The San Diego Convention Center / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In my six years in San Diego, there have been three major, mortifying episodes involving city government: the Balboa Park centennial that never happened, the downfall of Mayor Bob Filner and now this – the insane unraveling of the push to expand the Convention Center, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s biggest priority.

There’s a case to be made that this most recent failure was the worst* of the three. (*I want to be clear that the Filner episode was the worst in terms of the actual damage inflicted on the women involved. What they went through was unequivocally wrong and shouldn’t have happened.)

I can’t bring myself to recap the Filner scandal, and I doubt anyone requires one, but in case you’ve blocked out the Balboa Park centennial mess, a rundown: The city had ambitious goals to throw a huge celebration to honor the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. But “ultimately, the event collapsed under the weight of its otherworldly expectations.” It was an embarrassing flub that cemented in many people’s minds that San Diego simply can’t pull off big things.

Here’s why I think the failed effort to expand the Convention Center onto the ballot is the worst episode of the three.

The failed Balboa Park centennial was perhaps the most embarrassing in that it revealed that, despite lots of money and effort, we couldn’t even pull off a party. Not a subway system or a similar project that would require both feats of politics, funding and engineering, but a party. But the smallness of the goal is also what this failure has going for it – the stakes were low. The outcome, though humiliating, is also not that big of a deal: A party didn’t happen.

Then there’s Filner. The outcome of his misbehavior was awful: Women were harassed and mistreated. But it was also the incident with the most dramatic consequences. The reaction to the scandal wasn’t perfect, but Filner pleaded guilty to a crime. He lost his career. By his own assessment, his reputation will never recover.

The Convention Center mess lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s why it’s so bad.

The stakes were much higher than the Balboa Park centennial: Supporters of the measure spent tons of private money, the city agreed to pay the leaseholders of Fifth Avenue Landing $5 million in public money (and much more if the measure passed) and the initiative would have achieved a long sought-after Convention Center expansion and brought in funding for homelessness and roads. Whether it should have been the mayor’s biggest priority is worth debating, but it’s indisputable that it would have accomplished something big.

The failure of the measure was not a result of criminal behavior, just regular old political miscalculations, risks that didn’t pay off and bad decision-making.

That means that when the dust clears, the mayor and the other myriad staffers and consultants who bungled this will still have jobs and will still be making big decisions about the future of San Diego. The stakes were high and the consequences will be relatively low – the worst of both worlds.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Believe it or not, before the news dropped Wednesday that the Convention Center measure was in major trouble, we’d already had a week’s worth of great stories: There was this in-depth look at the battle over a homeless housing project in Clairemont, the revelation that the government was holding migrants in detention long after a judge had ordered them to be released and two pieces taking a new look at the fallout over the death of Earl McNeil in National City – including an examination of officials’ responses to protestors and what McNeil’s death reveals about how police respond to mental health calls.

Then, well, boom.

After the City Council nailed the coffin shut, Scott Lewis outlined the big decisions and strategic maneuvering that led up to the Convention Center measure’s epic failure. We dissected it all on this week’s podcast.

And then in the Politics Report, we had more from behind the scenes of the incredible week at City Hall.

We recorded a special podcast with Councilman Scott Sherman just hours before the Convention Center vote, and he talked about the measure and other big frustrations, including the vacation rental vote and the pension reform peril facing the city.

Meanwhile, Civic San Diego board Chairman Phil Rath was fined $11,000 for failing to disclose that he’d received $100,000 from a housing developer less than a year before he voted to give the same developer a contract for a major project.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“The fire was big enough that, on Monday, President Donald Trump saw fit to briefly depart from his schedule of executive television-monitoring to comment on it. As a fan of The Biggest as a general concept, Trump has done this sort of thing before, generally by issuing some weirdly value-neutral tweets in which he seems almost to be gloating about the tremendous weather that many have said is happening more and more since he defeated Crooked Hillary and became your president.” – From a hilarious in-depth look at President Donald Trump’s tweets on California’s wildfires.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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