The Mayor Has Himself a Time Problem on the Stadium Front - Voice of San Diego

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The Mayor Has Himself a Time Problem on the Stadium Front

The city attorney says that the city cannot commit to a stadium project until it follows a lengthy environmental review. But does that mean it can't put a stadium plan on a ballot until then either? The city attorney doesn't know yet and it's kind of a big deal for the mayor's timeline. Never mind that the clock is also ticking on another problem: changing public perception, which even the Chargers agree is very much against public investment in a stadium project.

Right after weathering the concerns that his Citizens Stadium Advisory Group was not actually open to citizens, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is trying to figure out a new problem for the group.

They may not have enough time.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith warned in a memo recently that the city could not commit to a site for a new football stadium until it had gone through the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The law would require the city to analyze all kinds of other possibilities for the facility, disclose the environmental effects of the preferred site and explain why it is preferable in spite of them.

That takes some time – about 12-18 months, the city attorney warned.

“The City may not commit to a specific project before the CEQA process is completed,” he wrote.

Let’s say it only took 15 months. If they were to start today, they would finish in May 2016. That might be enough time to get it on the November 2016 ballot, as the mayor pledged.

But, of course, they are not starting today. The city hasn’t even come up with a preferred site. The mayor’s citizens group, holed up in a secret bunker somewhere, may not have a recommendation until September.

And now the mayor has pledged that this is just the first step. After it, there will be a robust public process in addition to the required City Council hearings.

If the city attorney thinks that the city can’t commit to a site until after an environmental review, and if “committing to a site” means putting it on the ballot for voter approval, then we’ve got a timeline problem, champ.

I asked the city attorney if that’s indeed what it means.

“That’s a good question,” he said.

“Thanks!” I said.

“We’d have to look at that,” he said. “I’m not ready to say that they can or cannot put it on the ballot without going through CEQA.”

So I went to the mayor’s office.

The mayor’s chief of communication, Matt Awbrey, said he was consulting with the city attorney.

Then he sent me an email: “The City Attorney’s office will be presenting the Mayor’s office with options to ensure the process moves forward in the most timely manner and follows CEQA and other applicable laws,” he wrote.

That’s Mayor for “we don’t know.”

Other stadium projects, you might know, were able to bypass notorious state environmental regulations because the Legislature simply exempted them. Sacramento’s new basketball arena, for example.

But the Legislature isn’t just going to give us a “get out of CEQA” card. So they would have to settle on a site. Would that happen before or after the robust public process we’re being promised?

Hard to say. It’s unclear what that public process will look like. I asked Awbrey if it would just be City Council hearings, which are required by law. Or would it be something more?

“There will be ample time for a robust public review of the advisory group’s recommendations. That’s likely to happen through a combination of public hearings and forums,” he wrote.

There’s another timeline pressure: public opinion. We would basically need to see a revolution for any kind of stadium plan to have a chance. For this week’s podcast, I sat down with Chargers Special Counsel Mark Fabiani for the full hour.

I asked Fabiani if the team believes public opinion is as hostile to taxpayer financing of stadiums as a new U-T/10News poll showed recently. It had 63 percent of respondents saying they would not support any public financing for a new stadium.

That’s almost two-thirds. If we are to raise a tax for a new stadium, you’d have to completely flip that. It would have to be the most incredible and engaging public campaign I have ever seen in San Diego. Even if somehow they figured out how to only need 50 percent of the vote, it would still be quite a feat.

And yet, the public process to do that isn’t beginning until fall.

Fabiani said he agreed that was the public sentiment right now. Taxpayers are strongly against public funding for a stadium.

“That’s consistent with our research,” he said.

I asked him about the city attorney’s concerns about following environmental law and how it squares with the task force timeline.

“Well, you’ve raised a good issue,” Fabiani said. “That’s why the nine months consumed by the task force is a long time to take to go over … research that already exists.”

There is, however, one timeline it matches up with: the mayor’s re-election bid. A 16-month task force and then public process gets you right to June 2016, and the primary election date he hopes to win outright.

Update: In the version first posted, I accidentally typed 53 percent instead of 63 percent as the portion of respondents to a U-T poll against any public financing for a new stadium. The poll is here.

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