Real Estate Interests, Hoteliers Triumph in Special Election Showdown

by on June 7, 2017 · 3 comments

in San Diego

You could say that special elections are actually a form of voter suppression. And you’d be right.

Voices of the Choir paused for a competing mic check.

By Doug Porter

The absurdities of politics in American’s Finest City never cease to amaze me. Monday’s battle of the budget was a perfect example, complete with surprise ending(s). There were dueling press conferences, grueling hours of public testimony, some public fuming, and a mayoral overruling.

Given the number of players involved–and some won’t get mentioned for the sake of brevity–it’s best to lay out a timeline of events. The day started on the community concourse outside of city hall.

Voices of the Our City Choir held a mini-concert and press conference at noon. The original plan involved promoting an upcoming benefit concert and commemoration of Juneteenth, in remembrance of the emancipation of African-American slaves throughout the Confederate South.

The Choir just so happens to made up of homeless humans (a disproportionate number of our local unhoused population is African-American), who’ve turned a feel-good project into a pathway for a second chance.

As a standalone event, the Voices of Our City Choir appearance would have been lucky to attract a couple of tv stations. But Monday was their lucky day. Or not, depending on how you look at it.

Right across from the Choir, supporters of SoccerCity set up a tent, handing out tee shirts and pitching their cause to passers-by. This, by itself, wasn’t really much of a distraction.

A competing group, the Public Land, Public Vote Coalition, set up a table to the north, handing out brochures advocating for an open, transparent and competitive process for redevelopment of the Qualcomm Stadium site.

Then things started to get interesting. The “Rally & Press Conference for #JobsStreetsPeople,” announced to the media just a few hours earlier, began setting up a public address system next to the SoccerCity folks. The mic check (a short one) took place during the Choir’s Performance.

The press release for these folks was a real piece of work. Here’s the lede:

We will pass out stickers, signs and photos of homeless people, including the three images below, that were taken on San Diego streets within the past 72 hours.

Homeless humans on display.

Condemnation on social media was swift and brutal from local homeless advocates:

…So the mayor’s office is holding homeless San Diegans for ransom to get his way on a special election for the Convention Center…

…news advisory is unprofessional at best, exploitative and inhumane at worst. These are people- not props…

…Advocates for a special election must stop exploiting #poverty & #homelessness. Try putting #PeopleFirst

This press event, starting at 12:45, consisted of supporters of Mayor Faulconer’s initiative bundling city services funding with convention center expansion. What it was really about is using an increase in the hotel tax to guarantee bonds for a project whose primary beneficiaries are downtown’s big hotels.

What should have been a bunch of suits pitching a project (indirectly) to the voters turned into a public relations disaster. Because some of the money raised through this measure could conceivably–there are no guarantees and no plan of action– be used for services to homeless humans, the #JobsStreetsPeople opted to surround their event with blow-up photographs of homeless people sleeping on the street.

The homeless folks and their advocates just a few yards away were not amused. And despite the fact the initiative supporters brought along representatives of agencies potentially benefiting from additional funding, the optics were horrible.

But wait! It gets better! There was yet another press conference unfolding.

At the far north end of the concourse, Alliance San Diego, with supporters from unions and community groups, were setting up the own public address system for a 1pm event.

The Alliance was one of more than two dozen organizations signing on to a letter sent to Mayor Faulconer and the CityCouncil on June 2, urging them to honor the will of the voters and refrain from scheduling a special election in later this year.

Why all the fuss over special elections? Typically small turnouts for those balloting days make it easier for well-funded groups to get things done that would never pass muster with an engaged electorate. You could say that special elections are actually a form of voter suppression. And you’d be right.

The voters of San Diego approved (66%) an amendment to the city charter (Measure L) in 2016 stipulating that local ballot measures should be considered in November general elections.

Supporters of SoccerCity and the Convention Center expansion are planning on exploiting a loophole in the law allowing the City Council to make exceptions to this rule. The idea behind the loophole was to provide an out for emergencies. One typical example cited was emergency funding for infrastructure repairs in the case of an earthquake or other natural disasters.

