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Sanders admits mistakes on Sunroad; says he took bad advice

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he took bad advice and made mistakes when it came to stopping Sunroad Enterprises from building an office tower higher than recommended, and he is hoping to implement measures to keep it from happening again. (See video interview)

A week after the city’s land use chief Jim Waring stepped down, and a day after Development Services Director Marcella Escobar-Eck left her position, Sanders reiterated his stance that he had not known of any wrongdoing throughout the Sunroad process, but admitted he was slow to act in some instances. He said he’s learned a lot about just how much information he needs on certain issues and that he can’t be as trusting of his employees as he’d sometimes like.

Sanders said the highly politicized climate of city hall didn’t allow him to use the same management strategies he used at previous jobs, such as when he was chief of police in the 1990s.

“I had a group of people around me (when I was police chief) who had been on the police department usually as long or longer than I had and I could trust their judgment, because I had known them for 20 years,” he said. “Obviously, that has not worked as well for me over here.”

Sanders stopped short of blaming the Sunroad controversy on Waring, saying he wanted to make it clear that he accepted responsibility. He implied that Waring was at least one of those giving him bad advice, though.

When asked why, after nearly a year of discussing Sunroad, Waring was asked to resign last week, Sanders said: “When I say we’re going to be at this level, 160 feet, and we’re not dealing with any of this anymore, and then someone goes out as soon as I leave for vacation and talks to one of the council members saying, ‘What about 166?’ -- that’s not what I asked somebody to do. That’s not what I told him I wanted done.”

The Sunroad building was permitted to be 180 feet, but the Federal Aviation Administration had recommended it only be 160. Sanders has said repeatedly that he wants the building taken down to 160 feet and no higher.

In early August, Waring asked Councilwoman Donna Frye, whose district includes Montgomery Field, if it would be possible to have the building be 166 feet. Waring later told the local media that the mayor’s office asked for his resignation.

Sanders wouldn’t comment on whether or not Escobar-Eck resigned or was fired. The city has hired Patti Boekamp, R.T.E., an 18-year city employee, as the interim head of the Development Services Department.

To try and prevent more problems like the Sunroad issue from happening again, Sanders has proposed a six-step plan. Once implemented, Development Services Department staff will be asked to red flag any projects that may interfere with FAA regulations.

There will also be procedures put in place to expand notifications of other agencies for projects close to airports. The city’s Airport Department will be moved away from Land Use and Economic Development, and a team will be assembled to evaluate the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan and recommend changes.

An Economic Development Impact Committee will be assembled as well, to serve as a multi-disciplinary team that reviews proposed and current projects.

Finally, the mayor wants to improve the business relationship between Developmental Services and the city attorney’s office after it turned sour during this controversy.

Over the past few months, Sanders said he wishes he had prefaced most of his statements about Sunroad with the words “given what I know today.”

He often thought he had the whole story when he didn’t, he said. An example of this was when Ted Sexton, an airport authority employee, had been sent to city hall to work on airport issues. Sanders had denied that Sexton was coming to deal exclusively with the Sunroad issue, but was later shown to have signed a letter allowing that. Sanders said he honestly can’t remember signing the letter, though he doesn’t deny it.

That’s another thing he’s learned -– read every detail of everything you sign.

“There is not a thing that moves off my desk now that I don’t go over in detail, even to the level of typos,” he said.

The Sunroad building is supposed to be brought into compliance by mid-November. The company was originally planning several buildings at the Kearny Mesa site, but has since withdrawn its application for other buildings and is focusing only on the controversial Centrum 12 building.

Sanders had his Deputy Chief of the Office of Ethics and Integrity Jo Anne SawyerKnoll compile a report of the Sunroad matter earlier this summer. The report, released in mid-July, found mistakes, but no illegalities. Critics have since decried disparities in the report and Sanders acknowledged it was imperfect.

“It’s obviously not an independent report because it’s done by us,” Sanders said. “Would I have done it differently? Yeah. But that’s something for me to learn for next time.

“I’ve learned a lot of extremely painful lessons from this whole process.”

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com

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