Referendum: Power Brokers’ New Legislative Tool

Referendum: Power Brokers’ New Legislative Tool

File photo by Sam Hodgson

Jerry Sanders now leads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, one of the business groups unified against the affordable-housing fee.

Business leaders seem to be taking a new tack these days: If they don’t get the City Council outcome they want, force the issue onto the ballot.

In the past few months, they’ve gathered enough signatures to place Barrio Logan’s community plan on the ballot.

And on Wednesday, the group that’s dubbed itself the Jobs Coalition gathered to announce yet another signature drive, this time in hopes of forcing a vote on the affordable housing fee hike.

These efforts come about three years after the City Council reversed course on ordinances that regulated medical marijuana and big-box retail stores amid the threat of referendums.

In each case, voters gathered enough signatures to place the measures on the ballot and the City Council abandoned its previous positions when faced with hefty tabs for the corresponding special elections.

The business group leading the charge on the latest referendum would likely see similar results if not for the city’s new political reality.

For years, the city’s private-sector power-brokers faced a business-friendly City Council majority and ex-Mayor Jerry Sanders, who’s gone onto to lead the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce one of the business groups unified against the affordable-housing fee. The Sanders administration worked closely with business leaders on policy efforts, consulting them early and often.

Now business leaders must try to compromise with an ambitious Democratic City Council majority eager to pass progressive measures. In recent months, they’ve approved a prevailing wage ordinance and the affordable-housing fee hike. They also narrowly passed a Barrio Logan community plan update despite protests that it could threaten the local shipbuilding industry.

After each vote, business leaders responded by kicking off signature-gathering campaigns.

Economic Development Corp. CEO Mark Cafferty openly acknowledged the new tactic on Wednesday.

But Cafferty hedged a bit when I asked whether that means we should expect lots of referendums going forward.

“I hope the answer is no,” he said. “I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say this isn’t the way we want to do policy.”

Cafferty argued the Jobs Coalition proceeded with signature-gathering efforts based on the issues at hand. They’re concerned some maritime firms might bail on the city based on changes in the Barrio Logan plan and that businesses may be dissuaded from expanding or relocating to San Diego because of the affordable-housing fee hike. They’re worried about losing jobs.

“I think that it’s really to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to ensure that we either have an opportunity to kind of change the direction this is going in or get to a place where we can eliminate it,” he said, specifically referring to the fee increase.

Sanders, the former mayor, struck a similar tone. He said business leaders aren’t waiting for other opportunities to pounce. For now, they’re simply focused on two issues they oppose.

Sanders emphasized that referendums don’t come cheap. They’re a last resort.

“The referendum process is certainly not the preferred process because it costs a lot of money,” Sanders said. “It costs the business community a lot of money.”

Cafferty and Sanders say their group tried to compromise and negotiate unsuccessfully. Supporters of the Barrio Logan plan and the affordable-housing fee hike, of course, think otherwise. They criticize business leaders for attempting to take a wrecking ball to policies approved by a City Council majority.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who supports both the fee increase and the Barrio Logan plan, said the right to refer measures to the ballot is crucial but is concerned moneyed interests have the resources to speak louder than San Diegans who rely on affordable-housing programs or Barrio Logan residents who worked on the new community plan.

Referendums favor groups with the resources to spread their message.

“It’s a process by which it’s easier for people that have a large bankroll,” Frye said.

Interim mayor Todd Gloria compared the referendum attempts to Washington D.C. theatrics.

“This is similar in terms of frustration levels with Washington D.C. where you could have a minority, member, a minority of representatives, able to take the entire body and hold up democratic policy making,” Gloria told me Wednesday. “It seems like this is a localized version of that where, again, a small group (has) the ability to stop these efforts and that’s frustrating, that’s disappointing and it shouldn’t be encouraged. I hope that the voters will respond accordingly.”

Gloria previously voted to overturn city ordinances under the threat of expensive public votes, including an ordinance for big-box stores that he wrote. Both votes came in 2011, when the city faced more significant financial woes.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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26 comments
SaltonSeaSalvage
SaltonSeaSalvage

Brewster sums up the problem with placing issues on the ballot. These petition handlers are just above the homeless pan handler. With slightly less ethics. However not all have the power of a strong grassroots operation like a Donna Fry has.

Do we rally need a special election mandate? Let the voter be informed on a ballot sampler. Barrio Logan community plan. The pro the con. Who are the supporters, etc. Most of the issues can wait for a general election.

Robert Parkinson
Robert Parkinson

I'd propose ending the practice of paying people to gather signatures on petitions. This form of bribery insures the continuing hijacking of the initiative process by the highest bidders. I've often been approached by the same people asking me to sign multiple petitions on my way in and out of shopping. They'll say anything to get as many signatures as they can for each petition for the money. More than a few propositions have made it to the ballot by signatures gathered from folks who were intentionally misinformed on the petitions intent. Then supporters get the opportunity to use their money funneled into friendly sounding organizations to drown out the opposition with cleverly marketed ads.

