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."
On April 11 Madaffer sent a memo to city manager Lamont Ewell concerning "an additional private property parcel acquisition. I would like to allocate $150,000 in Mid-City Special Park Fees for this purpose."
Bob Ottilie has searched his seven boxes of public-records-request documents to determine whether the money was ever paid. "It would appear," he writes, "that the $150,000 was then moved from Mid-city park fees to this project in what is referred to as a 'capital improvements program fiscal year 2006 change letter.' It also appears that [the] year-end change went to [the city] council (with many other changes) sometime in the summer of 2005. There is no evidence in the documents produced to date that the other members of the council, with the exception of perhaps District 3 and District 4, were aware that park funds were going to be used for a road.
"One person at the city specifically communicated to others that Mid-City Special Park Fees could not be used for the road. Heidi Lang, who handles grants in the department, wrote to other [Park and Recreation Department members, including April Penera] on July 29, 2005 as follows: 'You probably know this already, but just a reminder: the Mid-City park fees used for the Fox Canyon property acquisition can only be used for parks, and not for roads.' "
Yet seven months later, on March 7, 2006, attendees at the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Improvements Coordination Meeting were singing a different tune. "April Penera appears to be the senior member of the Park Department present," writes Ottilie. "Elyse Lowe from Councilman Jim Madaffer's office was also present."
The meeting's minutes report that "additional funds in the amount of $275,000 are needed to cover the road design. $100,000 will be Special Park Fees." The minutes describe that day's first action with the words, "Elyse will email [project manager Joey Jacoby] a statement that the $100,000 Special Park Fees can be used for the road...."
At that point, the city's official park advisory group, the Park and Recreation Board, had not voiced an opinion on the Fox Canyon park-and-road concept. But for its March 22 meeting, the board put on its docket a discussion of the project. When members arrived at the meeting, however, they listened to deputy city attorney Hilda Mendoza forbidding them to discuss the matter. Mendoza's point, which she also stated in a memo, was that anything involving a road was beyond the board's jurisdiction. Several boardmembers, led by Ottilie, strenuously objected to this restriction, especially since the board's docket had already announced to the public that discussion of the project would take place that day. Against Mendoza's wishes, the board held the discussion, then voted against having a road as part of the Fox Canyon Park project.
The Park and Recreation Board revisited the park-road project at its September 21, 2006 meeting. By this time the city's Park and Recreation Department was admitting it had already spent $165,000 in special park fees on the road design alone. Transcripts of the meeting indicate that in an exchange with April Penera, Ottilie brought up Hilda Mendoza's memo forbidding his board to discuss the Fox Canyon project. "What [Mendoza] was communicating to us that day," he said, "was that the road had nothing to do with parks, and we're now learning today for the first time...that in fact park funds were used for that road."
Later in the meeting Ottilie pressed Park and Recreation director Ted Medina on his initial knowledge of the Fox Canyon project. "When the Department made the [grant] application to the state... which included a representation to the state that we would abandon the road easement, did the Department or anyone within the Department know that there was a road intended to be built through that canyon?"
"Mr. Ottilie," responded Medina, "I'm going to follow legal counsel's advice and not respond to your question."
By this time, however, attempts to make anything happen in Fox Canyon had fallen apart. No land ever became available to build the park. And the environmental document approved by the city council in March for the park-road combination was successfully challenged in court. To keep the California Parks and Recreation Department grant, the city is now trying to use the gift's $2.3 million to build a park on Wightman Street, 682 feet north of the original Fox Canyon site. But that is another story.
In the meantime, the city attorney's office has determined that the use of Park and Recreation monies to build a road was improper. "Our office," wrote deputy city attorney Alex Sachs on November 30, "is prepared to assist in the restoration of these Special Park Fees to the Mid City Park Developer Fund."