At issue were allegations brought by non-group members accusing two newly-elected board members – Margaret Virissimo and Don Sevrens – of promoting candidate slates in the March elections in opposition to the group’s bylaws.
PCPB chair Robert Goldyn noted Virissimo previously declined an invitation by the group’s executive board to address charges against her. In defending herself, Virissimo alleged board bias against her.
“Every year they try to find something wrong with me,” noted an emotional Virissimo, who said she declined the invitation to speak with the group’s executive board because, “I didn’t want to go through that again.”
Added Virissimo: “I’m a volunteer who wants to help this community and I’ve chosen to give back. If you want my seat – have it. But I will continue to fight for this community, and if this board decides to remove me … I will run again, and the community will vote for me again.”
“There have been allegations of violations of the rule against slates the last three elections in a row,” said elections chair Fred Kosmo. “It appears to me that there was a deliberate, intentional violation of the bylaws concerning slates, which influenced the outcome of the election.”
Sevrens answered the charges leveled against him at the meeting by announcing he had filed a lawsuit that day.
“This could have been resolved informally with group officers,” said Sevrens, claiming he hadn’t been offered proper due process. “I have filed suit in U.S. District Court against the City of San Diego as a corporation, and naming the Peninsula Community Planning Board as defendants. This is a very serious matter of the violation of First Amendment and civil rights.”
The lawsuit, which Sevrens, a retired Union-Tribune journalist, passed out to board and audience members contests the accusation that a flyer he circulated at his own expense during the March election, which listed the names and qualifications of several candidates, constituted a campaign slate. His lawsuit also challenges provisions in City policy 600-24 governing community planning groups.
“On its face, Policy 600-24 purports to forbid the development and promotion of slates of candidates, but restricts no other type of speech or expression,” states Sevrens’ suit. “Policy 600-24 comprises an illegal prior restraint of speech, since it purports to ban the endorsement of slates of candidates before anyone has engaged in such expression. Prior restraints on free speech are presumptively unconstitutional.”
Virissimo, a community activist, resigned last year from the board only to reconsider and re-run this March. She got the second-highest vote tally, 202, behind only group chair Robert Goldyn’s 227 votes.
Board member Jim Hare noted the prohibition against slates in City Policy 600-24, which is in the bylaws of all 42 planning City planning groups, stems from “many years ago when some planning boards were trying to maintain limited memberships.”
Added Hare: “Every time we have this conversation, we damage this board. And people ask, ‘How can [PCPB] make recommendations to the City, when they can’t even agree on how to govern themselves?’”
“We’ve reviewed this challenge, and we’re going to take no action, other than the understanding that Margaret acknowledges that there’s to be no repeat of this action (election slate promotion),” said board member Mandy Havlik.
PCPB member Robert Tripp Jackson blamed social media in part for the confusion surrounding the latest controversy over candidate slates.
“Social media can be a hornet’s nest with lots of allegations and mud slinging,” Jackson said. “We need to find some middle ground where it comes to people’s rights to free speech. This has been a solid planning board since 1985-86. Let’s keep it that way.”
After lengthy debate, the board voted 12-1 to take no formal action against Virissimo. The board also voted to continue consideration of how to deal with Severn’s lawsuit to the group’s June meeting.