/Politics Report: Down Goes One Hot-Button Ballot Measure

Politics Report: Down Goes One Hot-Button Ballot Measure

Carol Kim is political director of the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The City Council has until the end of the month to finalize which measures will appear on the November ballot, but we can already say that voters won’t have to weight in on one potential measure this year.

A union-backed proposal to partially undo a city law restricting union-friendly contracts will have to wait for another election.

The San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council had been pushing the measure, with support from Council Democrats, to walk back a 2012 initiative that barred San Diego from requiring so-called project labor agreements – deals in which contractors agree to hire through union halls and pay certain wages and benefits and unions guarantee enough labor to finish the job – on city projects.

Since 2012, the state passed two laws intended to block state funds going to cities with such restrictions in place. San Diego has never lost state funds because of its ban, but the threat has loomed over its proposal to build a massive water recycling project that is only feasible with state money.

Tuesday, the Council was poised to vote to put the measure on the ballot. At the last minute, Council President Georgette Gómez said Councilman Chris Ward was working with Building Trades to make some changes to the measure, and wanted to send it back to city staff to make them happen.

KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen then reported that the state’s Building and Construction Trades Council sent a letter to the city informing it that the proposed measure wouldn’t fix the city’s issues with state funds. Since the measure specified that new PLAs would require apprenticeships, include community benefit provisions and exempt disadvantaged businesses, the city would still run afoul of state law, Scott Kronland, a Building Trades lawyer, wrote.

But that still left Ward, city staff and Building Trades two more weeks to see if they could strike a deal and put the measure on the November ballot. That’s not happening.

Carol Kim, political director for the San Diego Building Trades, said they were unable to finalize a measure in time.

“We’re disappointed San Diegans won’t get a chance to vote on the measure this year, but we are committed to working with a new Council and new mayor to qualify an initiative to safeguard San Diego’s state funding for a future ballot,” she wrote in a text message.

SANDAG’s Board Is Still Fighting Over Its Newish Voting Process

SANDAG board members protesting the agency’s voting procedure last week staged a protest, and nearly succeeded in depriving the agency of a quorum and denying it the right to make decisions.

But as the old cliché goes, close doesn’t count in procedural gamesmanship within regional planning agencies adopting state-mandated housing needs assessments.

The agency was finalizing the number of homes it would let developers build within the next eight years – a state requirement that has failed to actually produce more housing for 50 years. Coronado, Solana Beach, Imperial Beach and Lemon Grove wanted to ask for permission to make way for fewer homes.

A board majority sided with them. But at SANDAG, a few cities representing more than half of the county’s population can overrule the rest of the board. Carlsbad, Chula Vista, San Diego, Del Mar, Encinitas and National City did just that.

The weighted vote has been controversial at SANDAG ever since Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez passed the law allowing it in 2017.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of rumors that board members who oppose the law – mostly from smaller, rural, northern or conservative jurisdictions – would walk out of a meeting en masse. If more than half of the board leaves a meeting, the remaining members would be legally barred from taking any actions.

Last week, they finally did it.

“The weighted vote mechanism of this board is broken and threatens the credibility of the SANDAG organization,” said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey. “So I will be exiting the meeting prior to casting a vote as a last-ditch effort to stand up for those 1.5 million residents and I encourage all other board members interested in a collaborative and functional SANDAG to exit as well in protest.”

Seven other board members left with Bailey – all Republicans, and Escondido’s Democratic Mayor Paul McNamara. That was one shy of depriving the board of a quorum. Representatives from Imperial Beach and Lemon Grove, both Democrats, were among the four cities asking for lower numbers, but they stayed at the meeting and voted against the measure. If either one of them had left instead, they could have thwarted the board’s vote.

Bailey’s argument, though, raises the fundamental dispute over the agency’s voting mechanism. He and his allies regard the weighted vote as undemocratic, because five cities voting yes carried more influence than 13 cities voting no.

But his own statement elides the counterargument. He said the weighted vote disenfranchises over 1 million residents represented by those board members. The five yes votes represented a total population of 1.9 million residents, or 59 percent of the county’s 3.3 million people. Are voters disenfranchised if they vote for a candidate who gets only 41 percent of the vote, or did they just lose?

“I find it interesting that people are blaming AB 805 for decisions that a weighted vote does make, when there’s been decades of decisions that have silenced communities like mine, or discriminated against,” said National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the weighted vote is a “clearly legitimate” way to represent county residents.

“It is weighted more heavily to cities that have more people,” she said. “You could look at it as saying is the House of Representatives less fair than the Senate, where the Senate has two seats for every state no matter the population?”

  • Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina steered clear of the procedural dispute over SANDAG’s decision-making, but had harsh words for state officials pushing the housing mandate, and called on them to give his city more money to build housing reserved for low-income residents. “Paper plans mean nothing, and dollars and cents invested in a community mean everything,” he said. “We’re glad to do our fair share, as long as the sanctimonious housing advocates in Sacramento, who are great at doing Twitter and talking about how much housing we need, spend some money to invest in our communities. Because the fact is, they’re not doing anything for us.”

Last-Minute Addition Complicates November Housing Bond

San Diego voters will get a chance to vote on a $900 million affordable housing bond in November three years after housing advocates first began pushing for the proposed property-tax hike.

