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This story has been updated.
Supporters of the SDSU West initiative to sell the land under and around SDCCU Stadium to San Diego State University have always had to perform a delicate dance.
Their central selling point is that the initiative is for San Diego State. It’s what the university wants and needs.
SDSU has released a plan for what it would do with the land, if the measure passed. It includes a new football stadium, research space and a river park.
But the university can’t support the initiative itself. University officials can’t use any of the public agency’s resources to support the political process between now and November, when voters will give it an up-or-down vote. Supporters of the initiative then, have to somehow communicate this is SDSU’s vision, but not explicitly.
City Attorney Mara Elliott put the challenge into relief when she concluded that the initiative did not obligate SDSU to buy the property and that even if it did, the school wouldn’t have to follow the development plan it describes.
Now, San Diego City Councilman Scott Sherman thinks he has found a serious problem with the initiative’s relation to SDSU.
In a memo sent to the city attorney’s office Thursday afternoon, he suggested the people behind SDSU West may have committed a crime.
He cites a section of the California education code outlining how and when people can use names associated with the California State University system.
“No person shall, without the permission of the Trustees of the California State University, use of this name, or any abbreviation of it or any name of which these words are a part, in any of the following ways,” it reads.
It lists any political movement, activity or program as a forbidden purpose, and specifies that San Diego State University and San Diego State plus any abbreviations of the school’s name are off limits.
“Every person violating this section is guilty of a misdemeanor,” the education code says.
Sherman says this applies to the initiative, which is titled “SDSU West Campus Research Center, Stadium and River Park Initiative.” The code should also apply, he wrote, to the group that financed and circulated the petition, “Friends of SDSU, A Coalition of SDSU Alumni, Business and Community Leaders.”
In the memo, he asked the city attorney how the issues could be resolved if either the title itself, or the name of the committee financing the initiative, were in fact violations. He also asked if the city itself, or individual councilmembers, could be held liable for breaking the education code.
But he also takes aim at Jack McGrory, one of the proponents of the initiative. Gov. Jerry Brown recently appointed McGrory to the CSU Board of Trustees.
Sherman asks whether McGrory now has a conflict of interest.
In an interview with Voice of San Diego, McGrory said he intends to recuse himself from anything involving the initiative that comes before the trustees, and that he would abstain from the vote.
He said he’d remain active with Friends of SDSU, and has already discussed his plans to do so with the governor, Elliott and the general counsel for the CSU Board of Trustees.
Friends of SDSU’s lawyers, he said, had fully vetted the proposal and are confident none of the issues Sherman identified are significant.
“I think it would be a wild stretch to say we can’t use the term San Diego State in this initiative,” McGrory said. “It seems to me the FS people are getting desperate and grasping at straws.”
FS Investors is a private group pushing a competing ballot measure called SoccerCity, which would let it purchase and lease the land from the city to build a soccer stadium, river park and dense urban development.
“We have a First Amendment right to use that term; that section of the education code is for people who are gaining some financial self-interest. It’s a nice try, and I guess they’re getting desperate,” McGrory said.
Many members of the SDSU West proposal are themselves developers – including some who coordinated to kill SoccerCity this summer before the SDSU West proposal was announced.
The group has since said none of its members will seek development opportunities from the university if the plan passes. The university opted not to reciprocate that pledge.
Kim Kilkenny, spokesman for Friends of SDSU, sent a statement dismissing Sherman’s memo.
“Councilmember Sherman’s memo does not raise a single legitimate issue regarding the SDSU West initiative,” it reads. “It is more than appropriate that our initiative and campaign committee utilize the SDSU name given its purpose is to help San Diego State University to grow its academic, research and economic benefits for San Diego.”
He said if this were really an issue, it would apply to SoccerCity as well, which has mentioned SDSU in its own pitch and included renderings of a stadium incorporating SDSU colors and logos.
SoccerCity spokesman Nick Stone rejected the comparison.
“This is very simple: We called our project SoccerCity; they called theirs SDSU West,” he said. “Only one of us is attempting to co-opt the university’s good name to advance a private development, and it’s not us.”