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LaCava launches planning group reform in San Diego to ‘clean up this mess’

San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava's District 1 includes La Jolla.
(File)

District 1 City Council member says places like La Jolla, with ‘very strong planning groups,’ probably wouldn’t change much.

The La Jolla Community Planning Association — along with other community planning groups across San Diego — may look a bit different in the coming year. City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, says reforms he proposes would change some of the groups’ operations to bring them in line with the city charter.

A presentation on the 30 proposed reform measures is scheduled to go before the Community Planners Committee, which has representation from all San Diego community planning groups, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30, online. That will be followed by the San Diego Planning Commission in December, the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee in early 2022 and the full City Council in the spring. The intent is to implement the measures by next fall.

LaCava, a La Jolla resident, was on 30 boards and commissions before being elected to the City Council in 2020, including nine years (five as president) on the La Jolla Community Planning Association.

“What was important in doing this reform process was looking at what do we have to do so we aren’t in violation with the city charter,” LaCava told the La Jolla Light. “We heard from the city attorney and the [San Diego County] grand jury that there were questions as to whether these boards were truly representative of the community — property owners, homeowners, business owners — and whether the old rules were hurdles that prevented people from wanting to vote or sit on the board.”

New language was crafted that “removes as many of those barriers as we can,” LaCava said, such as removing a meeting attendance requirement to vote for the board or run for a seat. LJCPA requires people to attend at least one meeting in a calendar year to vote and at least three meetings to run.

The changes also aim to accelerate approval of housing projects by making the groups’ practices more standardized and professional. For example, groups would be required to make all environmental comments about a proposed housing project by the same deadline as the public, and land-use proposals would be handled early in meetings instead of forcing developers and opponents to wait hours.

The recommendation that developers of private homes and engineers of city projects go before the boards for review would not change.

In a video he posted online, LaCava said other changes would spur “inclusive, robust public participation” and require collection of “periodic demographic data on voting members.”

“On top of all that,” LaCava said, “community planning groups are going to be more independent. City staff will not help run elections, mediate disputes; they are going to lose that connection. That doesn’t mean staff will not be available to them, but they are going to have to be more self-governing.”

He said the groups still will be able to “elect their own members, run their own meetings and have access to city resources.”

For places like La Jolla, with “very strong planning groups,” there wouldn’t be much change, he said.

“What we expect to see for a number of planning groups which have good hard-working volunteers, they won’t see much difference,” LaCava said. “Some groups that struggle to find volunteers may struggle a little bit because there is more work to do to get voting [board] members” that represent the different facets of the community, he said.

La Jolla has 10 recognized groups — including ones for La Jolla Shores, Bird Rock and the Recreation Center and subcommittees under the Community Planning Association — but only LJCPA would be affected by the reforms.

“It’s a shift and will take awhile for people to digest how these measures apply to their groups,” LaCava said. “But my sense is there is a positive but cautious attitude about it.”

Representatives of LJCPA did not respond to a request for comment.

“La Jolla is unique in that our subcommittees are populated by members of other planning groups. I don’t expect those to change,” LaCava said. “The relationship between the council office and those planning groups and any other group will not change. We still make every effort to attend planning group meetings and hear what is going on in the community. This policy does not affect our relationship with those groups.”

After a report authored by regional organization Circulate San Diego and submitted to the city auditor in 2018, the auditor recommended additional oversight and updates to the City Council policy that guides community planning group operations. In 2019, the city attorney issued a legal analysis that said the current structure conflicts with the city charter, and recommended changes.

A grand jury report in April 2018 commented that the planning groups are unprofessional, unpredictable and not adequately transparent, and cited a lack of training for planning group trustees before they take their board positions.

Critics also have said the groups seek to block housing projects too aggressively and have stagnant membership that doesn’t accurately reflect the neighborhoods they represent.

“Community planning groups are going to be more independent. ... That doesn’t mean [city] staff will not be available to them, but they are going to have to be more self-governing.”

City Councilman Joe LaCava

LaCava said during a talk this month at the La Jolla Community Center that the planning groups in San Diego are “in a little bit of trouble and disarray,” noting the “problems” the city auditor identified. He said he has been working the past 10 months to come up with a new structure to “clean up this mess and get them on the right legal footing.”

He said four options were explored:

“We could cut the planning groups completely loose to do whatever they want, kind of like the La Jolla Town Council, but I didn’t think that was a good idea,” LaCava said. “We could also conform to the city charter, but that would mean having the [planning group] members be appointed by the mayor. As much as I like the mayor, I don’t want him appointing people to represent and make decisions in our community, so I rejected that. We could also amend the charter, but that is a ballot measure that is time-consuming and complicated.”

The fourth option includes his reform measures. “We will create planning groups as advisory groups to the city, because I want that public input and that direct connection to the community, but they are going to be much more independent than they have been in the past,” LaCava said. “We think we have a path that creates that nexus that keeps them involved and keeps them legal.”

After a recent briefing with local groups, LJCPA trustee Kathleen Neil submitted nine questions about the measures to be addressed at the Nov. 30 Community Planners Committee meeting. For more information about the committee and its meetings, visit bit.ly/30LrtPi.

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer David Garrick contributed to this report.