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Here are the news stories of the year that made us bolt upright and take note.
Former Mayor Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandal dominated the news cycle for much of the middle months this year. But there were plenty of big moments — within the controversy and beyond — that will continue to shape the city.
From an imploding pension vote to Filner’s ambitious Balboa Park remodel, here are the shake-ups to the status quo we’re still talking about.
San Diego Unified brought promises of a bright future when the district chose former City Heights principal Cindy Marten to lead. Big changes in statewide education funding meant Marten would have more money to play with, suggesting crippling budget cuts were a thing of the past. Marten was ready to get to work. “I’m going to do this with you,” she said in April. “We’re going to do this together and we’re going to create a school system that is the best in the nation.” The inspiring rhetoric has kept up, but grading her work as a superintendent is an ongoing endeavor.
Back in February, Superior Court Judge Tim Taylor shot down the high-profile park remodel proposed by Qualcomm co-founder (and major VOSD supporter) Irwin Jacobs. Filner picked up where Jacobs left off, unveiling his own three-phase plan — which carried a much smaller price tag. The focus of his plans fell on making the Plaza de Panama more pedestrian-friendly: Strip the mesa of signs and parking lines, shut it down to cars and relocate the handicap parking spots. Filner also wanted to close off the Cabrillo Bridge to cars on weekends and holidays, a suggestion that was met with plenty of resident push-back. It was later decided the bridge, which is a major entry point for the park, would stay open.
The former mayor had limited time to make good on his promises for office. A huge win came in June, when the City Council approved five-year deals with all six of San Diego’s labor unions. Each of the deals included pensionable pay freezes, which were crucial to the budget savings outlines in Proposition B, the June ballot’s pension reform initiative. Projections in an outside analysis had pointed to $25.2 million in savings from these agreements alone. The deals allowed for 5.25 percent increases in compensation for city staffers, and 7 percent for police officers over the next five years. Plus, union leaders would be allowed to request additional negotiations after three years.
At first, it was a little unclear what would become of Filner’s summer hire, big-deal urban planner Bill Fulton. Even before starting his new gig as planning director, he was already espousing the importance of neighborhoods, a point we’ve heard time and time again in the special election to replace Filner. Since the City Council’s October vote to restructure the standing bureaucracy, Fulton has hit the ground running. He’s already suggested an alternative to the lengthy community plan update process, and as recently as this month, a plan to fix the region’s dwindling middle class.
Sugar-plum dreams of budget savings from the big labor agreement were put on hold when the city’s pension board voted not to reduce the pension bill for the upcoming year. It was quite a blow for Filner, who was already fielding questions about suspicious deals with a developer, the departure of his deputy chief of staff, and his kept-quiet trip to Paris “to get jobs to San Diego,” he said during a press conference. It was assumed the board would go right along with the approval — so what happened? Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt reported the decision came as a result of key absences and chaos among the board members. The city was left to cover for about $25 million leaders thought they had in the bag.
Filner found himself at the center of a federal probe this summer as authorities investigated his financial dealings with developers. In July, the feds started asking questions about a $100,000 donation to the city made by Sunroad Centrum Partners. The developer was seeking approval on revisions to a Kearny Mesa project. Deputy chief of staff Allen Jones secured the donation in exchange for an agreement that mayor would drop his veto of the Council-approved revision. The hefty financial nudge was set to fund two of Filner’s pet projects: a veterans memorial in Ocean Beach and a day-long bicycling event.
Filner returned the donation after Jones left his post, and the staffer maintained the mayor knew full well what was afoot. The pay-to-play scandal continued to hang over Filner while he also dealt with the consequences of his sexual harassment misdeeds.
Until his former communications director came forward, Filner hid from allegations he’d sexually harassed several women by noting all of the accusations were from anonymous sources. Irene McCormack’s decision to go public gave the accusers a face — a highly credible face — and cemented some consistencies among their stories. And, as VOSD’s Andrew Keatts pointed out, McCormack’s lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court gave the scandal some process to follow.
And what a show it was. Filner appeared before Council, which approved his decision 7-0. His resignation would take effect the following Friday, but Filner didn’t go out without a speech that vacillated widely from apologies to finger-pointing. From Liam Dillon’s report:
“There are well-organized interests who have run this city for 50 years who pointed the gun,” Filner said. “And the media, and their political agents, pulled the trigger. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not what democracy is about.”
With his more bold words, his supporters within the City Council chambers called for him to fight on. He left to a small standing ovation.
He publicly apologized to those same supporters in a brief statement during his Dec. 9 sentencing.
Oh, but the fight was far from over. The City Council voted 5-4 in a partisan split to approve councilman and mayoral candidate David Alvarez’s compromise plan. But the maritime industry quickly mobilized, sending out droves of signature-gatherers to get a referendum on the ballot. The issue boiled down to a buffer zone in the neighborhood between homes and shipbuilders, and how much of a toll the industry’s work took on resident health. The Council voted again Dec. 17, this time allowing the referendum to go on the ballot.
The City Council approved a phased-in rate structure for the fee on big developers, money that helps subsidize low-income housing. This had been a long-debated move. The so-called “linkage fee” was first introduced in 1990 at 1.5 percent of construction costs. It was knocked down to .75 percent in 1996, and has stayed there ever since — at .75 percent of 1990 costs, that is. So the hike up to 1.5 percent of current costs is both a 500 percent increase — something opponents seize on — and in keeping with the original fee, a fact supporters seize on. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders said the increase would cost the city big business, that manufacturing company Soitec would have never come to San Diego with the increase in place. VOSD’s Scott Lewis poked a hole in that. Still, no one thinks this solves the city’s affordable housing crisis.