Something that surprised local residents is that the area of the newly proposed maintenance assessment district has greatly expanded since 2002. That territory was based on the Greater Golden Hill Planning Area, which has the rough appearance of a backwards L-shape. This year's proposed district is bigger than that. The size seemingly grew from somebody drawing a straight line from the top of the L to its westward horizontal wing. The effect is to include in the new district the City-owned Balboa Park property on which parts of two golf courses sit.
Kathy Vandenheuvel, a development corporation board member, e-mails me that the Balboa Park land was included to address several concerns local residents had about it. Among other goals, proponents of the maintenance assessment district, says Vandenheuvel, want "to remove illegally dumped large items and debris from the hillsides overlooking [26th] Street, [which winds through the park]. These hillsides are City-owned and part of the park, but the MAD could not clean these hills of illegally dumped items unless they were included in [its] boundaries. Canyon beautification is part of [the district's] scope of services." Proponents also want the community to clean the park and canyons of "debris left by the transient population."
But opponents see a more sinister motivation. Every property parcel in the affected area gets a vote in the current election, and the votes are "weighted" according to the amount of the properties' assessments. If you and I have property in the district and yours is twice the size of mine, you will be assessed twice as much as me, and your vote will count twice as much.
The City's policy is always to vote in favor of creating new maintenance assessment districts. It already owned 93 voting parcels in the district before the addition of the Balboa Park property, which is one large parcel. The effect of including this huge new parcel, therefore, is to add enormous weight to the City's vote. A simple comparison of the Balboa Park parcel size with that of an average resident's property reveals a startling difference. The voting weight of this one city parcel would cancel out hundreds of residential parcels' votes against the maintenance assessment district.
On June 12, the development corporation talked the city council into authorizing a balloting process in Greater Golden Hill. Eighth District councilman Ben Hueso presented the motion in less than a minute, and the remaining councilmembers asked no questions. The City Clerk sent out ballots, and they will be counted after a final city council hearing on July 30. Approval of the new maintenance assessment district will require 50 percent, plus one vote, of the weighted vote. The development corporation's chances are good if the same property owners who participated in the survey are the ones who vote. Seventy-five percent of them, or 14 percent of the district's property owners, said they wanted a maintenance assessment district.
But wait. "Why," asks South Park resident Cindy Funkhouser, "are they not following the rules?" I meet with Funkhouser, a medical editor, and her husband Ed in the Los Reyes taco shop near 25th and Broadway. "This thing has turned my life upside down," she says. "I first learned we might be assessed for a maintenance district about three weeks ago, shortly after the June 12 city council hearing. Since then I've been studying everything I can get my hands on that's relevant to it."
What Funkhouser discovered is that there's a clearly outlined procedure for establishing maintenance assessment districts in the city. Applicants for a district must apply through the San Diego Park and Recreation Department, which announces on its website the requirement that 30 percent of the property owners sign a petition supporting a district. The department also publishes what's commonly called the "MAD Formation Handout," which emphasizes the citizen participation guaranteed in the 30 percent requirement. In a parenthetical note, the handout states: "The formation of any proposed commercial MAD districts to be managed by a non-profit organization pursuant to San Diego Municipal Code...is handled by the Community and Economic Development Department" (italics added). That's Scott Kessler's office.
"But we are residential mixed use," Funkhouser writes me. "So the Golden Hill corporation should have gone through Park and Rec. Instead, they went straight to Scott Kessler, who handles commercial maintenance assessment and business improvement districts."
Funkhouser complained to Kessler, who on July 3 wrote her a long letter. Kessler based his response on a San Diego City Council policy called "Funding for Maintenance Assessment District Formation." That policy, he argued, "does...require a petition process necessitating a 30 [percent] showing of affected property owners favoring MAD formation, only if the district proponent wishes to borrow from a certain revolving loan fund the City set up specifically to fund formation campaigns.... The Park and Recreation Department's 'MAD Formation Handout'...also states that a 30 [percent] showing is required when an entity is seeking access specifically to the City's revolving loan fund."
A week later, Funkhouser wrote back, challenging Kessler's interpretation of city council policy. That policy "was written in September 2004 using the...MAD Formation Handout, which is the only and prevailing formation protocol.... The MAD Formation Handout does not state that the 30 percent-petition is only required for Fund users...."
One other claim in Kessler's July 3 letter is worth noting. "The...[development corporation]...had initiated this proposed formation as a 'self-managed' MAD. That is why it was assigned to my Department. The Park and Recreation Department...manages those districts that are managed by the City. Our Department deals only with the self-managed districts. (Incidentally, I joined the City in May of 2006 after the Golden Hill...campaign had already been initiated and assigned to the former Department's management.)"
But Funkhouser conceded nothing to Kessler. "In your Request for Council Action...," she wrote, "there is no reference to self-management. None at all. Further, self-management status isn't determined by the process of application; it is determined by vote, at the ballot stage." Indeed, an examination of the ballot reveals that after a person votes on the maintenance assessment district, the next choice is who shall manage the district, the City of San Diego or the Greater Golden Hill Community Development Corporation.