A customer leaving the Walmart on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard signs a petition opposing the One Paseo development. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

This was the week of the power of signature-gathering — or, better, the power of having the resources to pay signature-gatherers.

Soda companies played the state government like a harpsichord. They gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would have required every new tax in the state to be approved by two-thirds of voters.

We’ve written about it a lot because it would have retroactively killed the sales tax increase just passed in Chula Vista. It would have also made it impossible for the campaign to increase the hotel tax to fund a Convention Center expansion, homeless services and road repair with just a simple majority support of voters.

Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg called it a potential “catastrophe” as his city prepares to renew a sales tax.

But no worries! The governor and Legislature made a deal with soda companies. They agreed to ban cities from pursuing any more taxes of sugary drinks. In exchange, the soda companies agreed to withdraw their initiative.

They even made a special effort to define kombucha as a grocery so that it, too, could avoid these kinds of new taxes.

As our friend Liam Dillon wrote, “Today we’ve learned what industry has the real power in the California Legislature: Big Kombucha.”

However, the real lesson is that you can get anything you want from the state government if you have enough money to get a measure on the ballot to basically ban all new local tax increases.

Anyway …

A signature-gatherer covers the Ocean Beach Street Fair June 23. / Photo by Scott Lewis

Locally, that campaign to raise the hotel-room tax known with the very Jeb-like Yes! For a Better San Diego title is really incredible to watch right now.

After missing its own deadline for turning signatures in, the campaign compelled the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Partnership to send out a “call to action” to get individual members to gather signatures.

Betsy Brennan and Craig Benedetto from the Partnership made it sound easy.

“If each of our members collects 50 signatures, we can do more than our part to ensure the initiative is included on the ballot this November,” they wrote.

But 50 signatures is no joke. In the market, that would net a professional $500 and would be more than a day’s work.

The Decision

The more interesting question they must be grappling with is when to stop digging. They could have the City Council just put the measure on the ballot. But then the measure would definitely require a two-thirds vote to pass. And that would mean the campaign would have to admit to donors that it basically lit their million dollars on fire.

[insert scared emoji face]

It’s one thing for a bunch of donors to lose a hard-fought, expensive campaign. It’s another one to not even get on the ballot — especially after many reassurances that it would not be a problem.

The other option is to just keep trying to get enough signatures. But it is now so late that if the registrar of voters determines each signature needs to be verified, then it will be too late to get it on the ballot.

So they have to decide, basically, if they want to cut their losses now or keep going to the ATM to see if they can pull it out.

If they pull it out, maybe all will be fine.

But it could be one of the worst blunders in modern San Diego history.

The Talk on the Street

Lawrence Ceasar, from San Diego, was collecting signatures for the Yes! For a Better San Diego campaign outside the Walmart near Aero Drive. He had his Pomeranian because it helps get him business.

Ceasar and his colleagues can get $10 per signature if they get more than 40 signatures in a day, and $7 per signature if they get fewer than 40.

He kept thinking the campaign would end.

“They’ve been telling us every day is the last day and then they’re still not getting enough,” he said.

Part of the problem the campaign is facing is that it started late. Whether strategic or not, they started paid signature-gathering late. There were fewer competing signature campaigns, so they didn’t have to pay as much. But that might have had an unintended consequence: A lot of the pros left, Ceasar said, precisely because it wasn’t paying much.

It wasn’t worth it to stick around in town.

“Initially petitions were only $3 or $5 so people weren’t motivated to push it,” he said.

But with the $10 per signature price now, there are more professionals and some of the normal altercations for the best turf have occurred.

The last turn-in for signatures was this Thursday. They were encouraged to work over the weekend.

“Each turn-in is supposed to be the end of it.”

— Lisa Halverstadt

Civic San Diego Removing Major Thorn in Its Side

Murtaza Baxamusa / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Murtaza Baxamusa has been giving Civic San Diego trouble for years.

As a board member for the redevelopment-focused nonprofit, he routinely questioned its priorities, lobbying for it to take a more union-friendly direction.

But his 2015 lawsuit, alleging the city broke the law by granting it permitting authority, grew into an ongoing embarrassment. As the case moved forward, depositions and a memo from a whistleblower alleged poor oversight, lack of internal controls and conflicts of interest. Civic San Diego leadership has denied all of the allegations, but its president, Reese Jarrett, abruptly resigned in February amid the chaos.

