(This article originally appeared HERE on Voice of San Diego.)
The politics of community planning groups can often look pretty undemocratic.
That was certainly the case Tuesday night, when the former chairman of the Uptown Planners made good on previous promises to regain his chairmanship after being termed out, with a bizarre bout of musical chairs he and others on the board engineered in advance.
Early in the Uptown Planners' May meeting, Chairwoman Beth Jaworski announced there'd be a shakeup in the 17-member group, which advises city staff on planning decisions in Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Middletown, Mission Hills and part of University Heights.
One member, Don Liddell, had missed four meetings in the last two years. As a result, he was stepping down, though it's unclear whether the decision was made by Liddell or the board.
The board would appoint someone to fill the vacancy, after hearing from prospective replacements in the audience. Whoever was appointed would finish out Liddell's term, which expires in 2015.
"This is not an election," Jaworski said.
Enter Leo Wilson.
Wilson, who served as chairman of Uptown Planners for seven years, from 2005 through 2012, nominated himself. He mentioned his years of community service in different Uptown neighborhoods, including his time as chairman, and said he'd be happy to return to the board.
Wilson has discussed returning to the board before. In an interview last month, he openly discussed his plan of taking over for someone who stepped down, which then became replacing someone with too many absences, when no one volunteered to step aside.
But Wilson insisted Tuesday's turn of events wasn't entirely of his own making.
"I didn't volunteer for this; I got drafted," he wrote in an email Wednesday.
Hillcrest resident and former board member Roy Dahl also nominated himself. He said he was running because he wanted more representation for Hillcrest on the board. He cited a recent board decision against installing a stop sign in the neighborhood, though it met the requirements and despite the fact similar proposals had been approved in other neighborhoods.
Dahl also said he'd actually prefer if the board allowed Liddell to finish his term, or delayed the appointment to allow more people to consider running.
Jaworski said neither option was necessary, because the vacant board seat was included as an item on the May agenda, which had been posted online ahead of time, as required.
The board made a motion to appoint Wilson to the vacant seat. It was approved by all but one member, who said he voted against it for personal reasons.
The audience of 15 to 20, mostly people making proposals to the board, laughed uncomfortably throughout the procedure.
Then an even funnier thing happened.
Jaworski said the job of board chairwoman was harder than she had imagined, and would like to step down. She'd be willing to become vice board chairwoman, she said.
Then Wilson offered to help Jaworski, and resume his previous role as board chairman. The board OK'd the new arrangement.
Another former chairman, Ian Epley, whose scoffing and laughing in the audience through the appointment had been loudest, had finally had enough.
"My God, quite the fiefdom they've got going here," he said.
When Wilson came into the audience at one point to speak to some familiar faces, he leaned to me and said, "I told you I'd be back."
Though the process unfolded exactly as Wilson outlined last month, he said Wednesday the move was not predetermined.
"There was a thought this would happen, but whether it would actually play out, you never know," he said. "They could have elected someone else. I interpret this as a respect for me and how I run a fair meeting. This was entirely democratic, and entirely allowed by the board's bylaws."
Chairs of the Uptown Planners used to be limited to two-year terms. During Wilson's period as chairman, the City Council OK'd a change to two consecutive four-year terms. After eight years, a former chair could return to the board after a year away.
That means if Wilson continues to win re-election, he'll have the chance to serve as chairman of the Uptown Planners for 15 years of a 16-year period. But he says he's just accepting the role now, during the critical period when the city should finish its community plan update, and will retire in two years when his adopted term expires.
Wilson chalked up the audible disapproval from the audience to sour grapes from people who disliked his previous positions (specifically, his support for the Plaza de Panama renovation and for supporting a downzoning proposal by local preservationist group Mission Hills Heritage).
He also pointed to the election results from March 2008, when he and Epley both ran. Wilson received 90 votes that year; Epley received 19.
"They could have run candidates, they didn't," he said. "We have an election next year, they can come in and elect their own people then."
Whether what took place was a kind of hostile takeover or something more mundane, the board's role in the community planning process remains limited. The group can't make any official decisions on its own — it simply advises city planners on which projects its communities favor.
Epley said the purpose of community planning groups under the California Environmental Quality Act was to give neighborhoods affected by development an equal voice in the decision-making process.
"Politicians use these guys if they need 'em," he said. "If they think they're part of the parade, and they're part of the go-along-to-get-along strategy, then they'll use them. But if it's not, then they won't."
I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter: