Politics Report: Water Fights | Voice of San Diego

Politics

Politics Report: Water Fights

San Diego has lots of water but the cost of that is causing tensions between the city and Water Authority. Plus, an election is coming so obviously Clairemont has a controversy about housing density. And the GOP comes to town.
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

If you haven’t read MacKenzie Elmer’s piece about steep water rate increases projected by the San Diego County Water Authority, we recommend you correct that. You can click here and it will take you there but don’t forget to come back.

We also explained it thoroughly on the podcast.

In the piece, Elmer took us through how because we’re using less water we will have to pay more. In short, the Water Authority borrowed a lot of money to build things and invest in sources of water that has helped us be more than prepared for the current drought. But we must pay all those people who loaned us money back and no matter how little water we use, their bills don’t change.

The Water Authority projected steep increases year-over-year in what it charges cities and water districts in the region. Those don’t necessarily translate into increases for water rates that regular people pay but, c’mon, obviously they will.

The news: The city of San Diego is pushing back, though. You may not have noticed it but over the last year or two, many of the city’s representatives on the Water Authority board have gotten a little punchy with Water Authority staff. Like on SANDAG, the city has a lot of weight on the board and if it keeps going in this direction, it could mean bigger changes to the Water Authority’s direction.

The city plans, for example, to start recycling much of its wastewater, which will eventually drastically reduce its need for imported water.

Thursday, at the Water Authority board meeting, the city’s representatives pushed for changes to the long-range financing plan that included the rate increase projections. They asked for the agency to include a section in the plan on how this will affect the cost of living for individual rate payers. They asked the agency to back off its plan to use more cash for some of its investments so it doesn’t make current rate payers pay more for things now that future ratepayers also benefit from — the concept known as “intergenerational equity.” And they asked for the staff to consider potential “transfer opportunities” for all the water we have collected. In other words, maybe we can sell some of the liquid gold.

The motion passed but not without some grumbling. We asked Jim Madaffer, who represents the city on the board and supported the motion, whether he senses the city is starting to challenge the Water Authority more than usual.

He did, yes.

“I’m a little frustrated about it. There seems to be a lot of attention on the Water Authority, but the city should be concerned about its own situation. It’s a situation the mayor inherited but the city needs to talk about its own desperately needed rate increases to pay for all its deferred maintenance,” he said.

Jim Madaffer, when he was chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors. / Photo by Megan Wood

Madaffer was chair of the Water Authority board and had a big say in a lot of the things going forward. He said the agency is the envy of the state because of how much water it has access to and stored because of all these investments as we head into what looks like another historic drought.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate has helped lead some of the pushback from the city’s side. He said the city is making a major investment in the recycling of water — sewage rates were adjusted this week with increases for single-family homes. The recycling program is called Pure Water.

“There are more eyes and attention on what’s happening at the Water Authority, absolutely,” he said. “Especially with Pure Water. It’s expensive and if we’re going to have to pay for that project and for heavy increases from the County Water Authority, affordability becomes an issue. We’re going to focus on how we can relieve those pressures with whatever is in our control.”

Another Clairemont Height Limit Issue Looms Over an Election

There’s an election on the horizon, so it’s no surprise city officials are delving into housing development in Clairemont.

In heated City Council races in 2014, 2018 and apparently now in 2022, city planners proposed — or considered proposing, only to decide against it — significant changes to development regulations in the community.

In the past, those changes have been on the community’s western edge, where the San Diego Association of Governments has been building the $2.1 billion Mid-Coast trolley extension, set to open later this year.

That process led to an election-defining race in 2014, when Sarah Boot attempted to leverage constituent dissatisfaction over the proposal to remove the community’s building heighr limit at a Bay Park trolley station (which is different than the coastal height limit, and can be changed without a citywide vote) in her bid to unseat former Councilwoman Lorie Zapf. It didn’t work, politically, but it did blow up that proposal.

Four years later, Zapf actually lost re-election, though almost entirely due to national politics, not local zoning. Still, the city’s plans for Bay Park came up again just weeks before the election, and she asked planners to back off their proposal to waive the height at another trolley station in the community.

They did.

Now, another election is on the horizon. The only open seat this round just happens to have Clairemont, at least for now, mostly in its boundaries.

Redistricting complicates matters this time around. It’s unclear how the community will be handled as the city draws new Council districts, though Clairemont’s desire for the entire community to be part of a single district — rather than split between District 2 and District 6 as it is now — is a major discussion.

