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Friday, April 01, 2005 | Write-off. The type of write-in candidacy that sprung a populist upheaval in San Diego last fall and sent City Councilwoman Donna Frye into the national spotlight would be outlawed under a proposal to go before the City Council on Monday.

Supporters of crossing-out the write-in option say the move reconciles differences between the city’s two governing documents, the city charter and the municipal code, that led to confusion surrounding the legalities of Frye’s last-second candidacy. Frye abhors the idea, saying it would strip voters of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice just because her candidacy was unsettling to some.

“When someone who is not as well-funded challenges the status quo, it’s always going to create a certain level of uproar. That’s the nature of democracy,” she said.

A write-in campaign of the sort run by Frye is allowed in elections for all offices in the cities and counties of San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example. It is also accepted in the United States presidential election and in San Diego County Board of Supervisor elections. Several congressmen and at least one U.S. Senator in the history of the country have been elected through write-in campaigns. One such fellow would be Frye’s ideological opposite, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who won his first Senate term by write-in in 1956.

But, instead of reconciling the differences in law to accommodate write-ins in the general election like many other state and national jurisdictions, a council committee in February voted 4-to-0 last month to eliminate the write-in option from the general election, while preserving the option in the primary elections.

Frye entered the race between Murphy and County Supervisor Ron Roberts only five weeks before the November general election. Murphy was declared the winner after more than 5,000 write-in votes cast for Frye were discarded because the corresponding oval wasn’t properly shaded. A lawsuit by Frye supporters hoping to count these 5,000 votes currently rests in an Orange County appeals court.

The proposed change would insure that only two candidates appear on the ballot. Frye said many citizens told her they wouldn’t have voted if not for her campaign. Councilmen Michael Zucchet, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer voted with the mayor to erase the write-in slot on further ballots. When the legality of the campaign became an issue, supporters of Murphy and Roberts – the same two Republicans who had battled each other in the 2000 mayoral election – argued that a write-in candidacy renders the primaries irrelevant.

“It was a bit of an embarrassment,” Murphy said during a February hearing, referring to the legal questions that arose following the election. As is often the case nowadays when journalists come calling, Murphy couldn’t be reached for comment.

“If there is an inconsistency, then fine, let the voters decide whether or not they want the ability to vote for a write-in candidate,” Frye said.

The item scheduled for discussion Monday gives little hint that it would significantly alter the make-up of general elections in the city of San Diego. “Reconciling the city charter and San Diego Municipal Code regarding write-in candidates,” it states, without further explanation. The City Council meets Monday at 2 p.m. at 202 C St.

V&E delayed. The long-awaited and longed-after investigative report on possible wrongdoing at City Hall in connection with its erroneous financial disclosures and pension deficit has been delayed indefinitely, said City Attorney Mike Aguirre late Friday. The city’s 2003 fiscal year audit, its golden key back to Wall Street and financial credibility, has been on hold pending the completion of the investigation which officials had said would be done in mid-April.

In private letters, auditor KPMG warned the city in August and September that a self-investigation being conducted by the city’s law firm, Vinson & Elkins, likely wouldn’t be sufficient for its purposes because it didn’t examine possible illegal acts by city officials. City officials pushed ahead anyways, releasing a V&E report that didn’t answer its auditors questions about the misstatements provided to potential investors.

KPMG has since demanded that the city complete a follow-up investigation and is waiting for its completion before it can bless the city’s financial information. Without the audit, the city remains stuck without access to financial markets. It can’t access capital for long-term projects and must go to the private markets for short term monies. It can’t refinance ballpark bonds, an act that could save the city more than $3 million a year.

The first V&E report was released in September and trumpeted as the end-all investigation into the pension mess. Turns out it wasn’t going to end that September, when the city had only paid Vinson & Elkins about $1.5 million of the $3.8 million it had collected as of a month ago, and when KPMG had collected a little more than $1.2 million of the $2.2 million reported last month.

