Politics Report: Is the SDSU Ultimatum a Bluff? - Voice of San Diego

Politics

Politics Report: Is the SDSU Ultimatum a Bluff?

SDSU officials said the land-sale may fall apart if they don’t get it done before budget cutting moves come. The Congressional money race and the City Council prepares for another big ballot.

Rendering of the SDSU innovation district near a new stadium envisioned for Mission Valley / Image courtesy SDSU

Every negotiation seems like it has one big moment when a side says, “This is it. Take it or leave it.” Whether the move is real or a bluff is what the other side has to gauge.

But the moment came this week in the ongoing banter between the city and San Diego State University over the sale of the Mission Valley stadium land.

As we discussed last week, the university and the mayor’s office expected the City Council to docket discussion of SDSU’s purchase and sale agreement for the May 19 Council meeting. But Wednesday, when the docket came out, the deal wasn’t there for discussion. City Council President Georgette Gómez told us this week that she was working on it and the deal would advance as soon as possible. But we have not heard what exactly is holding it up.

Were City Attorney Mara Elliott’s concerns outlined last week preoccupying Gómez? Was it just too hard to write the analysis the deal needed?

No idea here.

Frustrated SDSU leaders took to Zoom Wednesday. (It’s what we do now, Zoom. Zoom for all-staff meetings. Zoom for podcast interviews. Zoom for weighty local public affairs ultimatums.)

On the call, Jack McGrory, the former San Diego city manager and member of the Board of Trustees of the California State University system, said they were done negotiating and the pandemic could unravel the whole deal.

McGrory pointed out that the governor was about to release his May revised budget and it looked really bad. (Spoiler: It was really bad.) The CSU system was expecting major cuts.

“It’s going to take a lot of time to work our way through balancing our budgets on both sides. This is the time to make this deal now before we get mired in the economic mess of cutting budgets and looking at all the projects that could potentially be cut,” he said.

It was the first time we have heard either side claim that the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic catastrophe may threaten the deal. He’s very clearly saying they should lock it down before political pressures and budget remedies make it harder for CSU to do.

County May Spread Out Federal Dollars

Supervisors Greg Cox and Kristin Gaspar / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

Dispatch from Lisa Halverstadt: Help appears to be coming for budget-strapped San Diego County cities that didn’t receive federal CARES Act checks last month.

We wrote last week about the plight of the 17 cities in the county other than the city of San Diego, which received a $248.8 million allocation, and their hopes that county supervisors might be willing to share some of the $334.1 million they got.

Supervisors Greg Cox and Kristin Gaspar heard those pleas. They are asking fellow supervisors at their Tuesday meeting to consider doling out $50 million of the county’s CARES Act money to the 17 cities that didn’t receive large lump sums. Cox and Gaspar are proposing the money be divvied up based on those cities’ populations.

Cox told VOSD he made the pitch after hearing from officials in the South Bay who described the devastating impacts the coronavirus is having on their budgets.

“I’ve said from the very beginning that we’re in this together and this is putting our money where our mouth is,” Cox wrote in an email.

The day after Cox and Gaspar’s proposal went public, Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in with an idea of his own. Newsom’s revised budget proposal calls for cities that didn’t get CARES Act allocations to get some state CARES Act money and would have counties give out those funds to cities under 300,000. (Read: All San Diego County cities other than the city of San Diego.)

Cox said he plans to keep his proposal on Tuesday’s agenda despite the governor’s announcement.

“We are looking at the governor’s May revise budget to see how we may be able to use state funds to assist cities. We will discuss that all at Tuesday’s board meeting,” Cox wrote. “Either way, my intent is to continue to assist the smaller cities one way or the other.”

Congressional Money Races

Clockwise from top left: congressional candidates Darrell Issa, Ammar Campa-Najjar, Sara Jacobs and Georgette Gómez / Photos by Megan Wood and NBC 7

Thanks to Mason Herron of Edgewater Strategies, we’re going to be back with some of our cash-on-hand-minus-debts and total contributions numbers for the candidates this cycle. Local candidates’ reporting schedules are off a bit because of the early primary. So we will have those soon.

