Politics Report: A Big Cash Deposit From the Feds; Now What?

Politics

Politics Report: A Big Cash Deposit From the Feds; Now What?

The city has to figure out what it is allowed to spend $248 million on. Plus, how Nathan Fletcher managed a command post of sorts in the COVID-19 crisis and some interesting poll questions.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced the city’s plan to turn Golden Hall into a temporary homeless shelter with more than 240 beds in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

We had Mayor Kevin Faulconer on the podcast this week. He can be a very savvy interviewee – a master at avoiding conflicts when the questions get dicey.

But we did get a very straight answer to one question:

Voice of San Diego: “It looks like the city’s eligible for about $248 million in funds from the CARES Act, the federal recovery act. Are we going to get that money?”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer: “Uh. We got it. It’s in the bank.”

Must be something to look at the bank and see an extra $248 million you hadn’t necessarily planned on during an economic catastrophe. Especially as the rest of your accounts are evaporating by the minute.

But Faulconer said now the trouble is deciding exactly what that money can be used for.

“The Treasury Department and others have come out and said, it all has to be COVID-related. And so, OK, what does that mean?” Faulconer said.

It will be an interesting question in coming weeks. Is what the city is spending right now on, for example, sheltering the homeless in the Convention Center, eligible? It was to protect them from COVID-19 and to keep it from spreading.

The money explicitly can’t be used to just make the budget work.

Congress restricted the money for costs that “(1) are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19).”Then more guidance says, “Coronavirus Relief Fund payments may not be used to directly account for revenue shortfalls related to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

And it’s a one-time infusion. Congress does not seem inclined to provide cities and states too much more relief.

“A single check from Washington is not going to get us out of the economic crisis that we’re in now,” Faulconer said.

How Fletcher Got the Spotlight

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The county of San Diego lifted its public health restriction prohibiting people from recreating in the ocean on Friday. Swimming, surfing and kayaking will be allowed in the ocean and bays beginning Monday. Cities just must decide for themselves when to actually open them. They’re likely to do that soon.

This was a decision made by Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer closed beaches, and thus access to oceans, before Wooten officially did for the whole county. Wooten’s power is significant in these moments and her call now allows cities to change.

We released a video this week explaining exactly what Wooten and other county leaders have the power to do during this public health emergency.

But that decision was announced by County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. Fletcher has become the de facto narrator of the county’s response to the crisis. The county has the most important local role in responding to the pandemic, so being the main person to explain what is happening is no small bit in the play. When Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar weighed in with various proposals and pleas this week to open parks, beaches and more local businesses, they often seemed like the opposition, criticizing the majority leader of a legislative body.

Tony Krvaric, the pugnacious chairman of the local Republican Party, references Fletcher only via his wife and refers to him as the power hungry guy in charge. After the opening of the ocean to recreation, Krvaric said it was Fletcher who had stopped it.

“This is exactly the type of thing @jim_desmond and @KristinDGaspar were advocating for earlier this week but Nooooo that got shot down so that Mr. @LorenaSGonzalez could play politics and announce on his own,” Krvaric tweeted.

But there’s nothing about Fletcher’s political position that makes him the elected leader of the crisis with that kind of power. Fletcher is the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, and he’s not the chairman of the board. He’s not the boss of county staff any more than Gaspar or Desmond is.

If Fletcher has power, it’s only because Republican Supervisors Greg Cox and  Dianne Jacob have helped him. Early on in the crisis, Jacob suggested the creation of a coronavirus subcommittee with Cox and Fletcher. The two would work with county staff and reach out to other local, federal and state governments. They would work with county staff to provide the board’s influence on major decisions. It’s from this role Fletcher took whatever command role he has.

What About Schools?

Scott’s take on something. Don’t blame Andy: Gaspar and Desmond asked for not only beaches to be opened this week but also a pathway to opening gyms, spas, restaurants and warehouse businesses. It’s a reasonable request to ask for the map out of this for the economy. There should be a map; it should be easy to understand and we should change it as things change.

I’m not entirely sure what qualified those businesses, though. I like them all. I wish I could be in them more. All the time, really. How great would, like, a daily spa visit be?

But if your list about reopening the county doesn’t start with functioning schools, I think you should start a new list. Telling people we should reopen the economy without the school issue being settled is like telling people to evacuate to Arizona but not talking about how Interstate 8 is closed. Many of us look forward to going to restaurants and spas, but how about special education services?

Schools and functional daycare is the absolute backbone of the economy. Nothing works without it. We didn’t start “working from home;” we found ways to manage at home. Not only does school provide crucial supervision of youths during the day but it creates a creative class and workforce. We cannot continue to function, even at this level, without options for our children. Many of us not only relied on schools but on important after-school programs and summer camps and everything about functional parenting life. No schools, no nothing. We’re definitely not going to any damn spas.

School standards and expectations are evaporating before our eyes. Does anyone have a clue when they’ll be open again? Summer school? There’s no information, and that’s fine but nothing happens until there is. This week we got the news that California probably won’t do its annual school performance dashboard. We don’t even know how to enroll kids in schools for next year. The school offices are empty. There’s no website. They would not know what to tell people, anyway.

Nothing starts if there are no camps and schools. If you’re worried about getting stuff restarted, then make that your thing. If we have functioning schools, that means a lot of other activities are functioning. If schools aren’t functioning or if they require the parents to be home and engaged all day, then that means the bear is still sitting on the economy and we still can’t breathe.

If it’s not safe to open schools, it’s not safe to open the economy.

