July 13 2016 01:30 PM

San Diego City Council gets cranky

San Diego Councilmembers Mark Kersey, Scott Sherman, and Chris Cate came ready for a fight Monday
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

Ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets.

-- Abraham Lincoln

While Major League Baseball’s power elite belted soft pitches out of Petco Park Monday night during the pre-All-Star-Game’s Home Run Derby, the San Diego City Council was ensconced in its own marathon bash-fest.

In the span of time it would take to play a doubleheader, the council swatted its way through a barrage of proposed ballot measures for the November general election. While the session began friendly enough, the evening eventually morphed into a bench-clearing skirmish that left participants and observers shaking their heads.

“So that was interesting,” tweeted Councilmember Chris Cate afterwards along with the hashtag #excitingcityhallmeetings.

Last weekend, Cate and Republican colleagues Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman ventured to Fiesta Island to participate in the 63rd annual OMBAC World Championship Over-the-Line Tournament under the G-rated team moniker of “The Bald and the Beautiful.” That team spirit seemed to carry over into Monday’s deliberations.

While the council concurred unanimously on a variety of ballot measures that would alter the city’s charter—from requiring the city attorney to be an actual attorney to new rules for removing badly behaving city officials—that unanimity wore off as the evening progressed.

Both Cate and Sherman opposed a ballot measure that would place a city tax on recreational marijuana, should state voters approve one of the anticipated 17 statewide propositions heading for the November ballot.

The proposal, put forth by Kersey, would add a local tax of 5 percent of gross receipts on recreational-pot sales, rising to 8 percent after two years but leaving the door open for future councils to increase that to 15 percent. The tax would not apply to medicinal marijuana sales. Kersey said he worried that approving recreational pot sales would place a “costly unfunded mandate” on the city, particularly for law enforcement.

Sherman said he was concerned where a “special San Diego-only” tax like this might lead on other products “we decide we probably don’t like,” such as on alcohol, cigars or “gas-guzzling SUVs.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Sherman said.

The Over-the-Line trio also lined up against outgoing councilmember Marti Emerald’s Firehouse Bond measure, which would raise property taxes over 30 years by $5 per $100,000 in assessed valuation to construct 18 new fire stations throughout the city in an effort to lower response times, particularly in underserved communities.

The measure will require a two-thirds vote of the electorate, but to do nothing, Emerald implored, would be the equivalent of “playing Russian Roulette with public safety.”

Councilmember David Alvarez, a strong proponent of the measure, said the estimated $205 million the bond measure could yield would go a long way toward protecting “people who are most vulnerable” in communities that don’t benefit from development fees in wealthier neighborhoods that help pay for new stations.

Opponents hooked into the concern that the bond measure would only cover construction of the stations, not staffing them, which is estimated to cost between $23 million and $27 million a year.

Perhaps it was that insensitivity to the plight of poorer neighborhoods that started the council’s slide into acrimony as the evening wore on.

Next up was a ballot proposal to require that citizen initiatives and referendums be placed on November ballots rather than in June to maximize voter participation.

Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, told the council that overall voter involvement during general elections doubles, triples for people of color and increases fivefold for young voters compared to June participation.

Campaign strategies for primary elections tend to focus their attention on high-propensity voters. Outreach typically intensifies during a general election.

Councilmember Sherman blasted the proposal, arguing that fatigued voters already have a difficult time “making an informed decision” when ballots are weighed down with so many voter initiatives.

Sherman and Kersey also were skeptical that some residents may not be aware of June primary elections. “Elections are scheduled. We know what our duty is,” Sherman said.

Kersey agreed, adding, “Come on, that’s just not serious.”

Republican councilmembers also objected to a perceived rush to get the measure on the ballot—Councilmember Lorie Zapf remarked breathlessly, “This just went to Rules [Committee] three weeks ago!”—although they refrained from making similar comments about Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s approved November ballot measure to extend from 2039 to 2069 a 2008 measure that diverts lease revenues from Mission Bay Park to pay for improvements there and at other regional parks, which Faulconer announced just two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, the measure was approved 5-4 for the November ballot, with councilmembers voting along party lines. Then the fireworks really amped up when discussion turned to a proposal by the Independent Voter Project to require November runoffs for the toptwo contenders in races for mayor, city attorney and City Council.

Since the late ’80s, the city has permitted candidates who receive more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary election to claim victory, thus avoiding a November runoff when more voters participate.

Local Republican Party leaders, most notably party chairman Tony Krvaric, have labeled the Independent Voter Project as a “corporate front group,” but on Monday Sherman accused the organization of fronting for organized labor, arguing that proponents sought to “change the rules to get the outcome I want” and creating an advantage for “candidates with union-boss backing.”

Councilmember Cate grilled a stunned Jeff Marston, co-chairman of the IVP, about the proposal, using a press release that Marston later said was incorrect in claiming that a majority of California cities employ the top-two system.

“It’s strange because Chris was very cordial when I met with him a couple weeks ago,” Marston said later. “This has nothing to do with increasing turnout. November is simply when most people vote. That’s indisputable. Will campaign strategists have to change their playbook? Yes.”

The council eventually voted again along party lines to send the matter to voters in November.

What likely won’t be on the November ballot, however, is a proposal from Californians Aware that would make government business conducted on private communication devices accessible through the state Public Records Act.

Councilmembers, with the exception of Alvarez and an apparent vote-counting Todd Gloria, snubbed the ballot measure as former Councilmember Donna Frye, president of CalAware, battled for the long-sought requirement.

Sherman went off the rails, suggesting that the public would suddenly be reading emails from his wife and children, but the Golden Raspberry for the day goes to Council President Sherri Lightner, who Frye said has been particularly reticent to docket the ballot measure for discussion.

Lightner claimed that the city would have to meet and confer with city labor unions before giving the measure its blessing, but Frye sent along an email from City Attorney Jan Goldsmith disputing that.

“The proper process for moving this matter to the city council is to notice it for discussion and direction to our office, not solely for meet and confer,” Goldsmith wrote Lightner in late June.

“Jan did a terrific job,” Frye said. “Clearly, the majority of the council does not want this to see the light of day.”

On this matter, the public unfortunately struck out.


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