It’s suddenly City Hall’s most contentious political battle that isn’t about a football stadium.

The future of Civic San Diego, the city-owned nonprofit for urban renewal, is dividing local leaders.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s bill to give the City Council final say over all Civic San Diego decisions yesterday advanced out of committee. Earlier that day, the mayor held a press conference to reiterate his support for expanding the agency’s role in places like Encanto.

Meanwhile, Democratic Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who represents Encanto — one of the primary areas the agency wants to expand in — has grown quiet over where she stands.

She ran for office as a strong supporter of Civic San Diego growing in her district. Last year, when Faulconer named a new president and CEO for the group, Cole was there to praise the selection and promote Civic’s agenda.

Today, she declined to comment on whether she still wants to expand the agency’s authority, or if she supports Gonzalez’s bill to give the City Council say over its decisions.

She instead issued only a general statement saying the economic development committee she chairs will discuss in June whether to increase Civic San Diego oversight.

Civic San Diego got here by a circuitous path. Its best known former incarnation was called the Centre City Development Corp., which ran the state’s tax-subsidized urban renewal program downtown. But Civic has faced an uncertain future ever since the state ended that program in 2011.

City officials kept it alive to finish redevelopment-funded projects that weren’t done. They also let it keep regulatory authority over all downtown development.

Now, Civic also competes for federal tax credits reserved for new projects in low-income communities. It’s pursuing other ways to drive development in neighborhoods like Encanto, City Heights and San Ysidro.

Opposition to Civic San Diego’s push includes Gonzalez’s bill, a lawsuit from a Civic board member and community anger that a Civic listening tour didn’t include much listening. The trio of complaints has mostly focused on the agency’s lack of oversight, and whether its development projects will be good for communities.

But there’s another element driving the conversation: Organized labor really wants Civic San Diego put in check.

For them, it’s an old fight. In 2010, for instance, labor leaders and Council Democrats pushed a bill to give the Council authority over new hotel projects downtown. Doing so would give the Council leverage to make wage standards for future hotel employees a condition of approval.

We wrote about this dynamic last week. Gonzalez, who was a driving force behind the 2010 push as well, offered to speak more about the extent to which labor-related concerns are motivating some of her fight against Civic San Diego.

You said I did a bad job explaining how giving City Council final authority over Civic San Diego decisions would give labor unions more leverage. Why don’t you explain how it would work instead?

What I was trying to say is that you can’t force a hotel to hire a unionized workforce. Hotel workers —like in most work, except construction and the entertainment industry — you can’t be in a union prior to being employed. Once hired, workers can come together to unionize. What we’re looking for is hotel management that will be neutral if workers exercise their rights to unionize.

And more generally what we’re looking for is employers who will commit to paying living wages and hiring local workers, regardless of whether they’re union workers or not.

My bill is absolutely about protecting workers, and yes, I believe that all workers are better off if they’re in a union. The number one concern in the community that I represent is jobs and my community will absolutely be better off if the jobs that are created are good union jobs and not low-wage jobs.

Why is it that putting the authority in the City Council’s hands would make those things more likely?

The City Council are elected officials that need to be accountable to their constituents. When they vote on something in public they have to hear the concerns of the public. If you’ve ever gone to a Civic San Diego board meeting, they just aren’t responsive. They don’t care. We’ve been voicing our concerns to them for years and you can never get anywhere with them. In fact they simply say that job quality isn’t something they can consider in the first place, that they can only make decisions based on design review of new projects.

In 2010 when you were pushing the ordinance to give City Council authority over CCDC decisions on hotels, the debate around that was almost entirely about labor. This conversation has almost entirely been about government accountability or transparency, and neighborhood protection. Why is it so different?

I don’t have any control over what people in the media write about. We haven’t hidden anything about who is part of our coalition and who’s been part of our coalition for years. I held a press conference on the bill surrounded by labor leaders. I mean, we’ve relied heavily on (labor-funded think tank) CPI. We’ve been very upfront about the fact that we want to protect workers, and I have said publicly that this is very much the same as our push to amend the downtown [ordinance] for new hotels. This is now about more than just hotels, but I’m still most concerned about how this affects hotel workers and the wages they can earn.

And while what I’m most concerned about is worker protections, there are plenty of other legitimate concerns still about how accountable the board that’s making these decisions is, that my community is concerned about, and about neighborhood issues like parks, traffic and open spaces and other legitimate concerns about how Civic San Diego operates.

If your 2010 ordinance had gone into effect, would this broader bill on all of Civic San Diego’s actions be necessary?

I can’t say. Maybe, but a lot has changed since then. That was before the end of redevelopment. That was before Civic San Diego started talking about expanding into other neighborhoods, which are neighborhoods that are in my district, that I represent.

Can you tell me what happened with the 2010 ordinance, why it wasn’t adopted after the Council voted to bring it back in 90 days? Civic San Diego’s response was that the City Council never docketed the item again.

Even though we got the support of (Councilman Tony Young) on the first vote, when it was scheduled to come back there had been an election and he became the Council President, and he made the decision not to docket it for a second reading, so it never happened.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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