Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
San Diego County Taxpayers Association President Haney Hong and local Democratic Party Chairwoman Francine Busby share a fence-sitting moment.
When it comes to big-ticket-item decision-making, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer rewrote the book on indecisiveness, decorating the practice with glittery baubles of alleged earnestness, attention to detail and midnight-oil-burning analysis.
The expenditure of political capital on risky pursuits—the garlic necklace for most career-seeking office holders—seems particularly rare here in America's Sunniest Hamlet under the guidance of our recently re-elected fence-sitter-in-chief.
Local Republicans, save for a kooky few, have twisted themselves into tight pretzels trying to avoid public allegiance to their presidential nominee with the garish dome of hair and impulsive yap.
In these most polarizing of political times, pundits and pollsters obsess over the desires of the undecideds, those who see gray in a world presented to them as black and white.
But in recent weeks, the hemming and hawing has been observed traveling down ticket locally, into the voids particularly crafted by the mayor's shrieking silence on two major ballot measures facing voters in November.
Spin, of course, is talking about Measures C and D, competing visions for the future of tourism-tax spending in San Diego that share one thing in common: They're both freaking out the Guardians of the Status Quo.
Last week, the influential San Diego County Taxpayers Association announced it was opposing both measures.
On Measure C, the association was unequivocal in its disdain for the San Diego Chargers-drafted initiative that would boost the local hotel tax to 16.5 percent from its current 10.5 percent (not including hoteliers' 2 percent tourism-promotion surcharge) to pay a significant portion of the tab for a $1.8 billion combination stadium/convention annex in downtown's East Village.
"The Chargers proposal would put the City of San Diego's general fund at significant risk," the association argued in a 36-page analysis, which concluded that financing would fall $400 million short.
The Chargers immediately tossed a red flag on the field, calling the conclusion an "inside job" by project foes friendly with the association. But at least the taxpayers group didn't waver in its opposition. Haney Hong, the group's president, told reporters the analysis was "more than fair, and in fact gives the Chargers the benefit of the doubt." He noted that the Chargers refused to meet with the group.
But it was a slightly more circuitous route to the group's nixing of Measure D, the Citizens' Plan initiative led by activist attorney Cory Briggs and former city councilmember Donna Frye.
Spin Cycle obtained a copy of the initial draft of the association's report on that ballot measure, which would raise the hotel tax to 15.5 percent and, among other things, create pathways for a stadium/convention amalgam downtown if the team and hoteliers (through self-assessment) agree to pay for it, while also prohibiting a bayfront expansion of the San Diego Convention Center.
On the summary sheet, the staff recommendation—"NO POSITION"—is clearly noted in bold letters. "Because SDCTA does not historically weigh in on land use decisions (a significant portion of this proposal), staff recommends no position on the measure," a paragraph explaining the rationale on the same page concluded.
The association staff clearly saw some positives, including "the potential to bring in a minimum of $17.6 million annually to the City of San Diego" and "valuable restrictions on the amounts of public funding that can be used in the construction of a non-contiguous convention center expansion...and stadium (no public subsidy), making it potentially worthy of support from SDCTA."
The problems as noted in the summary, however, include blocking the waterfront convention center expansion, which the association supports, and creating "significant restrictions on elected officials' use of relevant land by requiring future changes to return to the voters."
Hong, who was traveling, was brief in his remarks to Spin about the board's rejection of neutrality on the measure. "The board voted to oppose, and staff supports the board's decision. Thanks for the inquiry," he wrote in an email.
Briggs, however, was not shy about sharing his thoughts about the draft report, which he said "shows the cozy insider relationship between the leadership of an organization that claims to be a 'taxpayer watchdog' and the politicians and hoteliers who've been fleecing the taxpayers with illegal taxes not put to the voters for approval."
That reference is to the long-festering legal war Briggs has fought with the city and Tourism Marketing District over the legality of the 2 percent tourism-promotion fee hoteliers voted to impose years ago.
Briggs lambasted the association's "lingering support for a convention-center tax shot down by the courts two years ago, coupled with the desire to avoid having to get future voter approval."
While he called the reasoning "alarming," Briggs labeled the association boardís quick dismissal of the "no-position" recommendation "most revealing."
"It'll be hard for the organization's staff to persuade the public that its office isn't just an extension of the TMD and/or convention center board rooms," Briggs scoffed.
But the taxpayers group wasn't the only one grappling with neutrality last week. The Central Committee of the San Diego County Democratic Party last week also weighed in on recommendations for the two measures.
While a special committee urged party faithful to oppose Measure D, the Citizens' Plan actually gained the endorsement of Central Committee members, attendees told Spin. And while a similar "no" vote was encouraged for Measure C, party Chairwoman Francine Busby managed to shepherd a "no position" by declining to vote herself when one vote would have pushed the measure into the opposition category. Some observers viewed the move as a nod to the party's building-trade members, who back the Chargers initiative.
"I don't comment on our votes." Busby told Spin, who reminded her she did just that back in the day when the party struggled to push former mayor Bob Filner into resigning.
Perhaps Alex Haley said it best: "Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help."