Referendum: Power Brokers' New Legislative Tool - Voice of San Diego

Affordable Housing Fee UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Referendum: Power Brokers' New Legislative Tool

San Diego business leaders are gathering signatures in hopes of getting rid of city policies they don’t like.

Business leaders seem to be taking a new tack these days: If they don’t get the City Council outcome they want, force the issue onto the ballot.

In the past few months, they’ve gathered enough signatures to place Barrio Logan’s community plan on the ballot.

And on Wednesday, the group that’s dubbed itself the Jobs Coalition gathered to announce yet another signature drive, this time in hopes of forcing a vote on the affordable housing fee hike.

These efforts come about three years after the City Council reversed course on ordinances that regulated medical marijuana and big-box retail stores amid the threat of referendums.

In each case, voters gathered enough signatures to place the measures on the ballot and the City Council abandoned its previous positions when faced with hefty tabs for the corresponding special elections.

The business group leading the charge on the latest referendum would likely see similar results if not for the city’s new political reality.

For years, the city’s private-sector power-brokers faced a business-friendly City Council majority and ex-Mayor Jerry Sanders, who’s gone onto to lead the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce one of the business groups unified against the affordable-housing fee. The Sanders administration worked closely with business leaders on policy efforts, consulting them early and often.

Now business leaders must try to compromise with an ambitious Democratic City Council majority eager to pass progressive measures. In recent months, they’ve approved a prevailing wage ordinance and the affordable-housing fee hike. They also narrowly passed a Barrio Logan community plan update despite protests that it could threaten the local shipbuilding industry.

After each vote, business leaders responded by kicking off signature-gathering campaigns.

Economic Development Corp. CEO Mark Cafferty openly acknowledged the new tactic on Wednesday.

But Cafferty hedged a bit when I asked whether that means we should expect lots of referendums going forward.

“I hope the answer is no,” he said. “I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say this isn’t the way we want to do policy.”

Cafferty argued the Jobs Coalition proceeded with signature-gathering efforts based on the issues at hand. They’re concerned some maritime firms might bail on the city based on changes in the Barrio Logan plan and that businesses may be dissuaded from expanding or relocating to San Diego because of the affordable-housing fee hike. They’re worried about losing jobs.

“I think that it’s really to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to ensure that we either have an opportunity to kind of change the direction this is going in or get to a place where we can eliminate it,” he said, specifically referring to the fee increase.

Sanders, the former mayor, struck a similar tone. He said business leaders aren’t waiting for other opportunities to pounce. For now, they’re simply focused on two issues they oppose.

Sanders emphasized that referendums don’t come cheap. They’re a last resort.

“The referendum process is certainly not the preferred process because it costs a lot of money,” Sanders said. “It costs the business community a lot of money.”

Cafferty and Sanders say their group tried to compromise and negotiate unsuccessfully. Supporters of the Barrio Logan plan and the affordable-housing fee hike, of course, think otherwise. They criticize business leaders for attempting to take a wrecking ball to policies approved by a City Council majority.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who supports both the fee increase and the Barrio Logan plan, said the right to refer measures to the ballot is crucial but is concerned moneyed interests have the resources to speak louder than San Diegans who rely on affordable-housing programs or Barrio Logan residents who worked on the new community plan.

Referendums favor groups with the resources to spread their message.

“It’s a process by which it’s easier for people that have a large bankroll,” Frye said.

Interim mayor Todd Gloria compared the referendum attempts to Washington D.C. theatrics.

“This is similar in terms of frustration levels with Washington D.C. where you could have a minority, member, a minority of representatives, able to take the entire body and hold up democratic policy making,” Gloria told me Wednesday. “It seems like this is a localized version of that where, again, a small group (has) the ability to stop these efforts and that’s frustrating, that’s disappointing and it shouldn’t be encouraged. I hope that the voters will respond accordingly.”

Gloria previously voted to overturn city ordinances under the threat of expensive public votes, including an ordinance for big-box stores that he wrote. Both votes came in 2011, when the city faced more significant financial woes.

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