The city of Escondido no longer has a voice on the board of directors for the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional transportation agency that controls planning and funding for road projects and oversees regional projects from housing to beach replenishment.
That’s because in January, in a split vote along partisan lines, the Escondido City Council removed Mayor Paul McNamara and his two alternates from their roles as representatives to the SANDAG board.
The SANDAG board is made up of elected representatives from the county of San Diego and its 18 cities. Although members have removed their representatives, such as when the Oceanside council removed Mayor Jim Wood in 2013, SANDAG officials said they were not aware of a community removing its entire slate of representatives and sending no replacements.
The dispute reached a standoff at the Jan. 12 council meeting when, after removing McNamara, the council majority rejected McNamara’s nomination of fellow Democrat and Councilmember Consuelo Martinez. McNamara opted not to nominate any other council member to the post. While the council has the power to confirm and remove representatives to boards and commissions, only the mayor can nominate candidates for the positions.
At the meeting, council members Mike Morasco, Tina Inscoe and Joe Garcia, all Republicans who voted to oust Democrat McNamara from the SANDAG post, stressed that their action was not intended as a personal affront to the mayor, but rather a protest over policy directions taken by the SANDAG board.
Morasco, who placed the item on the council’s agenda, said at the meeting, “The mayor and I have had multiple discussions about this. He knows this is nothing more than philosophical, it is not personal. I don’t know if this means I won’t get a Christmas card if this were to pass tonight.”
“You’re still on the list, Mike,” McNamara interjected.
After the meeting, Morasco said it was unfortunate the issue played out the way it did, leaving Escondido as the only city in San Diego County without representation on SANDAG’s board.
“We are in limbo, it’s not optimal but it’s better than the alternative, having a representative making decisions that are not in the city’s best interests,” Morasco said.
The standoff appears to have been triggered in December when McNamara, as the city’s representative, joined a majority of the SANDAG board in voting for a $160 billion transportation blueprint to guide the region through 2050.
One controversial element of the plan is the way it would be funded, through sales tax hikes and a proposed per-mile road-use fee charged to drivers. At a meeting in November, Morasco led the council majority in passing a resolution opposing “any new SANDAG-imposed taxes, charges or fees on motorists.”
Morasco said SANDAG has a track record of breaking promises — in particular to the North and East County regions — for transportation projects. He cited projects along the State Route 78 corridor that were slated to receive funding from past sales tax increases,but were never completed.
Rather than funding needed road improvements in North and East County, Morasco said, SANDAG has focused on public transit projects in the urban core of San Diego.
“We needed to get SANDAG’s attention that enough is enough,” Morasco said. “We want them to recognize we’re not going to take it anymore and there needs to be change.”
McNamara said the resolution passed by the council majority made the city look “foolish” because SANDAG has no authority to levee taxes, which must instead be approved by voters.
While he conceded that SANDAG in the past had come up short on funding projects in North County, he said the agency now has new staff and is looking to the future.
Funding mechanisms such as sales tax and road-use fees are an alternative to the current California gas tax, which he said places an unfair burden on working-class residents. Supporters of the SANDAG plan have noted that drivers of electric vehicles don’t pay the gas tax, so they’re not contributing to the maintenance of the roads they use.
McNamara also contended he is the appropriate representative on SANDAG because he was elected by the entire city, and council members are elected by district.
“I am the voice of the community as the mayor,” McNamara said at the meeting, noting that he received more votes in his election than Morasco, Inscoe and Garcia combined.
McNamara said he hopes the council will reconsider its decision to remove him from the SANDAG board, because leaving the city without a representative has hurt the city’s interests.
“I think in a democracy it’s important every voice is heard, and right now we don’t have one for Escondido at SANDAG,” McNamara said.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who serves as chair of the SANDAG board, said the transportation agency will continue working on its projects in Escondido, so the city won’t be penalized because it has no representative on the board.
But she said McNamara was representing his city well on the SANDAG board and she hopes he’ll be reinstated to the post.
“This is an internal political dispute, I hope they get it worked out so Escondido can continue to send a representative (to SANDAG),” Blakespear said. “I expect it to get worked out.”
It’s not the first time a member of the board has been removed.
In 2013, a majority of the Oceanside City Council voted to remove Mayor Wood as its representative to the agency.
They contended he had done a poor job getting transportation money for North County and had blocked road projects important to Oceanside, including completing a missing portion of Melrose Drive to link state Route 78 with state Route 76 and building a state Route 78 interchange at Rancho del Oro Drive.