Politics Report: Trouble for Convention Center Push? - Voice of San Diego

Politics UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Politics Report: Trouble for Convention Center Push?

Longtime hotel industry leader Mike McDowell speaks at the launch of a campaign to expand the Convention Center and fund homeless services with a hotel-tax increase. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Most campaigns attempting to put measures on a November ballot try to get their petitions turned in by June 1. Maybe a few days later.

It allows time for the registrar to count signatures. It also allows for supporters (or opponents) to pay for a full count, if the small sample the registrar reviews somehow disqualifies them.

By any normal deadline, supporters gathering signatures for a petition to put the hotel-room tax hike to expand the Convention Center on the ballot should have turned them in by now. But they haven’t.

The U-T wrote about what seems like a scramble to close the deal.

All’s well, organizers say. The signatures are coming on Monday.

We heard signature-gatherers were fanning out to individual houses just this week and veteran campaign operatives who are versed in door-to-door field operations have been brought on to help.

Signature-gatherers were getting $10 per signature this week.

“From Day One, our citizens’ initiative has been a grassroots campaign – supported by the dedicated efforts of volunteers – and it will continue to be all the way through election day,” campaign manager Chris Wahl said in a Friday statement. “We are proud of their efforts and those of our professional team and look forward to submitting more than enough signatures on Monday.”

Chris Wahl / Photo by Sam Hodgson

They better hope that nobody demands a full count of their signatures.

This left us with a big question …

What Happens If They Fail to Make the Ballot?

First off, it would be a jaw-dropping flub. Many high-profile ballot initiative efforts have fizzled out over the last decade. But none of them was the highest priority of the mayor of San Diego. They were not much-trumpeted, bipartisan coalitions.

It gets worse: The city and Port just agreed to pay Fifth Avenue Landing, which controls land behind the Convention Center, more than $33 million if the initiative passes. The city can then expand the Convention Center on that land.

The deal includes a $5 million upfront deposit.

So … does the $5 million get paid if the signature-gathering comes up short? The city’s independent budget analyst identified that as the top scenario in which the city lost the $5 million with nothing to show for it.

But the city attorney thinks the city is fine. The city has 60 days to hand over the money. It should know by then if the measure is qualifying.

“If the measure does not qualify for the ballot, the city would not make the $5.3M deposit,” wrote Hilary Nemchik, the new spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott, in an email. The $5.3 million refers to potential added interest. “The city will know whether the initiative has qualified for the ballot before the deposit is due.”

At that point, the theory is the deal just falls apart, and the partnership that holds the lease can pursue the hotel it has planned for the spot.

There’s only one problem: The other side doesn’t see it that way.

A spokeswoman for Fifth Avenue Landing, Rachel Laing, said the group, in all cases, is owed $5.3 million.

This Week in Podcasting

Are you having trouble following the legal ins and outs of the controversy surrounding immigrants and asylum-seekers being separated from their children after crossing the border? We explained everything in a podcast this week, along with a rundown of several big stories this week.

Christian Ramirez Knocks on Runoff Door

Christian Ramirez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As the number of remaining uncounted ballots dwindles at the Registrar of Voters, one race could still be too close to call.

The District 8 City Council race in San Diego looked to be set on Election Night, with Vivian Moreno and Antonio Martinez solidly in the top two spots.

But since then, as late mail-in and provisional ballots are counted, Christian Ramirez has surged. As of Thursday, he was only 29 votes away from Martinez.

There are only 5,800 votes left to count in the whole county. Very few of them will be in District 8. He only gained three votes after Thursday, when the remaining count was 8,000. So add the one, divided by four, carry the six, minus mild innumeracy and journalist math and it looks like he’s probably going to come up short. But it could be a photo finish.

Will Gov. Brown Save County Election Reform?

As of Friday, a bill was sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, written by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, that’s meant to clarify his bill last year that paved the way for reforms to how the county of San Diego elects its leaders.

Quick review: In 2016, San Diego voters approved a measure to require runoffs for all city elections. It had the practical effect this year of forcing Councilman Chris Cate to a November runoff even though he got more than 50 percent in the primary. Four years ago, that would have been enough for him to win outright.

Now, enabled by Gloria’s law, signature-gatherers collected about 103,000 to put a measure on the ballot to make the same change at the county level. (Were it in place, the sheriff, district attorney and assessor’s races would have gone to a runoff this year instead of being resolved in the primary this month.)

The fail: Registrar of Voters Michael Vu said, however, that 103,000 signatures was just not enough. He actually read Gloria’s bill, and it seemed pretty clear that it required signatures from 10 percent of all voters in the county, not just 10 percent of people who voted in the last election. That would require more than 160,000 signatures.

Vu rejected the signatures. And that attracted some very accusatory comments from David Lagstein, political director of the county’s largest labor union — and lead sponsor of the petition — SEIU 221.

Lagstein backed off a bit after seeing Vu’s comments to the Union-Tribune that he would consider the new law if it was signed. Lagstein this week told us he was more optimistic.

The fix: Gloria’s bill to “clarify the intent” of his original bill passed through the Legislature this week. It would make sure the threshold needed was only 10 percent of voters in the last election, about 68,000 signatures.

The detractor: One of the supporters, for a while, of Gloria’s original bill was former legislator Steve Peace. He disputed the idea that the new bill is correcting some kind of mistake.

Quite the contrary, Peace said.

Steve Peace / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

“I believe everybody fully understood the threshold at the time the legislation (was) approved. It was discussed, debated and I don’t believe anyone was of the view that the threshold was lower,” he said.

After all, the law was meant to clarify something that wasn’t entirely clear: whether citizens could change the county’s government’s elections with a ballot initiative. Peace said it would be ridiculous to think the authors of the bill weren’t clear of exactly what each line of it meant.

Our Sara Libby graciously watched the hearings from last year on the measure and didn’t see anything debated about how many signatures were needed.

If the governor signs the measure, it sounds like Vu will change his mind but supporters won’t want him to wait much longer.

Andrew Keatts will be back next week. Send any ideas or feedback you have to scott@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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