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Montijo's Once-Admired Aggressive Style Led to Fall

March 01, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

When San Diego politicians and civic leaders were looking around for someone to lead the city's new housing agency in 1979, they didn't want to settle for a passive, gutless administrator.

No, the people who created the San Diego Housing Commission were hunting for an executive daring enough to resist building the kind of crime-ridden public housing projects like those in St. Louis, New York and Chicago.

Their choice would have to be a daredevil, a maverick who wouldn't be afraid to put down the government rule book and wade into San Diego's country club circuit to cut a few deals with developers and get things done.

Their man was Benjamin Montijo.

"He was results oriented," said Herbert J. Solomon, the commission's first chairman who led the move to hire Montijo eight years ago. "He had his eye on the doughnut, rather than the hole.

"He motivated his staff in terms of getting results, not getting bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape and delays, but finding ways similar to what a private developer would do to accomplish the maximum result with the maximum utilization of resources," said Solomon. "Not always taking the safest course or the least controversial course, but doing things that were in the best interest of the community . . . "

For years, Montijo's style, masked by the relative obscurity of the housing agency, served him well. A public servant acting like a private businessman, he and his staff put together complicated transactions that won over a suspicious building industry and helped shape the notion of a "public-private partnership."

Yet, say those who have worked with Montijo, it was also his style that eventually made the executive director look careless, landing him in trouble.

"Ben's weaknesses perhaps came to the forefront," said Mac Strobl, a former housing commissioner. "He is not a good communicator . . . Ben is not a good detail individual. Things slip through the cracks, in the sense of all the legal requirements of dotting the I's and crossing the T's."

Bothered by those tendencies, the Housing Commission and City Council this week voted to oust Montijo by allowing the contract to his $79,500-a-year job expire on April 30. The final vote came Friday, one day before Montijo's 47th birthday.

Montijo staged a public and tenacious battle for his job, a rare showdown by his choice in open sessions over two days. During his rambling, sometimes incoherent defense, Montijo alternately boasted of his accomplishments and pleaded to be kept on.

But the damage had been done: The latest in a string of controversies--how Montijo and his staff committed several irregularities in a deal to renovate the Island Gardens Apartment--was enough to irreparably harm his credibility with commissioners.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with the FBI, is investigating the deal for criminal fraud. And the commission's internal investigation showed the staff gave "extraordinary assistance" to the developers and that Montijo had failed to bring the complicated, $4-million deal to his bosses for final approval.

"I think the controversy is a measure of effectiveness," Councilwoman Judy McCarty said Thursday during a hearing.

"I can't argue with these figures here, I can't argue with these at all," she said, referring to statistics showing the housing created during Montijo's tenure. "But I can say this, that when I spend most of my time dealing with housing commission controversies, I'm not doing the right job for San Diego . . . I've got to be working on other things, and I've got to be working on housing, not on firestorms."

While it was a firestorm of controversy that chased Montijo out of his job this week, it was controversy that brought him to San Diego eight years ago.

Conservative San Diego has always been wary of low-income housing. Although a city department distributed federal subsidies so the poor could rent private apartments, elected officials consistently spurned HUD programs that would require the city to own and operate public housing.

The city's one project--Del Sol in South San Diego--was a constant headache because of the concentration of tenants, noise, neighborhood antagonism and damage to the property, recalled City Manager John Lockwood. The projects-turned-slums of the Midwest and Northern cities stood as an ugly warning that government should not be a landlord, officials argued at the time.

The city, however, was criticized by federal officials, and then-Mayor Pete Wilson responded by proposing the idea of a Housing Commission. He pushed through his plan in a week and it was approved in November, 1978.

The commission served two purposes, said Strobl, now president of TCS Financial Governmental Services, a lobbying firm. It put arms-length distance between City Hall and the potentially explosive public housing issue, but it allowed the elected officials to retain a form of political control, he said.

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