But we do have the two main congressional races: the 53rd Congressional District contest between Sara Jacobs and Georgette Gómez and the 50th District contest between Darrell Issa and Ammar Campa-Najjar.

The money race in these is not that dramatic: Jacobs and Issa can spend a lot of money and will have the assets they need to compete. Issa, in fact, has loaned his campaign so much money ($3.25 million) that he owes a lot more than he has on hand to spend. (Fortunately for him, he owes the money to himself and thus doesn’t have to break his own legs if he doesn’t repay. However, his campaign can pay him back with cash on hand. And he has 20 days after the election to collect contributions from people, who may be newly interested in being on his good side, to put that money back in his pocket – up to $250,000, that is).

Jacobs has also put some of her personal wealth into the race but she made straight contributions to her campaign and thus neither her campaign nor future contributors can pay her back.

March to the November Ballot

Councilman Chris Cate and Councilwoman Jen Campbell / Photos by Jamie Scott Lytle and Adriana Heldiz

There’s no longer any need to say we’re going to have another jam-packed ballot this year. It’s just the natural state of things that we vote on lots of big issues every other November.

But the San Diego City Council this week took some steps to determining which big issues we’re going to weigh in on this year, as its rules committee forwarded a handful of topics to the full Council for final placement on the ballot.

The height of coastal anxieties: Councilwoman Jen Campbell and Councilman Chris Cate’s joint proposal to exclude the Midway-Pacific Highway community from the 30-foot height limit for the area west of I-5, to boost redevelopment prospects near the Sports Arena, passed the committee and is one step closer to hitting the November ballot.

Without the blanket restriction imposed by a citywide vote in 1972, projects in the Midway area would instead be limited by the zoning restrictions in the community’s existing development plan, which range from 30 feet to 100 feet, depending on the parcel. But those limits could be undone by a vote of the City Council, whereas any exemption from the coastal height limit requires a citywide vote.

A poll from a labor-aligned group last month found the idea begins with about 48 percent voter approval, and the community planning group in the Midway area has unanimously supported the measure, but the public comments this week revealed it isn’t without controversy.

“We’ll deal with the obvious attack on the 30-foot coastal height limit – that’s what this is really all about: It’s the first step toward limiting the height limit on the coast,” said Scott Andrews during public comment.

“Ever since the 1980s, the plan in the city of San Diego has been to block the public from accessing their land, that they own, on the coast. This is again another incremental move to basically block anyone inland from enjoying the coast,” said John McNabb, another commenter.

(Yes, there were public commenters in favor of the measure, too.)

Only one member of the committee voted against putting it on the ballot: Councilwoman Barbara Bry, amid a mayoral campaign where she has already opposed attempts to increase dense development around the city.

But she didn’t mention the policy changes as her reason for opposing it.

“This may be a good idea but I don’t think this is the right time to do it, putting a measure on the ballot costs us about $500,000, we’ve heard the city attorney say they have limited time to analyze things, I think there are more pressing issues to put on the ballot at this time,” Bry said. “I have voted to increase density along transit, to approve 45,000 additional housing units, I voted to support the updated community plan in this area, in other areas, specifically Balboa, Morena Boulevard, Old Town, Mission Valley and at this time I don’t see an urgency in doing this, so I will be voting ‘no.’”

A spokesman for Bry’s mayoral opponent, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, whose district includes the Midway area, said in a statement he agrees with the committee’s decision.

“Todd agrees with the Rules Committee majority’s decision to advance a measure to give San Diegans the opportunity to consider a new life for the Sports Arena property,” said Nick Serrano, Gloria’s spokesman.

Money in politics reform: The committee moved forward a measure to create a publicly financed elections program to encourage new and different candidates to run for office, while diminishing the influence of outside money on city decision-making.

The program would force the city to budget roughly $5 million a year into a new fund, to be used by candidates who opt into the program.