Next Target: Corky. The enduring questions and grudging complaints regarding the city’s dealings with the former Naval Training Center and developer The Corky McMillin Cos. have long fueled angry citizen commentary at City Council meetings and suspicion of local political relations with influential developers in general. The persistent batch of Point Loma residents so ubiquitous at City Hall are likely dancing down Rosecrans Street right now in light of Friday’s news that Aguirre is conducting a comprehensive legal review of the relationship between the city and the developer dating all the way back to the controversial bequeathing of the former boot camp along San Diego Bay in 1999.

“Deal after deal after deal, the city got the short end of the stick,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre decided to begin the review after being asked by Murphy and Zucchet to issue an opinion on the release of bonds to pay McMillin for park construction, he said. The developer is seeking $15 million from the city to recover costs for grading and entitlements for park construction and the widening of Rosecrans Street. The payment would allow the developer to begin the first phase of construction on a 46-acre waterfront park a year ahead of schedule.

City finance officials want to sell $15 million of bonds on the private market; the public market is inaccessible because of the city’s legal and financial woes. Zucchet has said everything’s ready to go, and that all he would like is the city attorney’s legal opinion on the bonds, something he will discuss at Tuesday’s council meeting. But Aguirre wants to take a bigger look at the relationship between the city and the developer.

The Naval Training Center served as just that for the Navy for more than 70 years before shuttering in 1997 as part of the government’s military downsizing. McMillin, whose company and associates are known as prolific campaign donors to City Council members of all ideologies, then won the right to develop the land in a controversial proceeding. And the controversy hasn’t stopped since, with residents claiming they were promised a historic bay-front hamlet but received a glorified strip mall.

NTC, as it is called, is eventually to become Liberty Station. The Navy gave the city the land when it closed shop in 1997. City officials determined they couldn’t afford to develop the land, at which time the city began looking for a master developer. A citizen’s committee searched, eventually recommending Miami-based Lennar Corp. The City Council switched directions and went with the local McMillin Cos., a decision that continues to raise eyebrows today. The developer pays no rent or fee to the city. It has rights to construct, rent and sell residential and commercial real estate as well as two hotels. It is required to make public improvements, some of which are reimbursed by the city, and construct the park, the costs of which are to be reimbursed by the city.

According to McMillin estimates, the company will spend $149.7 million on the project and eventually reap $12 million in profits. The 361-acre plot adjacent to Lindbergh Field is slated to house 349 residential units, a total of seven office buildings, two schools, a cultural center and a church. The housing is nearly finished. One office building is completed and two are under construction. High Tech High and High Tech Middle School are charter schools focusing on math, science and computers.

Many complaints surround the developer’s periodic workings with council; the deal is often cited as the prime example of a government “giveaway.” The city asked it to add more storm drains, water lines and decoration in 2003. In accordance with the contract, the company then billed the city for $10.5 million and was reimbursed for $8.5 million of it in 2003. This year, the developer asked for and received permission to delay construction on a 350-room hotel complex by two years because of a difficult hotel market. The firm was to start construction this month and finish in two years; it now plans to start construction by December 2007 and finish two years later. The council has also voted to allow the developer to exceed the 30-foot coastal height limit.

“If you’re going to change the deal, let’s sit down and negotiate all of this for the best of the city,” Aguirre said. One of the highlights of the deal for the city is the collection of an estimated $4.8 million in hotel room taxes once both hotels are constructed. The hotel delay means the city waits to collect the promise of these funds.

A McMillin official didn’t return phone calls. Maureen Ostrye, project manager for the city, praised the developer for its work to date. “The developer’s been working diligently to get this project done in accordance” with the approved plan, she said.

This week’s budget cut update: At least one rolled-up cardboard square is being used in place of a doorstop in the City Attorney’s Office.

– ANDREW DONOHUE, Voice Political Writer

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