San Diego city officials confirmed that the city has suspended the creation of Maintenance Assessment Districts — but couldn’t find any documentation of that policy shift during the more than four weeks they searched after it was requested.
They finally remembered that it is new policy late last week after a city staffer who talked about the memo in a community meeting told her boss a reporter called her to ask for it. In less than 24 hours, Economic Development Director Erik Caldwell confirmed the change in a written statement.
More than a dozen city employees have confirmed that they have been instructed not to talk to reporters and many say they are afraid of retaliation if they do, even though they are allowed to talk with other citizens and residents. Questions and messages from reporters must go to the city’s Communications Department or to the city’s NextRequest system, which failed to find any documents that suspend the use of maintenance assessment districts.
The NextRequest system has become a concern for local journalists who see it as an obstacle to getting information the public is entitled to. An informal survey by the Society of Professional Journalists found that half the reporters surveyed are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the system’s response and 19 of 30 reported that responses didn’t arrive before the reporters’ deadlines.
The assessment districts are set up to tax an area like a neighborhood to pay for special services and features. They’re a common tool in business districts – the city counts 57 existing districts where residents, businesses and property owners have voted to tax themselves for services and improvements.
In December, Mike Aguirre and Maria Severson won a verdict against the city’s creation of a Maintenance Assessment District their clients didn’t want to be part of. The judge ruled that the proposed district in La Jolla planned to provide services that look a lot like the services the city is required to perform.
Assessment districts can only be used for services above and beyond those that are city obligations. So people can’t be taxed for services like cleaning sidewalks, street sweeping, disposing of trash, and maintaining city landscaping, according to the ruling.
In January, sources said that at least twice, city staffers had told groups about a memo freezing plans for new assessment districts because of the verdict.
By the end of January, the city attorney had confirmed they will seek a new trial in the case they lost to Aguirre and Severson.
In February, I asked city officials for a copy of the memo — and to not have the request routed through the city’s NextRequest system. The system is supposed to be a tool to satisfy public records act requests.
Reporters have been told that using the NextRequest system is not mandatory. (That is consistent with the state public records act, which trumps policies that slow the process down, according to former California First Amendment lawyer Terry Franke.)
Reporters try to avoid the system after experiences of strange decisions to black out information, the long slow process and because the documents are eventually received from the offices and departments without any explanation of what the information means or its context. And the documents come from the very same city staff that reporters would have asked without the torturous, slow route.
My February 6 request includes the language “But not through NextRequest, which the mayor has indicated is a route people can opt out of as I am doing here.”
My entire request was copied and pasted in the NextRequest opened by a city employee the city declined to identify. At least four phone messages to Public Records Administration Program Manager Jacqueline Palmer received no response.
From there, the unwanted NextRequest went to the mayor’s office, city council offices, the city attorney, Economic Development and then to Parks and Recreation. It was closed on Mar. 7 by NextRequest staff, saying the city has no responsive documents.
But a quick call to the city staffer who, sources said, had spoken about the memo to a business group trigger a response in less than 24 hours. Her boss went to the city communications office to send this message:
“Due to ongoing litigation the City is not moving forward with the formation of new maintenance assessment districts at this time,” attributed to Erik Caldwell, the director of the Economic Development department, which was included in the NextRequest.
The city continues to maintain that there are no documents supporting this policy change.
What the freeze means isn’t clear for the existing Maintenance Assessment Districts. Plaintiff’s attorney Severson said that the verdict really only applies to the La Jolla district. But in the process of planning many city projects and some with SANDAG, planners often tell residents that setting up an assessment districts to maintain city infrastructure is the best path.