It can't be easy being Scott Peters these days. The District 1 councilman has been busy of late trying to sound, well, engaged in the planning of San Diego's future. But there's the matter of a little ol' recall effort that jusat won't go away.
At a quarterly city forum held last week to discuss the topic “Economic Prosperity for All: How Do We Get There?” Peters allowed attendees a glimpse of his inner workings, such as they are. “If you don't like something, I always tell people who work for me, don't tell me you don't like it-tell me the solution,” he told a crowd of about 50 residents.
He chided folks who might see worth in criticizing local government as a maze of relationships, both good and bad, leading to litany of bad choices. “If you want to see a good government, treat it like a child,” he continued. “I give three compliments for every criticism.... And that's not necessarily because the kid deserves it, but because you want to elevate the kid's behavior. I suggest we do the same thing with our government.”
Well, even if we could drum up three things on which to give the city props-no easy task in the Season of Dwindling Dollars-it hardly makes much sense to treat a bunch of adults at City Hall like schoolyard brats who only need a little TLC to become little Einsteins.
What we came away with from that forum was this: San Diego needs to find its guts, its moral compass and its common sense if it wants to join the club of notable cities. Even Peters acknowledged, against his own curious compass, that “the government we have today disempowers vision and disempowers major changes.”
Peters went so far as to drop this bombshell (at least in terms of normally power-hording council members): “I'd be willing to let go of control over my district, if there's someone who can bring vision.”
Enter Steve Haskins, a resident of Peters' district and a real estate attorney who is fed up with his councilman. As counsel for Citizens for Clean Government: The Committee to Recall Scott Peters, Haskins is leading an uphill battle to unseat Peters, who is up for re-election next year, on the grounds that Peters is essentially leading by his wallet rather than his brain.
“We have some people who are really upset with Scott Peters, mainly that he seems to be beholden to developers,” Haskins told CityBeat this week. “Every big project that comes along, he's pushing it through City Council. Next thing you know, he gets contributions from those developers. He's got over $100,000 from big entities like [Corky] McMillin and some of the others since he got elected. He just appears to be bought off by the land-development interests.”
Yes, it's a familiar cry against the power brokers at City Hall, and not all that original. What makes this effort unique, though, is what Haskins is attempting to do. As CityBeat was heading to press Tuesday, Haskins was set to appear before Judge Napoleon Jones in U.S. District Court seeking to block the city from enforcing what he calls a “sneaky” amendment made in 2000 to San Diego's election laws.
That year, when then-councilman Byron Wear was facing a recall effort, the City Council tinkered with its campaign ordinance by changing the definition of a recall. The council determined that “recalls are not ballot measures,” which is contrary to state law, Haskins said. That dumps recallers into laws governing traditional candidate campaigns, which cannot accept campaign contributions of more than $250 per election from individuals.
While Haskins has no gripe with contribution limits for elections, his group now finds itself in a political Catch-22 very much unlike the recall effort tailing Gov. Gray Davis. “They have something like 90 or 120 days to collect signatures,” he explained. “We only really have 39 days to collect more than 14,000 signatures, and we're only allowed to collect them from people in District 1.”
The squeezed timeframe makes fundraising nearly impossible, coupled with the city's year-2000 definition of a recall. Hence the trip to federal court.
“Our group is only asking the federal court to find that the contribution limits for the signature-gathering portion of a recall are not permissible,” Haskins said. That, he argued, is a violation of the group's First Amendment rights.
“It's clear to us that in Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case, when the public is trying to collect signatures that petitioning is so deeply embedded in the First Amendment-it even has the words, ‘the right to petition the government'-that any restriction on that has to be very limited. Also, it's suspicious in the way that the city changed the law to throw recalls into candidate elections, because the only real thing that comes of that is to make it almost impossible to recall anybody.
“We feel that the City Council should not be able to insulate themselves from recall. We've done research up and down the coast and inland, and we have yet to find one [city] that has that restriction. So far, only San Diego.”
Back at the forum, Peters seemed perturbed by the flak he's received over some of his decisions, from supporting biotech near a school in Torrey Hills, bridge-widening plans along scenic Torrey Pines and massive condo plans in Bird Rock.
“Well, I'm pretty sure I know what we don't want,” he said. “What I need help with is figuring out what we do want and how to make things better.”
Up against a big-shot San Francisco attorney Peters has hired to intervene in the federal case, Haskins still likes his chances. “We all know that corporations, the McMillins, the Pardees, bundle contributions, and we all know that they reimburse their employees for making contributions,” he said. “Citizens can't do that.”