Andrea Guerrero fired up her side. That’s City Councilwoman Barbara Bry looking on.

The #JobsStreetsPeople (which I’ll admit sounds a lot better than “Corporate Welfare Consortium) conference was droning on as the Alliance fired up supporters with a couple of chants. The enthusiasm and spirit of the racially diverse crowd consisting of dozens of people wearing tee shirts representative of a half dozen unions presented quite the contrast.

Many of the cameras covering the #Jobs… event promptly packed up and moved up to where there was obviously some “action” taking place.

Alliance Director Andrea Guerrero started off by pointing out the irony of Measure L now being a ‘sexy’ issue–there wasn’t even an opposing argument submitted for the 2016 voter guide.

The irony continues when considering that the Mayor, who refused to allow a special election on a minimum wage initiative in 2015–when there was no such law on the books,–was now supporting a special election due to the “emergency” needs of developers. Thanks to Mayor Faulconer, 200,000+ people had to wait 2 years for a pay raise and the right to earned sick leave.

Labor Council’s Jerry Butkiewicz with more of those darned facts.

City Councilwoman Barbara Bry addressed the crowd, promising to introduce a revision to the budget being considered to eliminate the $5 million already set aside for a special election. San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council President Jerry Butkiewicz and Imam AbdelJalil Mezgouri also spoke to the crowd.

Once the press conferences were over, it was time to adjourn to a marathon City Council hearing on the budget. More than 200 people signed up for the opportunity to make a one-minute plea.

Typically this late-in-the-process meeting of the council is the last opportunity for nonprofits and neighborhood groups to make last-ditch pleas for funding for the projects. This year small needs were overshadowed for the most part by the futures of the Mission Valley stadium location and the Convention Center.

Martha Sullivan, who helped organize the Voices of the Our City Choir event kicking off the day. made an especially strong speech--and there were many:

I want to start out by saying that the mayor was uncharacteristically honest when he opened this Agenda Item.

He made it clear that he considers expanding the convention center and redeveloping the Qualcomm Stadium site to be more urgent than relieving the suffering of thousands of people who have been put on our streets and asked to fend for themselves to risk life and their health.

He said we do a special election when something is urgent, We have not done that for a housing disaster that’s gotten worse and worse since 2010.

If that isn’t urgent, what is? It’s mind-boggling.

I want to point out a few things. I did some math over the weekend. I’m not the greatest on math but I had people check it.

As much as I love Comic-Con and welcome what it brings to our city, it represents less than 1% of our Tourism economy and yet it is repeatedly brought up as a reason why we have to do this convention center expansion.

The convention center as a whole brings in yearly only 20% more than Balboa Park and yet it has had millions and millions of dollars plowed into it. Balboa Park suffers. It has a list of $300 million at least of deferred maintenance and repairs.

Yet it brings into our tourism economy close to what the convention center does.

I think it’s time to balance the attention. If you want to increase the hotel tax, do it for Balboa Park. That’s one of our crown jewels.

And if somebody really wants to do something to relieve the suffering of homeless people, use the $5 million that will be wasted on a special election this year, on a project that we don’t even know what the legal status of the land It is proposed for is, and which no doubt will have litigation over it that will cost more than the $75 million that the Mayor says delay until the June 2018 scheduled election will cost.

Please, please get real.

Look at yourself clearly and see what this says about the morality of our city. That we put a convention center expansion phase 3 and the redevelopment of a football stadium for profit-making ventures ahead of taking care of thousands of desperate people.

special electionThere was some additional drama as the City Council drew close to a vote, with District 7 City Councilman grumbling about resigning (he’s planning on leaving anyway) to force a special election.

The final vote was 8-1. Part of the deal was an additional half million dollars to catch up on all the rape kits have yet to tested by the San Diego Police Department.

But the mayor got the last word, releasing a statement not long after the tally:

“A City Council majority is supporting the unprecedented step of blocking a public election by stripping funding from the budget. This short-sighted move results in denying the public a vote and getting nothing accomplished for our city.