Candidates would need to collect a minimum number of donations before they qualify (500 for Council, 2,000 for mayor), and they could raise a small amount ($7,500 for Council, $30,000 for mayor) to explore a run before announcing.

Once in the race, they could only make OK’d expenditures from the fund, and they’d agree if they won not to raise money for their next race (with exceptions for a legal defense fund and an account for officeholder expenses). They couldn’t use their own money on their campaigns.

The committee moved it forward on a 3-2 vote, with Council President Georgette Gómez arguing it would encourage more people to run for office. Bry voted against it, citing city finances during the pandemic and Councilman Mark Kersey argued the city’s current election restrictions are already sufficient to encourage plenty of candidates and blunt the impact of money.

Election by power rankings: San Diego could soon join San Francisco and Maine with its own version of an election system known as ranked-choice voting.

Instead of simply filling the bubble for one candidate, voters would instead get to rank their preferences. That way, if their top choice is out of contention, they could still have a say in the outcome.

The city’s proposal is its own animal, though. Most ranked-choice systems forgo a primary, skip right to the general and ask voters to rank their top choices from everyone on the ballot. The San Diego model would instead have a primary in which four candidates would advance to the general, and voters would then be asked to rank their preference among the four options.

The thinking was that it would be easier on voters if they didn’t need to rank their choices from a field of 10-plus candidates, and that it was an incremental step from the current system, where the top two candidates automatically advance from the primary.

That too advanced on a 3-2 vote. Opponents Gómez and Councilman Chris Ward, argued it would be confusing to have this system in place for city races while federal, state and school district races maintain traditional rules. Kersey said the city’s proposal was a balance between its existing system and a full ranked-choice voting system that skips a primary.

The committee, though, will still need to take another vote on the proposal, after the city attorney analyzes the idea more fully. But the proposal could address one of the concerns raised by opponents, after Kersey asked the city attorney to consider applying the new system to San Diego Unified elections as well. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery and Bry joined Kersey in supporting the concept.

That ol’ PLA fight: Back in 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition A, a measure that forbid the city from requiring project labor agreements – deals with contractors on big projects in which they agree to hire through union halls and pay certain wages and benefits – in exchange for unions agreeing to guarantee labor to finish the job without going on strike.

Since then, the state Legislature passed two laws that make cities ineligible for certain state funding if they prohibit PLAs.

That cat-and-mouse game has created the present situation, in which the city may be subject to lost state funds for big projects, like a proposal to cut how much untreated sewage it dumps into the water while creating a new source of drinking water for city residents, as long as Prop. A is on the books.

Eddie Sprecco, CEO of San Diego’s chapter of the Associated General Contractors, however, said the measure isn’t needed because threats of lost state funding have been levied since 2012 and have never come true.

Ward said the city’s “lived experience” since 2012 has been uncertainty around state funding, outside legal challenges that threaten funding and create project delays that increase costs. He said the ambiguity caused by Proposition A means it needs to be thrown out.

Bry and Kersey opposed moving the measure forward, though. “I certainly support workers’ rights, I support local hire, I support the city getting its fair share of state money,” Bry said. “As far as I’ve seen, we’ve always gotten our fair share of state money, and Proposition A allows us to do a PLA if it’s a condition of getting state money.”

She said she couldn’t support putting the measure on the ballot, based on the city’s finances from the pandemic.

It’s another interesting vote from Bry, who is locked in the city’s first Democrat-versus-Democrat mayoral race. The measure is proposed by the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council and has widespread support from organized labor, a traditional ally of the Democratic Party.

Kersey’s vote is notable, after he last year voted to impose a PLA on the airport’s proposed redevelopment of Terminal 1, despite a threat from former congressional candidate Carl DeMaio that he wouldn’t sleep again if he voted for the airport’s PLA.

Megan Wood is a good person, a master of visualizations and online tools and she helped with this piece. So did Lisa Halverstadt. If you have tips or feedback for the Politics Report, maybe hold a press conference on the Zoom! Or send emails to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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