However it sorts out, Council President Jen Campbell will be running for re-election, and Councilman Chris Cate’s seat will be open.

The issue: The city is advancing a new Clairemont development plan, one that includes the new trolley stops along Morena, but also stretches east into the rest of the community. City staff expects the City Council to vote on it in the spring.

City planners took the Clairemont plan before the city’s Planning Commission this week for a workshop and heard a different critical message than the one that came from the Council level in the last two election cycles. This time, planning commissioners reprimanded the planners for not making way for more housing and for maintaining the height limit. The city’s in a housing crisis, they said, and the plan doesn’t do enough to combat it.

“Single-family homeowners (in the community) will never be OK with any of this,” said Commissioner James Whalen, according to a play-by-play from local activist Paul Jamason. “But we will never get another dollar of federal transit funding if we do not fully utilize the opportunities of the new trolley.”

Other commissioners had similar things to say, as they directed the city’s planners to buck up, content themselves with disappointing local residents, and propose a more aggressive plan.

GOP Tense as Convention Comes to Town

The California Republican Party began its weekend convention at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Friday with a promise to “take the fight to Democrats.”

But there’s still some fighting inside the Big Tent about what went wrong in last week’s failed recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Radio talk show host Carl DeMaio offered his take in a Twitter thread. In short, conservatives should not listen to anyone in the media (except him?) about what happened. They should not try to be “more like the Democrats” and they should go harder for someone like Larry Elder.

“The fact is the CAGOP endorsed moderates in every election since 2002! They chose to not back a conservative in 2021 — though the grassroots did. How about we try backing a conservative for ONCE and see what happens?” he wrote.

So what: Right, you can just follow Carl if you’re interested in hot takes like this. But what caught our eye was the push back he got from Kevin Faulconer’s team.

Here was Duane Dichiara, a longtime GOP campaign professional:

“Carl DeMaio literally got everything he said would win with Larry Elder. Everything. The DeMaio plan in action didn’t just fail, it left the Democrats stronger, with a massive war chest,” he wrote.

DeMaio had a notorious falling out with many of his political consultant friends and colleagues several years ago. But one of them remained close, Stephen Puetz. But when Elder quoted DeMaio’s accusation that Faulconer had dug up dirt on Elder and gave it to Newsom, Puetz had enough.

“Well that would be a lie. The Recall failed because Q2 (leading replacement candidate) was always going to drive Q1 (Recall) & Larry Elder was an exceptionally flawed candidate that couldn’t possibly appeal to the large chunks of Indys & Dems needed to get 50%+1 in California,” Puetz wrote.

We asked DeMaio for a response and he offered us this insightful take:

“The Voice of San Diego has a habit of writing biased hit pieces riddled with inaccuracies and dedicated to advancing false narratives so we simply don’t bother responding.”

Jokes on you, that’s actually a response.

City Wants to Nail Hughes’ Firm, Too

Our Lisa Halverstadt revealed this week that the city’s 101 Ash St. and Civic Center Plaza landlord privately communicated about how to handle questions from a city finance official as they tried to finalize the first of two city lease deals.

Catch up: A principal at Cisterra Development feared the city’s debt management director might scrutinize “a $1 million buffer” in the company’s numbers if she got an in-depth briefing — and he urged city real estate adviser Jason Hughes to try to smooth things over with a top city manager.

At the time, the only public information we had was that Hughes was volunteering his services to the city. In fact, he had a major interest in the deal getting done.

Cisterra ultimately paid Hughes millions of dollars for work on both city deals, a fact the two have only recently revealed publicly. The terms of those payments were laid out in a previously undisclosed agreement between Hughes’ company and Cisterra pledging that Hughes Marino would receive 45 percent of the developer’s net profits if the Civic Center Plaza deal went through — and cover 45 percent of Cisterra’s upfront deal costs if it didn’t.

It essentially made Hughes a partner in the deal, even though the contract states otherwise.

The news: Revelations about that contract — and another previously undisclosed non-disclosure agreement between Cisterra and Hughes Marino — led attorneys for the city to request that Hughes’ whole high-profile commercial real estate firm be added as a defendant in conflict-of-interest actions the city has pursued to try to void its Civic Center and 101 Ash St. leases.

Hilary Nemchik, a spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott, said the move followed an Aug. 27 subpoena response that provided “the first direct evidence that implicates Hughes Marino, Inc., in addition to Jason Hughes, in violations of state anti-corruption law.”

You can read up on that state anti-corruption law, the city’s legal strategy and why Hughes’ attorney argues the city cases are weak here.

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

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