The Council Battleground

Welcome to San Diego’s new, Democrat-dominated political world.

It’s a place where both mayoral candidates are Democrats, even though a Democrat has held that office for one year of the past 20.

It is a place where Democrats have a presumed lead for City Council in Tierrasanta and San Carlos. It’s a San Diego where even the district with the most conservative voters faces a pure toss-up.

It’s a place where eager observers announce coalitions in Dem-on-Dem races, even if the candidate histories don’t quite support it.

And it’s a place where the emboldened left floats measures to increase hotel taxes not to expand the Convention Center, but to fund general city services.

Hardly the era of 10 years ago, when austerity and fiscal conservatives framed discussions.

Just two City Council seats will feature Republicans versus Democrats.

District 7: Republican Councilman Scott Sherman won both of his District 7 terms in the primary. Now, Democrat Raul Campillo, a deputy city attorney, has emerged as a favorite against Republican Noli Zosa, a small businessman.

Campillo finished 5 points ahead of Zosa in March, but the four Democrats on the ballot got nearly 70 percent of the vote. A poll from Lake Research Partners for the Progressive Labor Alliance, a group attempting to link the progressive and labor movements, says he’s got an early lead.

The pollsters spoke to just 150 District 7 voters, so their poll has a sizable 6.7 percent margin of error, but Campillo is nonetheless 16 points ahead of Zosa, with 40 percent of voters undecided.

District 5: Even more surprising is District 5, where Councilman Mark Kersey also won in the primary of his races. He left the Republican Party last year.

There, Democrat Marni Von Wilpert, a deputy city attorney, is in a dead heat with Republican Joe Leventhal, a former board member for the Ethics Commission, after a March race where they were within 1 point of each other.

The poll put 27 percent of voters with Von Wilpert and 25 percent with Leventhal, and nearly half of voters undecided. The margin of error was 6.6 percent.

The Dem-on-Dem field: In District 1, District 3 and District 9, voters won’t even have a Republican to consider.

In those races and the mayoral race, observers have speculated we’d begin to see a pattern of moderate, business-friendly Democrats versus further left, labor-backed candidates.

The actual candidates on offer in the three Council races, though, don’t really support that framing. None of them is obviously to the left of their opponent in a significant way. They might distinguish themselves from one another ideologically over the course of the campaign, but there’s just not much evidence yet to support the idea.

That doesn’t mean they’re all the same. In District 9, Kelvin Barrios, for instance, has a clear labor background, and his opponent Sean Elo has mostly been involved in community organizing and advocacy. But which one is the leftist, and which is the centrist?

Elo has alliances on civil rights causes but struggled to lock up labor support. Barrios has the support of Council President Georgette Gómez, who he would succeed. But Barrios also has allied with lobbyists Gómez once bitterly opposed.

Maybe San Diego politics will one day be dominated by two clearly differentiated coalitions of Democrats. We’re not there yet.

New issues emerge: More interesting than any of the results in the Progressive Labor Alliance’s poll was the questions the organization asked voters.

They’re testing the waters on raising hotel taxes for the city’s general fund – not, as has been the case for years, to fund a Convention Center expansion.

Such a vote would only require support from a simple majority of voters. The last time that was attempted, in 2004, it came after a proposal to raise the hotel tax failed to get two thirds in the spring and so they put a general one on in the fall.

Nearly 70 percent of the 500 likely voters they spoke to supported the idea, including a bare majority of Republicans.

The text of the question: “Should the City increase the Hotel Visitor Tax charged to hotel guests to a level similar to other major cities, in order to support the City’s general fund which pays for police, fire and emergency services, parks and recreation, and other city programs?”

That proposal would generate far more organized, funded opposition than Measure C, the maybe-successful-maybe-unsuccessful hotel tax increase from March. So it’s far from clear that the tax increase would pass if it just went on the ballot.

There were other interesting questions:

Labor deals: Staying on brand, the Progressive Labor Alliance (or PLA, get it?) also asked about support for overturning Proposition A, which made it illegal to require project labor agreements, or PLAs, on city projects. And it asked about raising the fee charged to properties for generating stormwater runoff to deal with the city’s $1 billion stormwater infrastructure backlog, and about requiring union-friendly labor provisions on new renewable energy projects, finding large margins of support for all three of those union-supported policy changes.

A surveillance transparency law: The city’s use of so-called smart streetlights, which are capable of recording residents without their knowledge, has grown into a source of controversy in recent years, and PLA found voters like the idea of an ordinance that “establishes rules and approval processes” to acquire new surveillance tech and set guidelines on data sharing and third-party access.

The coastal building height limit: The city’s presumed third-rail political issue might not be a third rail after all. PLA asked voters if they liked the idea of raising the height limit in the Midway, Sports Arena and Pacific Highway areas, and 48 percent of respondents said they did. Council members Jen Campbell and Chris Cate are proposing a November ballot measure that would do just that. It would require 50 percent voter approval.

That 48 percent support number at the onset suggests it’s certainly not a done deal that the measure would pass, but it’s within striking distance. It does, however, start out with 35 percent opposition, the highest of any of the questions PLA asked, so the issue does seem to strike a chord with a sizable chunk of voters in a way other issues don’t.

The city likes electing city attorneys, apparently. PLA also asked about a measure the City Council is now considering putting on the November ballot, which would create a new appointed city attorney for legal advice and litigation while maintaining the elected city attorney to prosecute misdemeanors.

That measure starts with 40 percent support, 25 percent opposition and 30 percent undecided, according to PLA’s poll.

If you have ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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