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That Civic San Diego Fight Is About Unions

The assemblywoman's bill aims to give the City Council control over downtown development. But it also opens the door for greater labor involvement in downtown decision-making.

The fight over the future of Civic San Diego is also about labor unions.

The city-owned nonprofit that used to run California’s tax-subsidized redevelopment program and regulates development downtown has been putting out fires left and right.

Civic San Diego has been fighting against community groups who say the agency ignores them. One of the agency’s own board members filed a lawsuit to see if its role is even legal. And Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez wants to strip away Civic San Diego’s decision-making authority and hand it to the City Council.

Each complaint has been framed around two problems: government accountability and protecting neighborhoods.

There’s another major issue at play, according to supporters of Gonzalez’s efforts: labor unions.

Gonzalez has introduced a bill that would give the Council the final say on downtown development. The Council is seen as more labor friendly than Civic. So the Council could demand, for instance, that new downtown hotels hire a unionized workforce, as a condition of approval.

Mike Jenkins, a member of Civic San Diego’s board who was appointed by Democratic Mayor Bob Filner and backs some of the initiatives to rein in Civic San Diego, said Gonzalez’s bill likely has multiple motivations, but one is certainly assisting organized labor.

“Lorena came out of labor, and she is supportive of labor’s interests, and labor is wanting to have more opportunities to be involved in projects that Civic is likely to engage in,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s probably an agenda. I think they’re wanting to negotiate on big projects coming through.”

Gonzalez declined to comment. But this isn’t the first time she’s been the driving force behind an initiative to give the Council more say in downtown development.

In 2010, she ran the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, essentially a union of unions. Civic San Diego — still in charge of downtown redevelopment at the time —was then called the Centre City Development Corp.

The Labor Council and Democrats on the City Council pushed a resolution with a more narrowly focused version of the bill Gonzalez is now pushing in Sacramento. It would have given the Council final say on building any downtown hotel with more than 100 rooms.

At the time, the justification for the change was clear: Many hotels pay low wages. For the city to approve a new hotel, it should make sure the people who will eventually work there will earn a decent living.

The idea was to give the Democrat-controlled Council authority to approve new hotels, so it could reject those that didn’t pay enough. Though it wouldn’t have mandated hotels to unionize, it would have made it far more likely.

Opponents of the proposal — which included then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and then-Councilman-now-Mayor Kevin Faulconer — insisted it was solely about forcing hotels to hire union labor.

Brigette Browning, president of the local hotel union, Unite Here! Local 30, said her organization and the Labor Council pursued the more narrowly focused bill in 2010 because they were confident they had the votes to get it passed. They would have gone with a broader restriction if they had more support.

“We are very, very excited about Lorena’s bill,” she said.

So far Gonzalez’s bill has evaded even the discussion that it is motivated by labor interests.

Browning said the discussion is less labor-focused now because Civic has more enemies.

“I think labor was able to get other organizations to realize how bad Civic is,” she said. “There’s a coalition working with us now. As people see Civic meetings, they get more outraged.”

The 2010 initiative was also supported by Murtaza Baxamusa, a labor researcher who is now on Civic San Diego’s board and has filed a lawsuit against the city’s arrangement with the city-owned nonprofit.

“The intent is very much the same,” Baxamusa said of Gonzalez’s bill state bill and the 2010 city proposal.

The City Council passed the 2010 resolution to make itself the authority over downtown hotel projects. Only Faulconer and then-Councilman Carl DeMaio voted against it.

It directed staff from the city and the nonprofit to write up an ordinance to make it official within 90 days.

But that never happened, and the downtown redevelopment agency was able to keep on approving hotel projects on its own.

“The ordinance was never docketed by the city for the required public hearing,” said Brad Richter, a Civic San Diego vice president.

Currently, there are at least four downtown hotel projects waiting approval that could be affected by Gonzalez’s bill.

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