The chaos could be ending: In a Friday hearing, Baxamusa’s attorney Steven Coopersmith told Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss that he and the city had resolved all of their major issues, and had only specific details still to sort out. The city’s attorneys agreed, and they scheduled an October hearing that’s expected to mark the end of the dispute.

After the hearing, Coopersmith said he couldn’t share any information on what a settlement might entail, but confirmed that all parties now expect an amicable end to the dispute. It might take a while, thanks to the City Council’s summer recess; the City Council will need to approve any settlement.

Baxamusa did not seek any money in his lawsuit, just reform of Civic San Diego.

What to look for: Faulconer, the Chamber of Commerce, the development community, et al have sought to preserve Civic because it approves downtown projects faster, with fewer fees, than the city of San Diego. They’ve also been pushing for a recreated, scaled-down version of the former redevelopment program that could subsidize certain development projects near transit.

Baxamusa and his allies in organized labor, meanwhile, have pushed for the agency to help unions in a few ways: to be more receptive to project labor agreements for new projects, and to pursue union-friendly grocery stores and hotels as parts of the projects it develops or approves.

A deal that satisfies both sides would retain most of Civic’s development and planning authority and some of its more entrepreneurial endeavors, while tweaking its regulations in a way that accommodates labor’s requests.

How Janus Could — Maybe — Help Public-Sector Unions

David Garcias, center, takes part in a Labor Day march with SEIU Local 221 members. / Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 221

The Supreme Court this week dealt a blow to unions.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom on the Janus v. AFSCME ruling, which barred public-sector unions from charging “agency fees” to workers for whom they negotiate wages and benefits. Employees can now decline to be full-time union members without being charged for their negotiators.

A labor expert told the New York Times that teachers unions could now lose a third of their members and funding as a result.

But at least one local union leader said the ruling might not be entirely bad news.

David Lagstein, the political director of the Service Employees’ International Union, SEIU 221, told us that public-sector unions may become more responsive to their membership and more effective.

“This is a victory for billionaires who want to attempt to weaken the power of workers. The silver lining is that we now have no choice but to build a deeper, stronger labor movement that is unflinching in standing together for every working family, and I think we will come out of this even stronger,” he said.

The June Election Still Isn’t Over

Christian Ramirez (left) and Antonio Martinez (right) are both running for San Diego City Council District 8. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Amazingly, the San Diego County registrar as of Friday evening still has some 300 uncounted ballots from the June 5 primary election.

Normally, the remaining votes would be inconsequential. But three local races are separated by just a handful of votes. We’d hoped they’d have everything counted by the end of the week. That is not the case.

  • In the race to replace termed-out Councilman David Alvarez, community organizer Christian Ramirez trails San Ysidro School Board member Antonio Ramirez by just four votes. One of them will advance to face Alvarez staffer Vivian Moreno in a November runoff.
  • In the race that City Hall watchers missed but community members predicted, Council President Myrtle Cole now leads her former employee and ACLU staffer Monica Montgomery by just four votes as well. Cole and Montgomery are assured of facing off in November regardless, but Cole’s re-election campaign in the southeastern San Diego district was never supposed to be this close. That it is reveals deep dissatisfaction with the city’s direction in the district.
  • And nonprofit executive Sean Elo has a 24-vote lead for the second runoff spot in his race to represent the San Diego Community College District. He’s leading Rafael Perez for the right to face Alvarez in the November runoff.

Given the slim margins, it’s possible someone will mount a recount campaign.

Recount rules: There are no automatic recount provisions in San Diego County. Any recount needs to be requested by a California voter.

If a candidate asks for a recount, they have some say in how it will be conducted, which makes it hard to estimate the cost, said San Diego County Registrar Michael Vu.

For instance, they could ask for a manual recount, or one that goes through the same automated system as the first count – or they can ask for specific precincts to be recounted first before deciding whether to proceed.

In a 2014 race for the Chula Vista City Council, John McCann beat Steve Padilla by two votes. A voter in the district requested a recount, for which Padilla helped fundraise, which cost roughly $50,000 until they dropped it after seven days. (Padilla said it was closer to $60,000.)

The process: Any California voter can request a recount within five days of certification of the election results. They’d then clarify how they want the recount to proceed and submit a deposit for the recount cost. Once that deposit is in, the registrar must start the process within seven days.

Regardless of how the recount goes, every vote must be recounted before changing the results. If the outcome is flipped, the deposit goes back to whoever requested the recount. If it isn’t, the registrar keeps it.

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...

Andrew Keatts

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

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