The City Council majority wants to make San Diegans wait for more road repairs, wait to address the homeless crisis, wait to bring back tourism jobs, and jeopardize a chance to get a major league sports franchise.

I intend to use my veto authority to restore the special election funding, while still retaining the added funding for our police, so the City Council can take an up-or-down vote on these urgent ballot measures.

The City Council should not ignore these time-sensitive issues – and give San Diegans the opportunity to vote this year.”

Overriding the Mayor’s veto (of an item that was removed from the budget?) will take a super majority. With the Council’s four Republicans generally thought to be supportive of a special election, the six votes needed aren’t there.

I’m betting the votes of Chris Cate, Mark Kersey, and Lorie Zapf against the $5 million to fund the election were simply optics, and they knew the Mayor would wield his veto.

On June 12 the council will vote on whether to add the convention center expansion to a ballot this November, and then again on June 19 about adding SoccerCity to the same ballot.

The Convention Center ballot measure will require two-thirds voter support to pass. The mayor has, once again, left key elements of the electorate out of the processes leading up to a ballot measure. (Some were presented with a ‘take it or leave it’ opportunity.)

Only by selling this measure as an emergency–expect lots more pictures and press releases about homeless humans–can the Mayor have any chance of getting the votes he needs.

The Convention Center ballot measure calls for $10 million annually for funding homeless services. If there are cost overruns, or the hotel business tanks (foreign travel to the US down by 11%, thanks to Trump) then the money will vanish.

That $10 million has magically turned into $150 million, thanks to the beauty of pr-speak. This assumes the monies from all bond sales–guaranteed by the increase in the Tourism Occupancy Tax–occur almost immediately. Trust me on this, folks, that ain’t gonna happen.

The best way to understand the emptiness of the promises of funding for homeless humans is to realize there is no plan of what to do with any monies raised. The Faulconer administration has the nerve to pitch this nothingburger as a feature.

Apparently, there was time for the Mayor to meet with the developers for the SoccerCity proposal more than two dozen times between January 2016 and this past February, when the plan was announced.

But meeting with homeless advocates or service providers? That will have to wait until the money comes in.


Tony Manolatos, a spokesman for the tourism coalition, said the tax increase would also go in part toward funding for the homeless.

“The plan right now is to secure the funding, and then you bring in the service providers, the experts like Father Joe’s and Alpha Project, who are with the coalition and supporting this effort, and you let them figure out, OK, here’s the priority,” he said.

Both these projects are big real estate deals that will have an impact on San Diego for many years to come. The mayor and his cronies haven’t apparently figured out that building community-wide consensus is a necessary part of the process of getting voter approval.

Instead, I’m betting he’ll go with fear mongering and loathing. A recent Union-Tribune poll showed 59% of the electorate was opposed to having a special election, so he’s gonna have to ratchet up the campaign. (Any bets on a homeless crime wave?)

Two last details.

Part of the reasoning for the hurry up mode of the SoccerCity advocates has to do with the timeline of MLS in awarding a new franchise. Yesterday it was learned the process has been delayed a few months, from December 2017 to “sometime in early 2018.” Not long ago the decision was going to be made in September 2017. Anybody see a pattern here?

Finally, there’s the sticky problem of the City not actually having the rights to the land needed for the expansion of the Convention Center. I guess we’re also supposed to be expecting Faulconer to figure this out when the funding comes in…

This is an excerpt of D. Porter’s column at our partner website San Diego Free Press.



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete R June 7, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Please try to make these pieces shorter and more organized. What could be a persuasive, focused message is being lost in a sea of rambling text.


Geoff Page June 8, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Is this a serious comment? If it is, I just have to say it appears to be illustrative of the world we live in today when people have little appetite for anything more than a quick sound bite and don’t have the patience to read something that lasts more than a few lines. That really is a shame.


Andrea Guerrero June 8, 2017 at 12:17 pm

Though the mayor may succeed in his veto to preserve funding for a special election, the city council will have the ultimate word on whether to call a special election, and that decision cannot be vetoed by the mayor. So checkmate.


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