It’s called Civic San Diego, a nonprofit with a big say about how San Diego will look in the future.
A critic of the agency is telling NBC 7 that it’s become a “municipal mess." Murtaza Baxamusa, who served on the board for two years, believes that the agency acts like a “zombie entity” doing what it wants, when it wants, with no accountability.
Baxamusa says he filed a lawsuit to bring attention to the agencies failings.
Civic San Diego was created by current Chamber of Commerce President and former Mayor Jerry Sanders in 2011 to replace the city’s redevelopment agency.
Its sole client is the City of San Diego and the agency puts in play millions of dollars in redevelopment funds. It’s announced goals were to streamline the development process, attract developers to underserved communities like Encanto and City Heights and approve downtown redevelopment projects.
The “streamlined” efficiency comes with a high price. according to the lawsuit, which alleges a loss of “public discourse and due process.”
It’s not working, according to Baxamusa and his attorney Steven Coopersmith, because the city is both the sole client and sole member of Civic San Diego.
Coopersmith says “it’s a very very odd conjunction of public and private” interests. The lawsuit lays out an explanation of the conflict, “board members are also permitted to serve on the board of “for-profit” subsidiaries” which means, Coopersmith says “significant conflicts of interest exist or could arise."
What troubled Baxamusa were requests made for additional information or documents on Civic San Diego practices, including questions about a series of closed door sessions by the administration.
He felt he had a fiduciary duty to provide oversight of agency practices but his inquiries went nowhere.
Instead he got a request for him to sign a letter of confidentiality
Two months earlier, NBC 7 was tipped off by a former San Diego city official to look closer at the workings of the nonprofit, specifically the repeated closed door sessions involving the agencies top management team.
The allegation was the agency was hiding something and they didn’t want the public to be aware of it.
To find out more, NBC 7 filed California Public Records Act requests with Civic San Diego. Here are those requests and the responses. You will see that most of the information supplied were the agendas of the board meetings. These agendas don’t require a public records request and are easily accessible. Note in the agendas the numerous times there were closed sessions to evaluate the top two administrators in the agency.
In our experience of reporting on local government, we had never seen an example like this, numerous closed door sessions used to evaluate the performance of the same two employees.
Click here to read the CPRA’s sent by NBC 7 and the responses received.
As to Baxamusa having to sign a confidentiality statement: “This took me by surprise,” he told us. Baxamusa sits on a number of nonprofit boards and is director of planning and development for the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council Family Housing Corporation.
He told us: “I’ve never come across a situation where I’ve been told I needed to sign a confidentially agreement."
Murtaza Baxamusa refused to sign, and on June 22, received a notice from the mayor’s office that he was not being reappointed to the board.
NBC 7 reporter Wendy Fry contacted 14 officials and board members at the federal, state and local level. She asked whether they had heard of making trustees of a public agency board sign a confidentiality agreement on board documents for a closed-session item.
Every response received was along the lines of the response we got from State Senator Marty Block who in his career as a public servant had served on a number of government boards.
Said the Senator in a text message to Fry: “Never heard of it. Never asked to do it.” She added that it was outside of his personal experience, so he didn’t “know how unusual it might be."
Attorney Terry Francke has expertise with open government issues. He is general counsel for Calaware and an acknowledged expert on California’s Brown Act.
When asked about the confidentiality document that Baxamusa was told to sign, he said: “Such confidentiality agreements requested of directors are not that unusual in the for-profit corporate world, especially if triggered by and concerning specific corporate records.”
He added: “Civic San Diego, however, is an entity subject to the California Public Records Act, and therefore it’s my belief that information cannot be protected by a nondisclosure agreement unless it is exempt from disclosure under the CPRA.”
The lawsuit asks for an injunction to stop Civic San Diego from “the illegal expenditure of public funds.” The argument says Baxamusa is simply “for a development corporation that has such an enormous power over permitting large projects I feel there should be greater oversight by the city And our elected officials."