A ballot measure meant to speed improvements at Mission Bay Park and in other city parks that many thought would be uncontroversial has now attracted high-profile and passionate opponents who think it could actually hurt their beloved regional park.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who began his political career on the Mission Bay Park Committee, this summer introduced a ballot measure now known as Measure J.

It would do two things: Hotels around Mission Bay and other businesses have to pay the city rent to be there. Measure J would extend an earlier ballot measure that set aside more of that money for city projects in Mission Bay and other regional parks. But the new measure would lower how much money stays in Mission Bay and increase how much could go to other parks. It would also ease restrictions that now govern Mission Bay Park projects.

Faulconer has sold his new measure as a way to allow the city to more quickly pursue capital projects.

The changes mean the City Council could seek a bond that would pay for a surge of projects in those parks. Those hoping to repair crumbling buildings in Balboa Park are very supportive of the plan.

The mayor’s pitch won unanimous support from the City Council and an oversight committee for Mission Bay Park plus glowing praise from Balboa Park groups.

But some Mission Bay Park champions are not convinced it’s the right move.

A handful have embarked on fact-finding missions about the measure and the city’s historic handling of Mission Bay lease hauls, which have totaled about $30 million annually in recent years. One even filed a complaint with the State Lands Commission, kick-starting a yet-to-be-completed state review of whether Measure J would follow state law governing revenues generated on state trust lands. (A fraction of Mission Bay Park is considered state trust land and Faulconer’s team added language to the measure this summer to clarify compliance with the law, at the suggestion of a deputy city attorney.)

The concerned citizens include former Councilwoman Donna Frye and civic volunteer Bob Ottilie, who worked closely with Faulconer on the 2008 measure.

Ottilie said he recently expressed his grievances with Measure J in a meeting with Faulconer, while Frye spoke at a Wednesday night Pacific Beach Town Council meeting, drawing cheers as she described her unease.

“I certainly understand the intentions of providing funding for parks but I also understand, based on a very long history, the frustration of people that have been told over and over again we finally get to keep some of the revenue in Mission Bay Park over and above a certain dollar amount only to come back a few years later and say, ‘OK, now we’re taking another 10 percent,’” Frye said.

Indeed, there’s lots of history there. For years, past city managers siphoned money from hotel and other leases in Mission Bay Park to balance city budgets rather than invest in needed dredging, wetland restorations and more.

Faulconer, Frye and Ottilie sought in 2008 to change that. Under the arrangement they campaigned for, the first $20 million that flows into city coffers from Mission Bay leases goes to the city’s day-to-day fund. The first 25 percent or $2.5 million above that goes to a fund that pays for projects in regional parks including Mission Trails, Balboa and Presidio parks. The remaining 75 percent goes to Mission Bay Park.

Faulconer’s Measure J would instead leave Mission Bay Park with 65 percent of lease revenue above the threshold and use more for the broader regional park fund to pursue up to a $44 million bond for parks other than Mission Bay Park.

Ottilie’s not cool with this proposed change. The attorney recalled drafting 42 separate versions of 2008’s Proposition C with Faulconer before feeling assured future city leaders couldn’t raid Mission Bay Park funds without a public vote.

Now Faulconer’s seeking that public vote.

“We were afraid that some subsequent council or mayor in (future) years would come and try to steal our money. So what’s happening now? Some people are making the argument that the Council and mayor are trying to steal our money,” Ottilie said this week. “Who knew that one of the authors would be supporting taking the money?”

That’s not the only beef with the measure.

Ottilie, Frye and Karin Zirk of the Friends of Rose Creek told me they’re concerned projects that topped the priority list in the 2008 measure could be delayed with Faulconer’s proposal.

Another question Frye aired Wednesday night drew even more outcry.

She zeroed in on language that would redefine Mission Bay Park to include city-owned properties dedicated for park purposes that are adjacent to Mission Bay Park. The former councilwoman fears that could allow the city to lease out more Mission Bay property.

Former Councilman Ed Harris reiterated that concern at the Wednesday night meeting, urging Pacific Beach residents to campaign against Measure J.

Representatives for Faulconer and the city’s Park and Recreation Department reject those arguments.

Katherine Johnston, Faulconer’s director of infrastructure and budget policy, said the city added the broader language defining the park so it could fund wetlands restoration in an area near the Campland on the Bay campground, not lease out more property.

Both Johnston and a Park and Recreation Department spokesman were adamant Measure J would allow the city to proceed with more projects in the park.

The Mission Bay Park fund created by 2008’s Prop. C now contains about $19 million that Johnston said can’t be spent because of that measure’s requirement to finish projects such as dredging and wetland creation that will take years of environmental reviews and preparations.

Johnston and the parks spokesman said increased flexibility will allow the city to spend some of the lease revenue on bathrooms, playgrounds and sidewalks that require less planning and review – and to proceed with projects in the first place. The city hasn’t physically started any projects meant to be funded by Prop. C despite pulling in cash.

“The status quo is unacceptable. There are city funds that are not being used efficiently that need to be used more efficiently,” Johnston said. “There are so many needs in Mission Bay Park and this initiative will be extremely beneficial for the park and for the city and it will allow us to do things that will greatly enhance visitor experience.”

Judy Swink, a former longtime member of the Mission Bay Park Committee who keeps close tabs on park funding, echoed Johnston, as did Mission Bay hotelier Bill Evans, who leads the Mission Bay Lessees Association. Both support Measure J.

Without changes to the rigid requirements of the current charter section, Evans and Swink separately told Voice of San Diego, they believe projects laid out in Prop. C are unlikely to be completed anytime soon.

“[Prop.C] has caused so many projects, much-needed projects, to be put on the backburner,” Evans said.

Evans acknowledged his group met with Faulconer’s office before the mayor announced the measure in June and said the lessees “went in with arms crossed across our chests and with not a good attitude.”

They were initially concerned with plans to invest a lesser portion of revenues from park leases into Mission Bay. Evans said they were soon sold on the benefits for both Mission Bay Park and other parks throughout the city.

But skepticism reigned as Johnston from the mayor’s office tried to explain those benefits to Pacific Beach residents on Wednesday night.

Denise Friedman, a Pacific Beach Town Council member who organized the Measure J presentations, ended the meeting by telling Johnston she wished the mayor’s office had taken more time to talk to community groups before trying to place Measure J on the ballot.

The City Council approved placing Measure J on the ballot the day before the committee charged with overseeing city spending of Mission Bay lease funds got an informational update. And the City Council’s second reading of the measure in August came hours before the Mission Bay group voted to unanimously support it.

“Part of problem, and why we’re all here tonight, is that this didn’t happen before Measure J went forward and what you’re hearing is a lot of frustration here,” Friedman said Wednesday night. “A lot of things could be avoided if this had happened. And what we don’t understand is the rush.”

Even Swink, who spoke in favor of Measure J at a City Council committee meeting in June, agreed.

“They sprang it on all of us with relatively little public discussion,” Swink said. “People weren’t able to weigh in on it and ask questions.”

Johnston was repeatedly left trying to reassure those at the Wednesday meeting that the measure was meant to help, not hurt the park.

“The mayor is very invested in Mission Bay and would not propose something that he thought would be detrimental to the park,” Johnston said. “I think that with this initiative, with the modification of the language, with the ability to debt finance, you’re gonna see really valuable improvements to the park that will be more visible like playgrounds and comfort stations and that will greatly enhance the visitor experience.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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