Last week, the San Diego City Council approved a financial plan to expand the city’s Convention Center. But the big decisions to decide the project’s fate — a lawsuit and a state board — are out of the city’s control.

Before the council vote, a reporter asked Mayor Jerry Sanders what would happen if this expansion plan is derailed.

“There is no Plan B,” Sanders replied.

Sanders’ potential successors, however, have one.

Both City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Congressman Bob Filner say they will bring the financing plan to a public vote should the courts rule that the tax increase approved by the city’s hoteliers is illegal. The two candidates for the council’s District 1, incumbent Sherri Lightner and challenger Ray Ellis, said they support a public vote as a backup, too.

At issue is whether hotel owners can vote, as they did in the spring, to approve a 1 percent to 3 percent hike in hotel-room taxes or whether the public needs to weigh in. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has said the chances of a court validating the hotelier vote are “50-50” at best. The city should have an initial decision in the case sometime next year.

Even with the future mayor’s backing, a public vote on the Convention Center expansion faces a high hurdle.

California law requires two-thirds of voters to approve tax hikes for specific projects. A hotel-room tax increase in 2004 tied to greater spending on fire protection and tourism promotion received more than 60 percent of the vote, still not enough to pass.

Timing presents another problem. Likely the earliest the public could decide on the Convention Center expansion is 2014, which could run up against an oft-mentioned public vote to build a new Chargers stadium.

Based on all these factors, supporters of the expansion decided it was a better bet to take their chances with the courts rather than the public. Here’s Convention Center booster Mike McDowell responding to that question in a 2011 Q-and-A with me:

Why the emphasis on trying to craft it into an exception? Why not just let it go to a vote and don’t even worry about it?

You asked me very early on what I learned from the 2004 election. And that is that a two-thirds vote threshold is too risky. Having learned that lesson and going down that road, would you come back and call me stupid?

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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