VISTA — A bitter battle was on display as a divided Vista City Council recently changed how members are appointed to the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors.
Under the city’s original ordinance, the mayor of Vista was solely responsible for submitting appointments to regional boards and commissions, including SANDAG.
However, council members Corinna Contreras, Katie Melendez and Dan O’Donnell voted 3-2 to amend the ordinance during its Jan. 24 meeting to allow any council member to recommend a SANDAG appointee. Mayor John Franklin, who currently represents the city on the SANDAG board, and Councilman Joe Green opposed the measure.
The council approved the change two days later 3-1 on second reading (with Green absent) and is expected to appoint Melendez as the board’s new representative.
The regional planning agency is the most high-profile board for a San Diego-area council member — SANDAG handles a nearly $1 billion annual budget and is in the midst of a controversial $172 billion regional transportation plan.
The agency has been embroiled in conflict over recent months following a SANDAG auditor’s report that found staff spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on purchases deemed “improper” and “questionable.”
Tensions again recently boiled over when a bipartisan group of nine SANDAG board members, including Franklin, walked out of a meeting in protest over the board’s weighted voting system, which they say negatively impacts the smaller member cities.
“This is not Democrats versus Republicans,” Franklin said. “It’s downtown (San Diego) versus suburbia. It’s North County and East County being screwed by the City of San Diego. It’s about an 800-pound gorilla versus a bunch of puppies, and they’re squashing us.”
Before the meeting, Melendez posted a caricature of Franklin to social media, making fun of his support for widening state Route 78.
During the Jan. 24 meeting, Franklin and Contreras got into a heated argument. At one point, Contreras accused Franklin of attempting to have sheriff’s deputies remove her from a previous meeting, an accusation the mayor vehemently denied.
Councilman Joe Green said while he doesn’t always agree with the mayor, Franklin won the election as a vocal critic of SANDAG and its regional plan, which eliminates all highway projects in North County in favor of mobility hubs, flexible fleets and transit upgrades.
In Vista, the plan would double-track the Sprinter rail line, add more shuttles, buses and routes.
“They didn’t do crap for us,” Green said of the SANDAG board. “Now, we have five mayors locking arms. The people of Vista are not running to trains and buses. It’s not our job to change behavior. Our job is to spend money most feasibly. That’s what Mayor Franklin’s fighting for.”
Franklin has been one of the most vocal detractors of SANDAG’s proposed road user charge, a mileage fee estimated to cost drivers 3.3 cents per mile starting in 2030. The program also calls for another road charge levied by the state at 2.5 cents per mile, two half-cent tax increases for all San Diego County residents, a tax ballot measure to charge fees to rideshare companies and installing toll roads on all highways.
SANDAG’s plan is the only transportation plan in the state with a regional and state road user charge, according to board representatives.
On the other side, Contreras and Melendez have voiced their support of a controversial road-user charge in SANDAG’s regional plan, arguing it’s a solution to get the county to meet its state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, they said if the plan’s 2025 update isn’t approved by the California Air Resources Board, the city would be ineligible for gas tax funds.
“I want someone to stay in that seat and advocate for Vista,” Contreras said. “We can lobby the county, lobby the City of San Diego. We got to be more creative, and we have to figure this out. First, SANDAG was super corrupt, and now we’re trying to have more transparency. I’m sick and tired of losing out.”
O’Donnell, who supports the regional plan and Melendez’s appointment to the board, criticized Franklin for leaving the meeting, saying the walkout was not a sign of leadership.
If named the city’s next SANDAG representative, Melendez said she would fight for the city’s Emerald Drive corridor project, which aims to improve road safety through traffic-calming measures.
“In March, the Emerald project will be up for consideration for the third time,” Melendez said. “I don’t trust our mayor. Why send someone to SANDAG to give us a voice when that representative won’t participate.”