Nine board members at the San Diego Association of Governments walked out of their first meeting of the year over growing frustrations that the agency’s weighted voting structure is weakening the voice of the smaller cities they represent.

The move is likely to continue board discord as SANDAG continues to grapple with a series of controversial audits and divided decisions over its long-term transportation planning.

Why this matters

With a $1 billion annual budget, the San Diego Association of Governments is a taxpayer-funded planning agency that helps make transportation and other long-term regional decisions.

“We saw no point in continuing,” said Steve Vaus, Poway mayor and the city’s representative on the SANDAG board. “You saw the discussion about the weighted vote. They keep pushing it aside, but the only way this county’s going to come together and meet the needs of all the people in all the county will be if we have a collaborative, collegial, cooperative board.

“That’s not happening now. So there’s no point being there.”

Since 2018, state law has allowed a weighted voting system at SANDAG that gives more power to San Diego County’s larger cities. It means that representatives from just three jurisdictions — the city of San Diego, the county and Chula Vista — can make up the majority vote for a board made up of 19 local governments.

Supporters say the voting system gives proportional representation to residents of larger cities, while opponents say it’s diminishing the voices of smaller cities. Previously, the SANDAG board had to have a majority tally vote and a weighted vote to pass items. 

Now, just the weighted vote is needed. That came into play last week, when the board ushered in its new leadership. 

County Supervisor Nora Vargas will serve as SANDAG chair and San Diego City Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera as first vice-chair, both of them being appointed with a weighted vote.

Newly elected San Diego Association of Governments board Chair Nora Vargas and CEO Hasan Ikhrata are seated during the SANDAG meeting on Jan. 13, 2023 in downtown San Diego. (Sandy Huffaker for inewsource)

But when a tally vote taken on Friday would have made Del Mar City Councilmember Terry Gaasterland the board’s second vice-chair, Vargas subsequently called for a weighted vote, prompting Gaasterland and others to walk out of the meeting. SANDAG’s board ultimately appointed Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner as second vice-chair using a tally vote among those who remained at the meeting.

‘Tally majority and weighted minority’

Those who walked out included elected officials from Coronado, Del Mar, El Cajon, Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos, Santee and Vista. Along with Imperial Beach, the cities’ SANDAG representatives had earlier this month asked for the weighted vote system to be discussed at the meeting last week. 

“They’ve passed on an obvious opportunity for a consensus candidate just to occupy the second vice-chair position, which is a largely ceremonial post,” Vista Mayor John Franklin told inewsource outside of SANDAG’s boardroom. “It would’ve been an easy gesture to the tally majority and weighted minority.”

Vargas said all county residents will continue to be considered in SANDAG decisions and that the weighted vote was among policymakers’ “tools in the toolbox.”

“There’s always a possibility for them to work with their state legislators to modify it,” she said.

Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner, left, and San Diego city Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera were appointed as the new vice chairs of the San Diego Association of Governments board on Jan. 13, 2023. (Sandy Huffaker for inewsource)

Elo-Rivera called the walkout a “legislative tantrum,” and told inewsource after the meeting that it was an “overwhelmingly, a radical Republican stunt.” 

Gaasterland is the sole Democrat of the group that left the meeting early. All three newly elected SANDAG board leaders are Democrats.

“The idea that you would walk out of a meeting and try to shut down government because we are utilizing proportional representation makes me sad,” Elo-Rivera said. “There’s no reason why we can’t collaborate. The weighted vote is in no way, shape or form an automatic dismissal of the need to collaborate.”

SANDAG’s auditor to retire

While the board division has persisted, SANDAG, a $1 billion agency, has been dogged by damning audits. 

Now, the large board turnover at SANDAG comes as the agency awaits the results of another audit — and as its independent auditor, Mary Khoshmashrab, prepares to retire later this year. Khoshmashrab plans to leave by July, but has told officials she is willing to stay on longer if needed to ensure a smooth transition.

Independent Performance Auditor Mary Khoshmashrab attends the San Diego Association of Governments’ Audit Committee meeting remotely on Jan. 13, 2023. (Sandy Huffaker for inewsource)

Khoshmashrab told the agency’s Audit Committee, which will lead the search process for her replacement, that she’s already identified “a few local preferences” to help find “the next top-notch” independent auditor, according to a staff memo.

During her tenure, Khoshmashrab has flagged improper severance payments, questionable spending on agency-issued credit cards and large increases to vendor contracts. 

Her office is expected to release in April what will likely be her last audit: A further review of SANDAG contractors’ performance, invoicing and any potential fraud.

Auditors previously found the agency increased vendor contracts by tens of millions of dollars more than their original amounts, and what appeared to be a “disproportionate preference to certain vendors” and a “potential overuse of on-call contracts.”

While Khoshmashrab initially intended for the latest audit to be completed by this month, she has been forced to extend and scale down the audit because of what she said was poor records management by the agency.

“I will say that it’s been difficult,” Khoshmashrab told the Audit Committee last week. “It’s been a hard audit, probably one of our hardest and it’s more difficult due to disorganization, really, of information, than anything else at this point.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer BowmanInvestigative Reporter – South Bay and Imperial County

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering Imperial County and the South Bay. She used to cover education for inewsource. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times,...