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None of the Explanations for a Rushed, Costly Special Election Add Up

Less than seven months after San Diegans overwhelmingly decided to hold elections when the most people could participate, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is pushing the City Council to schedule a special off-year election for two ballot initiatives.

The history of our country shows that democracy functions best when more people participate. San Diego’s city charter reflects this history. In 1988, the charter was amended to establish district elections for the City Council, boosting voter turnout by giving all neighborhoods a voice in electing their representatives. In 1992, the charter was amended to end the city’s practice of scheduling very low-turnout standalone city elections and instead require that they be scheduled for the same time as state elections, when more people vote. In 2016, San Diegans voted overwhelmingly for Measure L, requiring the City Council to place ballot initiatives on November general election ballots, when more people vote.

Commentary - in-story logoMeasure L was approved by 65 percent of San Diego voters, and earned the support of voters in every City Council district. Voters so strongly supported Measure L that its opponents didn’t even bother to submit a ballot argument against it. Now, less than seven months after San Diegans supported Measure L so overwhelmingly, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is pushing the City Council to violate the will of the voters and schedule a special off-year election for two ballot initiatives. Both ballot initiatives are major, long-lasting public policy decisions: a 40-year tax increase, and 99-year leases of public land. Decisions that will impact our great-great grandchildren are the very sorts of decisions that should be made when the most voters participate.

So, why the rush? Unfortunately, we don’t really know. The public explanations offered by the mayor simply don’t add up. In the case of the mayor’s proposal to increase the hotel tax to expand the Convention Center, he contends that a special election is necessary because construction costs are increasing quickly, implying that approval of the tax increase in a special election is all that is needed to begin construction quickly enough to realize savings.

This is demonstrably false. Even if the tax increase were approved today, actual construction is still years away. It is so far away that the mayor’s own proposal gives the city until March 31, 2028, to begin construction on the expansion, over 10 years from now. Why does the mayor’s proposal allow construction to be delayed up to 10 years? Maybe because he knows that the ongoing litigation involving Coastal Commission approval for the expansion could easily delay construction for years. Or maybe because there is no place to put the Convention Center expansion because the mayor chose to default on the lease for the land last year. Finally, if it was so important to raise taxes quickly to avoid escalating construction costs, why didn’t the mayor seek approval for it in the November 2016 election, as he previously promised to do?

In the case of the SoccerCity initiative, the mayor has said that a special election is necessary to secure a Major League Soccer team because of the league’s expansion application timetable. This reason also makes no sense. Previously, the proponents of SoccerCity argued that there wasn’t time for an election at all due to MLS’s expansion application timetable, and they would ask the City Council to approve the initiative outright. But when opponents threatened to file a referendum to force an election anyway, suddenly MLS changed its mind, and there was time for an election after all. This just further reinforces one of the biggest lessons I’ve drawn from San Diego’s experience with professional sports leagues: They can change their rules any time they want. The ever-changing statements of professional sports league executives are no reason for violating the will of the voters.

There is a final reason to respect the will of the voters and refuse to schedule a special election: We can’t afford it. The mayor has emphasized the difficulties San Diego’s budget is facing this year by proposing large cuts to the San Diego Police Department’s budget. More officers have left SDPD for other law enforcement agencies so far this year than in any year since 2011, and overall police staffing is falling to dangerous and unprecedented levels. Even with the San Diego police officer retention crisis deepening, the mayor proposes to cut recruitment and retention by $4 million and overtime by $3 million. Shockingly, he also proposes budgeting $5 million to pay for a special election that in all likelihood will actually cost close to $10 million. Just by following Measure L, we can have enough money to restore our recruitment and retention budget and expand police overtime. Sometimes respecting the will of the voters is not just the right thing to do, it saves money too.

The City Council should listen to the lessons of history, respect the will of the voters and schedule both initiatives for November 2018, when the most San Diegans will vote.

David Alvarez is the city councilman representing District 8.

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