Uptown Planners face a controversy
By Ken Williams | Editor
In 2015, Maya Rosas was named one of San Diego’s 40 Under 40 young professionals by SD Metro Magazine. She had made a name for herself as a policy assistant at Circulate San Diego, the regional nonprofit that advocates for improved transit and active transportation infrastructure such as bicycle lanes.
Last year, Rosas was hired by Atlantis Group Land Use Consultants in Liberty Station as an associate land use consultant.
This spring, the millennial was elected to serve on the Uptown Planners, a board of volunteers that advise the city’s Planning Department on development-related matters. Rosas lives in the Medical District near the Hillcrest/Mission Hills border.*
Since joining the board, Rosas has proven to be an independent voice as she has bucked the majority of members on issues such as density and smart growth.
But at a routine meeting of the Uptown Planners on June 7, Rosas was accused of having a conflict of interest by several of her fellow board members.
Since the meeting, San Diego Uptown News has learned that the explosive charge was first leveled during a May meeting of the Uptown Planners’ Community Plan Review Committee, which is chaired by Tom Mullaney. At a committee meeting last month, Mullaney and fellow board member Mat Wahlstrom raised the issue when Rosas asked to serve on the Community Plan Review Committee. Mullaney and Wahlstrom are outspoken in their opposition to density and lifting the temporary moratorium on building heights.
At issue is whether Rosas, who works as an associate land use consultant at Atlantis Group, would financially benefit from any of her votes.
On its website, Atlantis Group describes itself as “the premier land use and strategic planning consulting firm in San Diego.” Clients have included the One Paseo project in Carmel Valley, St. John Garabed Armenian Church in Del Mar, and the Stone Tap Room near Petco Park. None of those projects has any connection to the Uptown area.
But Atlantis Group apparently does have a vested interest in Hillcrest. The agency’s principal is Marcela Escobar-Eck, former director of the Development Services Department for the city of San Diego. Escobar-Eck authored a letter on behalf of The Uptown Gateway Council — which calls itself “the association of commercial property owners in Hillcrest” — that was sent to senior city planner Marlon Pangilinan. He is the Planning Department’s point man on the Uptown Community Plan update, which is currently being dissected by the Uptown Planners.
The letter, dated Dec. 1, 2015, stressed that the Uptown Gateway Council was in favor of increased density and urged city planners to “allow projects that ‘significantly’ improve and enhance the public realm to achieve densities of one unit per 200 square feet and heights over 200 feet.”
Density is a hot button issue in the Uptown planning district, particularly in Hillcrest, where there is a temporary moratorium that restricts building heights to 50 feet. That moratorium will expire when the Uptown Community Plan update is approved by the City Council, which is expected by year’s end.
So it is Rosas’ employer that has raised red flags to some on the advisory board.
During the June 7 discussion, Wahlstrom waved a handful of documents in the air and in a loud voice accused Rosas of having a conflict of interest. Board chair Leo Wilson said Rosas works as a consultant to a property owner in Hillcrest, but was not receiving any direct economic benefit from that arrangement.
Wilson asked Pangilinan about the situation, and the city planner said that Rosas did not have to recuse herself from voting on the Uptown Community Plan update because the process was about the entire area, not a specific project involving her client. Rosas, like any other board member, would be required to recuse herself should the Uptown Planners be voting on a project involving one of her employer’s clients.
Wilson urged board members — and the audience — to review the administrative guidelines concerning any conflict of interest. He said two-thirds of the board would have to vote to challenge any conflict of interest voting; and if two-thirds of the board is not present, the vote would have to be unanimous.
“Bottom line, any vote that is questioned can be challenged,” Wilson said.
As some board members continued to squabble on the matter, others grew weary of the dispute. The board then voted 9-3-2 to end discussion.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
Uptown News followed up with Wilson, and he said the conflict of interest issue had been “vented at public meetings” of the Community Plan Review Committee. He said he didn’t attend any of those meetings nor had any first-hand information.
“Have been informed of what happened; and two board members prior to the June 7 meeting indicated they would bring the issue up. Not aware of any meetings or group discussions of the issue outside the public meetings,” Wilson said June 8 in an email response to follow-up questions that included whether board members may have violated the Brown Act.
“The disorganized and at times heated nature of the discussion last night [June 7] appears to indicate this was the first major discussion of the issue, other than what was said at the subcommittee,” he added.
Wilson shared what he has learned about the matter.
“Tom Mullaney apparently raised the issue at the subcommittee, along with Mat Wahlstrom; believe it came up in regards to whether Maya Rosas could serve on that subcommittee, and if she had to recuse on Hillcrest issues — since she is employed by a consultant for the Gateway association, which represents a substantial number of Hillcrest property owners,” Wilson said.
“When the issue first arose at the subcommittee level, Rosas consulted Marlon Pangilinan pursuant to the administrative guidelines, and I talked to her by telephone, and later Pangilinan as well. Pangilinan contacted the City Attorney regarding the issue, and was told that because the administrative guidelines were a Planning Department document, the Planning Department was responsible for interpreting them,” he said.
“The FPPA [California’s Fair Political Practices Act] conflict of interest rules do not apply to a community planning group … These are special rules created by the Planning Department, which they must interpret. It should be noted the distinction involved a matter that is a general planning related issue, and a vote on a specific project. Marlon’s comments were Rosas would have to likely recuse on some votes on specific projects. Michael Brennan recused on the Normal Street Improvement discussion because he is involved with the project.
“The administrative guidelines state that anyone with a question about recusal should consult the city planner; since Uptown Planners is an official advisory committee of the city Planning Department, and other city departments, the opinion of the city planner is, in my opinion, more than just advice,” Wilson said.
To his credit, Wilson pointed out other potential conflicts of interest involving other board members.
“Brought up Amie Hayes because at the May meeting of Uptown Planners, [local architect] Ian Epley accused her of having a conflict of interest, too; believe it was in response to the claim that Maya Rosas had a conflict of interest. Sort of a tit for tat, and assume a claim could be made that other board members have conflicts as well,” Wilson said.
Hayes, who also was elected this spring to the Uptown Planners board, is a historic resources specialist with Save Our Heritage Organisation. She is the chair of the Historic Resources Committee, and Epley and other community members have questioned whether she could be fair and impartial on issues involving historical designations. They also said that her employer could have a financial stakes in historical projects that come before Uptown Planners.
“The point of last night’s discussion was to explain the procedures that applied to recusal . . . The board cannot prevent a member from voting on an item; but by two-thirds vote of a meeting at which two-thirds or over of the board are in attendance, the board can state on the record they felt that a member should recuse.
“When he was City Attorney, Michael Aguirre maintained that the FPPA did apply to community planning groups. However, there was an FPPC decision recently, which held that the FPPA did not apply to County of San Diego planning groups. The discussion last night was final as an indication that the determination of the legality of someone needing to recuse does not rest with the board.”
Wilson indicated that the matter hasn’t been fully resolved.
“The issue will likely come back to Uptown Planners when the subcommittees formally submit their membership for approval in the next couple of months,” he said. “The subcommittee system began in the last two months, so they are in the organizational stage of determining membership now, which has to be approved by the full board.”
* This story was edited after publication to clarify exactly which neighborhood Maya Rosas lives in. Rosas told Uptown News that she tells Uptown Planners audience members that she represents Mission Hills, Hillcrest and the Medical District.