaffer would concede that he had long envisioned a low-income housing development at the intersection of the planned Ontario Avenue and Auburn Drive.
On November 1, 2004, the state announced a grant of $2.3 million to San Diego to build Fox Canyon Park. No mention of the road. "A fully executed grant contract [was] received" on December 24. In between, the Fox Canyon ad hoc committee met "to discuss technical studies required and finalize road layout, review[ing] cost estimate." (The money to build Ontario Avenue alone was eventually estimated at over $5 million.)
From that point forward, the committee worked on the Fox Canyon venture as a joint road-and-park project. An item in the group's January 25, 2005 minutes states, "The park and road must be evaluated as one project for Environmental review." The minutes additionally indicate that "Real Estate Assets is close to an agreement for purchase of the land [needed for the park]." In the state grant, the amount specified to buy that property was $800,000.
Bob Ottilie condemns the committee's handling of land issues. "There does not appear to have been," he writes, "a single significant concern raised by anyone who attended these meetings (which included department heads and the councilmember) at the fact that the city did not own the property on which it was planning these two projects...." Lane MacKenzie of the Real Estate Assets Department had been telling the committee that he had a deal with property owner Larry Zajonc to buy the necessary land. But, says Ottilie, "we have not seen a single document from the landowner expressing a willingness to sell the property on any term."
On March 16, 2005, Madaffer council staffer Elyse Lowe e-mailed the Park and Recreation Department's April Penera regarding another property: "Jim wants to investigate the house at the corner of Auburn/Ontario to build a two-lane road." Lowe added that Madaffer suggested using a temporary Housing and Urban Development loan "to fund portions of the park including things for the road -- all with a Crossroads [Redevelopment Project Area] reimbursement agreement." Penera responded the same day, saying, "I believe there is money left in the Mid City Special Park funds...wouldn't we just use that?"
In a March 30 e-mail to Madaffer himself, Lowe wrote, "Don't know yet if we need the whole house or part of the parcel. Do we have your permission to have Lane MacKenzie start discussions with the owner of the house? The ballpark estimate on the house is $400-$500,000." Several minutes later Madaffer responded: "[Two] weeks ago I personally chatted with [Real Estate Assets director] Will G[riffith] and asked him to begin pursuing the house. Please confirm this with him directly. Buy the house now -- any and all ways possible using any and all funds possible."