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Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if San Diego is just a junior varsity city.

The two biggest construction projects the City Council enthusiastically approved over the last two years — a dramatic overhaul of the Central Plaza of Balboa Park and the expansion of the Convention Center — were derailed by legal mistakes. (BUT IT’S NOT THE CITY ATTORNEY’S FAULT, REMEMBER. HE JUST WORKS HERE.)

Scott Lewis on Politics Logo

The City Council’s biggest pieces of legislation don’t stick. We can’t even agree on a community zoning plan when only a small swath of land is in question.

This is the city Mayor Kevin Faulconer gets to lead. He now finds himself with a couple choices to make, neither of them easy.

Mayors have the unique ability to put together coalitions, to provoke media exposure and to create the framework for compromise.

How will he wield that power on these two issues?

I. Minimum Wage

The City Council is set to override Faulconer’s veto of its decision to raise the minimum wage and tie future increases to inflation.

It seems pretty clear that business groups are going to try to gather signatures and throw the measure out at the ballot box. But how involved the mayor will be in that effort is still up in the air. We’ve seen mayors take center stage on ballot efforts and we’ve seen them meekly let them move their way through the process.

Faulconer has basically three options: He can lead the effort to gather signatures and force the measure to a referendum.

Or he can try to snuff out the opposition, telling his pals in the business and GOP community something along the lines of that he’s with them and understands their point of view but he’s not going to lead it and they might consider just letting it be.

Or he could just try to let them try to overturn the minimum wage without his forceful involvement. Somehow that seems like the most likely.

If the opposition does manage to throw out the ordinance, it could get even more interesting. Mel Katz, who leads the company Manpower in San Diego, on Friday wrote an op-ed advising that business leaders leave the wage increase alone.

He told us on our weekly podcast that, were he advising the City Council, he’d tell them to go big if the law is put on the ballot. In other words, the City Council could rescind the minimum wage increase and put an even larger one on the ballot, like $13.09, as Gloria first proposed. So, June 2016 would not be about re-affirming the Council’s hike to $11.50 but rather, about a much bigger potential increase.

Jason Cabel Roe, a political consultant already working on an effort to throw out the minimum wage ordinance, said that’s definitely a risk of the referendum. But it’s a risk for supporters of it too.

“I think that if they came back with a bigger increase they would have a harder time than fighting over $11.50.  Polling shows a threshold of public acceptance and higher than $11.50 would be a tough sales job,” Roe wrote in an email.

Whatever Faulconer chooses, he’ll need to do something about the framing that he doesn’t care about the working poor. I’m pretty sure Republicans have a different perspective on how the government can improve the opportunities available to people. Perhaps the mayor can consider articulating this.

What is Faulconer’s vision for how the working poor might improve their lot? If we’re to shun minimum wage increases, perhaps, as a leader, he can help us understand why his alternative is preferable.

II. Convention Center

What a funny issue. Nothing seems to be on the mind of city insiders more than this one, and yet normal people don’t seem to care.

That makes sense. After all, it’s a project specifically for people who don’t live here.

An appellate court judge decided that the tax increase to fund the giant project was illegal. The public should be allowed to vote on it. You can learn more about the case, history and decision here.

The ruling left the mayor and his merry band of brothers in a pickle. I talked to Bob Nelson, chairman of the Port commission.

“Big projects like this live or die based on leadership from the mayor,” he said. Nelson is a Democrat but he supported Faulconer in the mayor’s race.

Nelson didn’t know what the mayor would do.

Again, there seem to be three options:

A. Fight!

The City Council apparently decided not to rush to put the measure on the ballot. If the Council appeals to the California Supreme Court, it would have to hope that the court both takes the case and reverses the decision.

That’s not a given at all.

“This Court of Appeal decision is the first appellate court ruling on the issue and is quite strong,” the city attorney wrote.

The City Council conferred in closed session with him and did not announce any decision.

B. Just put it on a later ballot?

This seems like the meekest of the possible decisions. The City Council could have rushed and put the measure on the upcoming November ballot. But two-thirds of voters would have had to approve, and the Council must have decided not to try to cram in a campaign.

Or maybe hotels and others just aren’t all that interested in funding a campaign.

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine them trying to put together a special election. So that means the project would have to wait until 2016 and even then would be hard to pull off.

C. Embrace an alternative.

I was surprised the other day to see former Mayor Jerry Sanders, who currently runs the Chamber of Commerce, indicate he was open to the idea that a Convention Center expansion does not have to be contiguous.

The Chargers are clearly licking their chops. Two years ago, their dream of marrying a stadium project to the Convention Center expansion was a nonstarter.

Then, last year, rumors swirled that perhaps they had won over then-Mayor Bob Filner. Filner dithered on the Convention Center project and boosters desperately hoped for him to engage it and help it get the needed environmental approvals.

Then Filner’s political life imploded. As he was struggling to secure his alliances, he issued a declaration reaffirming his support of the Convention Center project. And once again, the Chargers’ idea looked dead.

Until now. Will Faulconer decide to go in a different direction? Does having a stadium in the package help it at the ballot box?

The Chargers and their friends at the U-T have proposed countywide votes. It takes an amazing campaign and coalition to pass a two-thirds vote for a tax increase. Even a tax to increase fire protection after the 2007 fires could not quite get two-thirds.

In an interview with Voice of San Diego last week, U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, who used to be a port commissioner and was a big champion of the Convention Center, also said he would support a different project.

If a project gets you 80 percent of what you want, he said, you have to consider it.

This just indicates how fast the conventional establishment wisdom is evolving on the issue.

By the time Faulconer takes a lead on it, their direction may already be clear.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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