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Democrats Got Their Council Supermajority – Now Comes Deciding How to Use it

A month after winning a supermajority on the City Council, it’s not clear whether Council Democrats or their progressive allies are readying a policy push that will require them to flex that supermajority.

Council President Georgette Gomez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When San Diego Democrats made a financial commitment to knocking off former Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, they weren’t just fighting for another seat on the Council. Her seat represented the difference between a Council majority, and a veto-proof supermajority that would allow Democrats to pursue a progressive agenda without interference from Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

A month later, it is not clear that Council Democrats or their progressive allies are readying a policy push that will require them to flex that supermajority.

Instead, advocacy groups are vying for Council attention on their pre-existing priorities. Labor leaders say they’re ready to work with the mayor and the Council to combat problems. Different Council offices are picking and choosing where they’ll focus their attention in the New Year.

And in the middle, attempting to sort it into an agenda, is newly elected Council President Georgette Gomez.

It’s not as if the local progressive coalition hid any controversial priorities, only to spring them on the public and City Hall once they had enough votes to overcome any Republican opposition. But Gomez acknowledges that those who supported the party have big expectations for the new City Council. They did not donate and volunteer for the city to stay the course.

“There are a lot of expectations that we can make this work, and start changing the narrative in terms of who is controlling the Council,” Gomez said. “Who is shaping policies? Is it the same downtown folks? Or is it the people that make San Diego, that are not well-connected? And I think we’re going to see more of that, with a Council that is more grounded in community.”

She said the two biggest examples of those expectations are on housing and police relations. Democratic supporters have demanded the Council do something about the high cost of housing, and how police officers interact with residents.

“We really need a stronger narrative on how we’re holding police accountable,” she said. “And I’m not saying that all of them are bad. I know the new chief is more transparent than the previous chief. He wants to build a department that is more accountable and builds better relationships, and that’s good.”

Gomez did not cite any specific policies that voters should expect to see on a docket soon.

But she is putting together a memo that will detail the Council’s agenda for year, something previous Council presidents have not done. She’s meeting with Council offices now to build that set of ideas.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery is likely to lead the charge on any changes to police accountability.

She will head the Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee, which has oversight of the police department, and she has pledged to give subpoena power to the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices, so it can run independent investigations into police misconduct.

If that idea can make its way through City Hall, it’s not hard to imagine Democrats needing all six of their votes to pass it.

On housing, there’s a handful of ideas the Council and mayor are likely to work together on, including at least one proposal supported by organized labor that could prove controversial.

The mayor’s office has been working with Gomez and the rest of Council Democrats to deregulate development in the city, in hopes of spurring more homebuilding, and that’s likely to continue. A measure rolling back burdensome parking requirements for new developments near transit could come up for a vote in 2019. Likewise, there are ongoing negotiations over the appropriate level for the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance – a requirement for a certain share of units in a new project to be reserved for low-income housing.

But there’s a renewed push among labor leaders for a policy that would force private developers to pay construction workers at the same “prevailing wage” level that public agencies must pay workers, if those private developments receive some degree of public support.

Tom Lemmon, business manager for the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades, indicated as much in the days before the November election, and now Keith Maddox, executive secretary treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council – the largest union umbrella group in town – says he’s ready to make it a priority as well.

Maddox said the city thinks its role in private development is limited to building standards and safety codes, but never thinks that living wages should be a consideration. He says that needs to change.

“If it’s on city property, if it requires an upzone – basically every property requires a city investment, whether it’s road-widening or providing sewage lines, there is almost always a city investment,” Maddox said. “We might require a public benefit to include a park or a walking trail, but we never discuss worker wages, and continually we watch wages remain stagnant. That for us is going to be a huge focus.”

But more than pursuing any single policy, Maddox said the Council’s supermajority should change the way it operates. With its new advantage, he said the Council simply needs more progressive thinking.

“The threat of a veto could make you accept less than you think you need,” he said. “Maybe that’s why there’s gridlock over affordable housing, where everything is tilted toward developers. They say it takes too long but at the end of the day, they get more out of it than the rest of us.”

And he thinks the Council’s supermajority should lead to changes in the city’s budget process. Two years ago, the mayor vetoed changes the Council had made to his budget, and punished Council members who didn’t vote the way he wanted by cutting funds for their offices.

Now, with a veto-proof majority, the Council theoretically has the power to set the entire budget as it wishes. Until now, it’s worked like this: The mayor has released a budget proposal, and the Council begins a months-long budget process that usually results in marginal adjustments. If the Council really wanted to play hardball, it could upend that long-standing comity.

“We saw some shots at Council members last year – that shouldn’t be used anymore,” Maddox said. “We now need to fund our needs. I’ve seen the mayor work closely with the Council on the budget and I applaud that. Does this mean business will get shafted? We aren’t opposed to business.”

Gomez could also play a role in pushing progressive priorities beyond what the Council decides to tackle.

She she also heads the Metropolitan Transit System, which is pursuing a potential 2020 bond measure for transit, and serves on the San Diego Association of Governments as it potentially reimagines regional transportation.

Those efforts are likely to loom large within the progressive coalition, especially among environmentalists who already appear to have secured victory on a major priority after Faulconer signaled he’d put the city in charge of its own energy procurement, so it could more quickly reach its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy, by starting a new community choice energy program.

For instance, the Climate Action Campaign, has led the charge on community choice energy, and said its top priority is implementing a community choice program that spurs local energy projects that create middle-class jobs and benefits underserved communities.

But it’s also called on the Council to finish within six months a transportation master plan, which would lay out how the city will meet its lofty goals for shifting residents from their cars to walking, biking or transit commutes. The group also wants the Council to push the city to hire a director of mobility to lead a new mobility department.

“This is politically possible but will require strong Council support and advocacy,” said Sophie Wolfram, the Climate Action Campaign’s director of programs.

The group also called for the city to implement a five-year plan for expenditures that are part of the city’s climate action plan, to start an equity division within the city’s sustainability department and to implement a board focused on environmental justice.

Likewise, the transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego said its top priority this year is reforming community planning groups, which the group acknowledged was a topic most of the Council will want to avoid. But Colin Parent, the group’s executive director, said he’s more optimistic about winning increased funds in the budget for bike and safety infrastructure.

“The Council has been adopting our priorities in their budget memos,” Parent wrote in an email. “The Council can now implement their priorities.”

How much of these or other priorities get a full airing within City Hall will largely come down to Gomez.

She said she knows one thing for sure. She does not plan to do anything that would take the mayor by surprise.

Gomez agrees, for instance, that the Council should now take a larger role in shaping the budget. But she plans to initiate that conversation now, and work with the mayor from the beginning, rather than using its strengthened vote to trump him later.

“I am not going to be surprising the mayor at all,” she said. “That doesn’t help any of us. I’m going to be very transparent, and also very vocal. Certainly, some things won’t be negotiable. And when that’s the case, I will be very direct.”

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