In the News

Betsy Brennan, 42, has been named CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a membership organization of downtown businesses.

  • Brennan is a familiar face in San Diego government circles: She worked as a San Diego City Council staff member from 2002 to 2008 and as chief of staff to the San Diego State president from 2008 to 2011.
  • She was one of 400 applicants for the job, as part of a national search to replace outgoing CEO Kris Michell.
  • The No. 1 issue facing Brennan: downtown’s homeless population.

The incoming CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership means a situation where she faces critics.

In the past, when Brennan was chief of staff to San Diego State President Stephen Weber, it was a room of angry undergraduates protesting fee hikes during a recession.

When Brennan was aide to then-City Councilmember Scott Peters, it was usually neighborhood groups irate over a city policy.

In Brennan’s new job, announced Tuesday, the city’s downtown homeless problem will likely take center stage.

The rise in the homeless population, and last year’s Hepatitis A deaths, are bad for downtown stakeholders who are members of the 25-year-old business association. And, residents of the East Village are angry about the number of new homeless housing projects being built or proposed on downtown’s gentrifying east end.

“I will say that there are definitely more homeless folks since 2011,” said Brennan on Tuesday, referring to when she left San Diego to become chief of staff to the university president at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

Brennan, whom others described as having a nimble touch with thorny issues, listed two tools at her disposal.

One is the partnership’s family reunification program, which since 2011 has arranged for 1,600 homeless people to return to family in other cities. The program this month got a new infusion of $250,000 from the San Diego Housing Commission.

The other is community pressure on some homeless social-service providers to be better neighbors, Brennan said.

“We all have the same goal. We want a vibrant, beautiful downtown. We’re not always going to agree on how we’re doing to get there,” she said in an interview Tuesday in the Downtown Partnership’s offices.

“But I’ll be upfront about it, I will listen, and sometimes I’m going to take a direction, or our board will, that not everyone agrees with. But hopefully they know we are doing it because we love downtown, too.”

Brennan’s former boss, now-U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, praised her for being smart and a good negotiator.

Peters gave the University of San Diego law school graduate a job as a field aide in 2002, eventually promoting her to be his chief of staff by age 29.

“I hired her to deal with La Jolla when I was first elected (to the city council.) She was terrific with the community, and I know she’s got a natural ear for community outreach, which is something that solving problems downtown is certainly going to need,” Peters said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“In 2008, we negotiated a new benefits package with the labor unions and the mayor. It was tough for the unions to take some medicine in the middle of the pension issues. She did a great job,” he said.

After leaving California, Brennan was executive director of the Incline Village Community Hospital Foundation in the Lake Tahoe area for two years.

Most recently, she worked in Charleston at the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina as vice president of development and stewardship.

There, Brennan was in charge of working with donors to the philanthropic organization, which manages more than $250 million in assets. In her year there, she said she raised $35 million for the foundation.

“We never could have predicted that family commitments would dictate her decision to pursue this opportunity in San Diego, and she will be greatly missed,” said foundation president Darrin Goss, in a statement to the Union-Tribune.

“However, I could not be more proud of her and I know she will bring excellence and enthusiasm to the Downtown San Diego Partnership.”

Those family commitments are apparently a desire by Brennan and her son and daughter, ages 10 and 7, to return to San Diego, where the children were born, people around her said.

Brennan replaces former CEO Kris Michell, who returned to city employment last year as deputy chief operating officer for special projects. Retired Cox Communications executive Bill Geppert has served as interim president since November.

The Downtown Partnership considered 400 candidates in what it has described as a national search.

In the past, the business group’s CEO position has been a landing place for former elected officials looking for a second act. Michell was credited with re-energizing the organization during her seven years there.

“I think the single biggest thing that was important to us was someone who could be collaborative,” said board chairman Craig Benedetto.

“The political dynamic is shifting in San Diego a bit … it needs someone who can work with both sides. Someone who is not viewed as a partisan hack on either side of the political spectrum. When we sat down with Betsy -- and she was our first interview -- we were blown away.”

Brennan said her new organization, which wouldn’t release her salary, hasn’t yet taken a position on the proverbial elephant in the room: The recently proposed ballot initiative to increase city hotel room taxes to raise money for a convention center expansion and homeless services.

If passed, $2 billion would be set aside for homeless services and permanent housing.

As far as addressing the homeless issue, Brennan said, “That’s one opportunity.”

Brennan’s first day with Downtown Partnership is Feb. 26.