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SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata may face more intense scrutiny if the board shifts in favor of Republicans. The Coast News graphic/Jordan P. Ingram
SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata may face more intense scrutiny if the board shifts in favor of Republicans. The Coast News graphic/Jordan P. Ingram
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Republican gains could mean changes for SANDAG, Ikhrata

REGION — The results of the November election will likely transform the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors and may push out the agency’s chief executive officer, Hasan Ikhrata, who has been challenged for questionable spending.

Newly-elected mayors in Escondido, Chula Vista and National City, along with new council members in Vista and Carlsbad, will likely move the board in a more conservative direction.

Escondido has been without a representative on SANDAG since January when the council removed Democrat Mayor Paul McNamara. Republican challenger Dane White has since defeated McNamara in the city’s mayoral race. White will be sworn in on Dec. 14, after which the Escondido City Council must appoint him to the SANDAG board. 

Republican John McCann and Ron Morrison, a right-leaning independent, are the new mayors of Chula Vista and National City, respectively. Chula Vista, the second-largest city in the county, may give Republicans more control if the board opts for a weighted vote for specific items. 

In Carlsbad, Mayor Matt Hall, who has been the city’s representative for over 10 years, is retiring, and Councilman Keith Blackburn will serve as the next mayor, leaving his District 2 seat vacant. Blackburn’s replacement may determine whether the city puts a Republican or Democratic representative on the SANDAG board.

In Vista, Dan O’Donnell appears to have won the District 4 seat, giving the Vista City Council a Democratic majority and increasing the likelihood a Democrat representative will be named to the board.

Ikhrata under fire

The political shift comes amidst ongoing tensions between the board and Ikhrata, who told the San Diego Union-Tribune he may leave if the board cannot focus on its goals to reduce cars on the road, meet state-mandated greenhouse gas emissions reductions and implement SANDAG’s $172 billion Regional Transportation Plan.

“I want to make sure the board, regardless if they’re Republican or Democrat, doesn’t spend every single meeting asking for me to be fired or fighting with each other,” Ikhrata told the Union-Tribune. “I want to see civility and feel that we’re making a difference.”

Ikhrata has faced increased scrutiny and criticism in recent months after damaging financial findings were released in a series of reports by Independent Performance Auditor Mary Khoshmashrab.

Khoshmashrab found numerous issues with SANDAG’s finances, including hundreds of thousands of dollars reportedly misspent by Ikhrata and many others using company credit cards.

Audit independence?

To gain independence from the board, the agency’s Audit Committee, consisting of elected officials and members of the public, will recommend changing how its members are selected and establishing three-year terms to avoid coinciding with elections.

The committee’s proposal has created tensions between board leadership and committee members after former board chair Catherine Blakespear “may have tried” to get involved as the committee was drafting its new proposal, inewsource reports.

In a series of emails obtained by inewsource, Audit Committee chairman David Zito of Solana Beach gave notice that Blakespear didn’t want SANDAG staff working on changes until they had received full board support. Blakespear attempted to create a subcommittee to lead talks, similar to how the board handled the matter last year. 

Khoshmashrab said Blakespear’s attempt to interfere would “disrupt standard practice.”

“I believe the pathway we discussed at the (Audit Committee) and agreed upon, and the process that stands here at SANDAG is still the most appropriate way,” Khoshmashrab wrote in an email obtained by inewsource. “I would ask that Blakespear not interfere with that process. As I shared in the past, elections have no place in this process.” 

In an email to Zito, Stewart Halpern, a member of the public serving on the Audit Committee, criticized Blakespear and claimed that board leadership’s “apparent fear of an independent Audit Committee has intruded yet again.”

Halpern questioned whether Blakespear’s proposal was “more of (another) effort to engineer the outcome than it is to make genuine progress,” inewsource reported.

“We’ve literally had years of disregard and what I believe can be objectively characterized as subversion from Board leadership,” Halpern wrote.

In a recent podcast interview, Blakespear, recently elected to the state legislature, denied reports of “waste, fraud and abuse” at SANDAG.

“So many of the things that came out from the audit report are improvements that should be made, but they don’t show any actual wrongdoing,” Blakespear said. “There isn’t waste, fraud and abuse — there are processes that should be improved. So I think this is a difficult period at SANDAG, but we must have a high-functioning agency that can serve every city in this county.”

However, Khoshmashrab’s recent internal audits also found improper severance payments, $1.8 million in uncollected toll fees and $290 million in questionable contract increases.

1 comment

hector lopez December 8, 2022 at 4:00 pm

Blakespear bad mouthing and running interference with the SANDAG audit results that found corruption or minimally questionable practices. Yea no fraud and no waste. Wake up from your alternate reality Blakespear . Blakespear wants to derail anything negative that reflects back on her. You see , with Blakespear she will not tolerate anything that she cannot control . That was the way she operated as Encinitas Mayor. Thus she appointed Mosca, Lyndes and Hinze . they never dared oppose her agenda.

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