The City Council’s Democratic majority on Tuesday voted to place the measure on the ballot that, if approved, is expected to increase property taxes to just under $21 per $100,000 of assessed valuation over a seven-year period to help fund 7,500 homes for low-income and homeless San Diegans.

But Council President Georgette Gómez and Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who have both consistently supported the bond, expressed some squeamishness over economic uncertainties facing San Diego homeowners who might pay the tax and a last-minute addition to the measure before voting to send it to the ballot anyway.

The measure now promises that if the bond passes, the City Council must within three months vote on a plan to give market-rate developers a yet-to-be detailed credit for construction of affordable housing or payment of the city inclusionary or linkage fees, which help fund construction of affordable units.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, representatives for the Building Industry Association and the local chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association emphasized the importance of the credit for property owners likely to see substantial higher tax bills despite already mandated investments in in affordable housing. Both said their organizations had not endorsed the measure but appreciated the addition.

“The bond language before you today contains language that is the product of serious discussions to set up a process by which property owners who have already provided affordable housing by either building it or paying fees are not unfairly burdened to pay it again,” said Matthew Adams of the Building Industry Association.

Gómez last year pushed forward reforms to affordable housing policies meant to encourage those developers to invest more in more low-income housing development and acknowledged Tuesday that the language unsettled her. Yet she decided she could depend on future City Councils to hash out the details.

“Obviously, that’s something I worked on significantly so I’m still grappling with that outcome of that but obviously, that’s something that the future Council members are going to figure out how to address and how to implement,” Gómez said.

Montgomery said she wanted to ensure the City Council – which by then will have five new members – keeps close tabs on the impact of that addition on affordable housing production throughout the city.

Stephen Russell of the San Diego Housing Federation, whose organization has rallied behind the measure, and a spokesman for City Councilman Chris Ward, who championed the bond through the city process, said Friday that their goal in adding the language was to ensure the campaign engaged key stakeholders in the building industry about a measure that will require substantial support to pass.

Both also emphasized that the bond measure could ultimately deliver far more funds for affordable housing than the city’s existing programs even with the promised tax credit.

The goal in adding the new language, Russell said, was to acknowledge what developers are already delivering and create the space for more substantive conversation if the measure passes.

Russell and Ansermio Estrada, a spokesman for Ward, emphasized that builders’ support isn’t certain.

“I don’t know if they will take a support/oppose position, but as was needed during the inclusionary housing update vote, we know engaging a broad base of voices was key to its ultimate passage,” Estrada wrote in an email to VOSD.

— Lisa Halverstadt

The Room Where it Happens: Election Security 101

In last week’s Politics Report, VOSD contributor and extremely tall person Randy Dotinga chatted with Michael Vu, the local registrar of voters, about how the upcoming election will be mighty peculiar. Among other things, we’ll say goodbye, at least temporarily, to voting in the garages of our neighbors. That means no more jealous peering at workbenches and power tools. And we’ll no longer need to find those elusive things called stamps – ask your parents, kids! – in order to mail a ballot.

As we noted, there’s another twist: Since more of us will be voting by mail, the registrar can start counting ballots 29 days ahead of the election instead of 14 days. A reader’s query got us to thinking: How do they make sure the results don’t leak out early? We put Dotinga back on the case, and here’s what he found out:

1. The Boss Doesn’t Have a Key to Counting Room

Until 29 days before the election on Nov. 3, the registrar of voters can’t open mail ballots that arrive. It can only look at the signatures on the envelopes and make sure they appear to be valid. Then, when we hit the trigger date in October, registrar workers can open up envelopes and pull out ballots (machines help with this process) and scan them.

The scanning happens in a tabulation room that’s accessible only to a few workers. And none of those people are the registrar of voters himself – Michael Vu.

“Although I could have access, I intentionally choose not to,” he said. “In all honesty, there is no reason for me to have access all of the time.  As part of any physical security approach, controlling access reduces risk. In this case, limiting the number of people who have access to only those who most need it to do their work provides another layer of protection.”

2. Cameras, and Computers, Are Watching Closely

There are physical logs of who enters the tabulation room, and cameras record who comes and goes, Vu said. “When we designed the Registrar of Voters building, cameras were placed throughout with a focus around highly sensitive areas. Keeps everyone honest.”

The computers themselves have passwords, and they track who uses them and what they do. No one is supposed to tell the system to start spitting out results until 8 p.m. on Election Night. If they do, the computer logs this, Vu said, and “we would be able to check if there are any concerns.”

3. There’s a Price to Pay for Peeking

Hypothetical: Let’s say a cabal of nefarious registrar workers decides to look at the mail ballot results early for some reason by triggering the compilation process. They’d be breaking the law, Vu said, “which comes with consequences.” He calls that “a good deterrent.”

4. You Can Watch the Process in Action

“The pre-Election Day ballot processing is wrapped around a robust set of procedures and processes that is much more complex than one would imagine unless they came and saw it for themselves,” Vu said. “Although we are in a pandemic and the public should heed guidance on social distancing, the process is transparent and they have the right to come and observe it. In fact, we post a notice each election on our website to inform the public of the opportunity and the timeframe in which it occurs.”

OK, everybody, altogether now: Registrar road trip!

— Randy Dotinga