Seven council members voted in favor of placing a new $294 million Civic Center before San Diego’s voters in November on Monday night. Many of them didn’t like it.

Their reluctance sprung from the risky proposition that voters might reject the new building when the council members felt they could make the decision to build themselves.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald called the San Diego’s current City Hall a public safety risk and urged council members to approve the whole project Monday night.

“As far as I’m concerned this is not a political decision, it’s a practical decision,” Emerald said.

Emerald’s opinion was backed up by the numerous members of the downtown business community who praised the city for moving forward on a new City Hall, but also hoped it could be done without voter approval.

“I think it’s fair to say that you were elected to make tough decisions,” said Scott Maloni, chairman of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. “Fortunately this is not one of those tough decisions. This is a win-win for the city and the taxpayers.”

Maloni had sent a letter to council members urging them to approve the project without going to the ballot, but said he realized the political reality meant a ballot decision was inevitable.

Mayor Jerry Sanders has long pledged to put the project on the ballot. In February four council members — Sherri Lightner, Kevin Faulconer, Donna Frye and Carl DeMaio — issued a memo assuring their support for a public vote.

Those pledges happened before a revised agreement with a Portland, Ore.-based developer cut the project’s size nearly in half. The building is now 19 stories tall and 576,000 square feet compared to the original 34 stories and 1 million square feet.

Supporters’ argument in favor of the new building is simple: The city will save money. City officials contend the building will save $24 million in the next 10 years by eliminating the need for repairs at the current facility and ending lease agreements the city has to house overflow employees in other downtown facilities.

“This proposal saves money over all other options available,” Sanders said.

But no matter what happens, the city will spend more than it has planned now. The Mayor’s Office hasn’t included either the cost of the new Civic Center or repairs to the current structure in its budget outlooks.

The $260 million in budget deficits projected over the next five years are understated by $40 million if the city builds the new building and $50 million if it doesn’t, according to a city independent budget analyst report.

The project’s costs were at the center of disagreement over the project. Councilman Carl DeMaio said the city should consider broader options than either building a new building or staying in the current facility, such as further examination of locating groups of city departments at other areas around the city. He remained unconvinced the new building was the cheapest option.

“Given the city’s great financial problems this is the wrong project at the wrong time for San Diego,” DeMaio said.

DeMaio proposed two alternative ballot statements and supported Frye, who failed to force the city to include a maximum price tag for the project, including financing costs, in the measures.

DeMaio’s needling led to some palace intrigue.

Faulconer, who moved to put the Civic Center to voters, refused to allow DeMaio to write the ballot argument against the project, despite pleas from DeMaio and Frye. DeMaio also made a veiled threat to run an opposition campaign against the Civic Center if Faulconer didn’t amend his motion.

DeMaio was the only council member to vote no on the ballot measure.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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