Robert Parkinson
Robert Parkinson subscriber

I'd propose ending the practice of paying people to gather signatures on petitions. This form of bribery insures the continuing hijacking of the initiative process by the highest bidders. I've often been approached by the same people asking me to sign multiple petitions on my way in and out of shopping. They'll say anything to get as many signatures as they can for each petition for the money. More than a few propositions have made it to the ballot by signatures gathered from folks who were intentionally misinformed on the petitions intent. Then supporters get the opportunity to use their money funneled into friendly sounding organizations to drown out the opposition with cleverly marketed ads.

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot

I'd like to propose that referenda and propositions be restricted to general election ballots, except under narrow exceptions. Removes some of the leverage of moneyed interests while preserving the process and outcomes will better align with will of population (higher turnout).

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot subscriber

I'd like to propose that referenda and propositions be restricted to general election ballots, except under narrow exceptions. Removes some of the leverage of moneyed interests while preserving the process and outcomes will better align with will of population (higher turnout).

Lucas OConnor
Lucas OConnor

All that money isn't enough to win council races, so this is all that's left. After all, what good is democracy if you can't buy it?

Lucas OConnor
Lucas OConnor subscriber

All that money isn't enough to win council races, so this is all that's left. After all, what good is democracy if you can't buy it?

Mike
Mike

This fight is more of an ideological fight rather than a financial concern. Don't forget guys, it's only 1.5%. It's nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ask any one of our big developers in town what is their average construction overrun cost.

Thinking about this whole "job creator" talk, maybe we should consider what kinds of jobs are being created. Should Walmart pay the 1.5% fee for low income housing? What kinds of jobs will be created by opening a new Walmart? On the other hand, if Qualcomm opens a new facility, should they pay more or less than Walmart? Is it even fair to make such distinctions? Right now, the rules do make distinctions (I remember it was 4 categories), but is that the best thing to do?

Speaking of Qualcomm, are they joining in on the referendum drive? I vaguely remember a certain former mayoral candidate saying they can afford it.

Mike
Mike subscriber

This fight is more of an ideological fight rather than a financial concern. Don't forget guys, it's only 1.5%. It's nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ask any one of our big developers in town what is their average construction overrun cost.

Thinking about this whole "job creator" talk, maybe we should consider what kinds of jobs are being created. Should Walmart pay the 1.5% fee for low income housing? What kinds of jobs will be created by opening a new Walmart? On the other hand, if Qualcomm opens a new facility, should they pay more or less than Walmart? Is it even fair to make such distinctions? Right now, the rules do make distinctions (I remember it was 4 categories), but is that the best thing to do?

Speaking of Qualcomm, are they joining in on the referendum drive? I vaguely remember a certain former mayoral candidate saying they can afford it.

Grammie
Grammie

San Diego is now in a rush to join the rest of the State in becoming the most business unfriendly State in the Nation. There are still some who want to save us from ourselves, but they are maligned by those who believe that only government can solve all problems.
If continuing in the present trajectory leads to ultimate bankruptcy,by all means continue. There is plenty of precedent to validate this contention.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Don't blame the companies for expensive elections. They didn't ask to require tens of thousands of signatures just to put something on the ballot, creating a democracy that favors the wealthy. Once again, this problem was caused, and is perpetuated, by our legislators.

"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." --Ronald Reagan

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Don't blame the companies for expensive elections. They didn't ask to require tens of thousands of signatures just to put something on the ballot, creating a democracy that favors the wealthy. Once again, this problem was caused, and is perpetuated, by our legislators.

"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." --Ronald Reagan

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

A Shake down is a shake down. .
The business community sees it that way and feel they will fare better bring the issue before the voters
and that the voters will see it for what it is.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

A Shake down is a shake down. .
The business community sees it that way and feel they will fare better bring the issue before the voters
and that the voters will see it for what it is.

Joe O'Keefe
Joe O'Keefe

It begs the question; Is it better for the people of San Diego to have well paying jobs or pay to house those who can't find well paying jobs? The logic pretty much tells us that without the businesses that generate the money to pay for these types of social programs they cannot be funded. So on the surface if the boost to the Affordable Housing Fee causes a business not to upgrade their office/place of business or even open in SD then it's a loss for all concerned. If the stories that I have read are true and there simply isn't enough money to build enough "affordable housing" even with the hike then we have to generate the money someplace else. When its all said and done the "business interests" have the same rights the we do. If they want to make it so expensive for the city to enact this legislation then they can and should probably do so. It is time for all of us to be responsible for ourselves and not expect the government to provide for us.

Joe O'Keefe
Joe O'Keefe subscriber

It begs the question; Is it better for the people of San Diego to have well paying jobs or pay to house those who can't find well paying jobs? The logic pretty much tells us that without the businesses that generate the money to pay for these types of social programs they cannot be funded. So on the surface if the boost to the Affordable Housing Fee causes a business not to upgrade their office/place of business or even open in SD then it's a loss for all concerned. If the stories that I have read are true and there simply isn't enough money to build enough "affordable housing" even with the hike then we have to generate the money someplace else. When its all said and done the "business interests" have the same rights the we do. If they want to make it so expensive for the city to enact this legislation then they can and should probably do so. It is time for all of us to be responsible for ourselves and not expect the government to provide for us.

Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn

Seems to me if big business is going to try and override the elected government, they should have to pay all of the election costs for their referendums.

Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn subscriber

Seems to me if big business is going to try and override the elected government, they should have to pay all of the election costs for their referendums.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

San Diego has historically been run by a Republican leaning, business friendly council. The electorate has morphed and the city council with it. That is unlikely to change in the future. Now, a constituency used to getting its way is facing a declining ability to do so and is very mad about it. As Mr. Gloria alludes, this harkens to some of the Washington issues where extremists won’t even consider compromise.

The Barrio Logan action by city council was indeed a compromise in which both sides were less than ecstatic by the compromise. Indeed, some Barrio Logan advocates unwisely lashed out at Mr. Alvarez. But that’s the concept of compromise. Nobody gets everything they want. That’s new and jolting for those who were so used to get everything they wanted.

There is another aspect to this that may be at play. In both the Barrio Logan case and this one, the candidates for mayor will be on either side of the issue. Thus these referenda may be viewed by some of the proponents as a way to highlight the difference between the candidates as the election looms. Discussion of the referenda may be a get out the vote tactic in and of itself -- something of a shadow campaign.

It must be frustrating, when you are used to always getting your way, to be faced with an imperative to compromise. But as Speaker John Boehner said today about the tea party folks in light of their unwillingness to compromise, “… frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility.”

That’s not the case in San Diego for this constituency yet, but it may well move in that direction. Who wants to discuss issues with someone who will only insist on the validity of their own point of view and who will take their toys and go home if they don’t get their way? Childish stuff this.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

San Diego has historically been run by a Republican leaning, business friendly council. The electorate has morphed and the city council with it. That is unlikely to change in the future. Now, a constituency used to getting its way is facing a declining ability to do so and is very mad about it. As Mr. Gloria alludes, this harkens to some of the Washington issues where extremists won’t even consider compromise.

The Barrio Logan action by city council was indeed a compromise in which both sides were less than ecstatic by the compromise. Indeed, some Barrio Logan advocates unwisely lashed out at Mr. Alvarez. But that’s the concept of compromise. Nobody gets everything they want. That’s new and jolting for those who were so used to get everything they wanted.

There is another aspect to this that may be at play. In both the Barrio Logan case and this one, the candidates for mayor will be on either side of the issue. Thus these referenda may be viewed by some of the proponents as a way to highlight the difference between the candidates as the election looms. Discussion of the referenda may be a get out the vote tactic in and of itself -- something of a shadow campaign.

It must be frustrating, when you are used to always getting your way, to be faced with an imperative to compromise. But as Speaker John Boehner said today about the tea party folks in light of their unwillingness to compromise, “… frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility.”

That’s not the case in San Diego for this constituency yet, but it may well move in that direction. Who wants to discuss issues with someone who will only insist on the validity of their own point of view and who will take their toys and go home if they don’t get their way? Childish stuff this.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Parkinson: I agree with this point of view. Alas, the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that this practice cannot be banned (see Paid v. Volunteer Petitioners below). This year California Assemblymember Fong introduced legislation that would have required at least 20% of signature gatherers be volunteers and it was approved by the Legislature, but vetoed by the Governor. A link to that bill is below (Bill Text).Paid vs. Volunteer Petitionershttp://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/paid-vs-volunteer-petitioners.aspxUpdated June 17, 2010 Professional signature gathering has long been a part of initiative politics. Paid signature gatherers were common in both California and Oregon in the early 1900s. Banning paid signature gatherers was an idea that came about ea...Bill Texthttp://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140AB857(1) The California Constitution and existing statutory law provide for the electors to propose statutes or amendments to the Constitution by initiative. Existing law authorizes a person who is a voter or who is qualified to register to vote in Califo...

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Parkinson: I agree with this point of view. Alas, the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that this practice cannot be banned (see Paid v. Volunteer Petitioners below). This year California Assemblymember Fong introduced legislation that would have required at least 20% of signature gatherers be volunteers and it was approved by the Legislature, but vetoed by the Governor. A link to that bill is below (Bill Text).Paid vs. Volunteer Petitionershttp://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/paid-vs-volunteer-petitioners.aspxUpdated June 17, 2010 Professional signature gathering has long been a part of initiative politics. Paid signature gatherers were common in both California and Oregon in the early 1900s. Banning paid signature gatherers was an idea that came about ea...Bill Texthttp://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140AB857(1) The California Constitution and existing statutory law provide for the electors to propose statutes or amendments to the Constitution by initiative. Existing law authorizes a person who is a voter or who is qualified to register to vote in Califo...

Joe O'Keefe
Joe O'Keefe

So Bryan,

Just because a government entity say's you have to do something means you have no way to challenge the decision? Seems pretty one sided to me.

Joe O'Keefe
Joe O'Keefe subscriber

So Bryan,

Just because a government entity say's you have to do something means you have no way to challenge the decision? Seems pretty one sided to me.