Myrtle Cole
San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole speaks at a “Yes on G” press conference. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole speaks at a “Yes on G” press conference. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

We could not get San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole to come in for a podcast interview as we have for almost all the other candidates we invited on the show. We also couldn’t even get a call back from Cole on whether she’d come to Politifest to debate her opponent, Monica Montgomery.

So we were quite interested in reading her long Q&A with the Union-Tribune editorial board. Fortunately for us, they referenced some of our work and had many of the same questions we would have had.

If you’re deep into politics, it’s worth a read.

What’s remarkable is how little Cole says. It was hard for us to find a single issue that she took a coherent stand on.

Take rent control, for example. Californians will be deciding on Proposition 10, which will make it possible for cities like San Diego to impose new rent control (or rent “stabilization”) policies. If the Democrats win more City Council seats and someday the mayor’s office, they could pursue a local rent control measure.

After Cole seems to express some negative perspective on rent-control policies, the U-T editors tried to clarify. And her aide jumped in to help.

Union-Tribune: But you’re saying let the market dictate it? Do not play in rent control?

COLE: I’m …

COLE’S AIDE: You don’t have a position yet.

COLE: Yeah, that’s my position. I just want to make sure that we build more affordable housing. I … I know Jimmie [Slack] sometimes thinks I say too much on the issue, which sometimes I do, so that’s why I’m being a little bit more subdued on some issues, but I … again, we need more units of housing.

Then there was this tortured exchange on SoccerCity vs. SDSU West (Measure E vs. Measure G).

Cole repeatedly said she had no position and would listen to what voters decided. Here was the last back and forth on that:

Union-Tribune: As council president, shouldn’t you be taking a lead on that? I mean we editorialized long, long time ago this is a huge piece of property that can transform the face of this city for decades.

COLE: Absolutely and I know that. I’ve been following our council … Mara Elliott and I’m not going to get involved in that. If SDSU wins then so be it. If SoccerCity wins then that’s what the voters voted for. I’m … I’m going to just leave it to the will, and I believe our voters will … will want a certain initiative to pass.

(The day before the Q&A published, Cole appeared with several other Democratic leaders at a rally and press conference supporting Measure G and opposing SoccerCity, Measure E. Was she awkwardly trying not to steal the thunder of the announcement or just unsure until just before she spoke out?)

Then there’s the question of whether the civilian review board that oversees complaints about the Police Department should have subpoena powers. She isn’t sure.

Union-Tribune: But you don’t have a position on that? The community’s been suggesting that that review board needs that … those additional powers for years. So you don’t have a position at this point?

COLE: If our city attorney states that they need one, if … if the executive director states that they need one, I will support that 100 percent.

Union-Tribune: But what do you think?

COLE: That’s my opinion. That’s my statement.

Finally, there’s community choice aggregation, the movement that seems closer than ever to taking SDG&E out of the business of buying electricity and giving that responsibility to the city. The utility company would simply deliver the energy.

Many of Cole’s Democratic colleagues support the move. Mayor Kevin Faulconer seems to be leaning toward it — he’s had several opportunities to kill it and hasn’t.

Cole seems to be unsure.

Union-Tribune: Community Choice … this energy issue that keeps coming up … where are you on that? Should the council get in that … pursue that?

COLE: Well you know, I think that we need to first make sure that it’s a win-win where it’s not going to cost the community a lot more money to have it under the city.

Brace Yourself for Another Push for a Special Election

It was just last year when the mayor pushed for a special election to approve a hotel-room tax that would fund an expansion of the Convention Center, homeless services and roads. The Council rejected that push. He retaliated with little cuts to individual Council budgets.

It was a whole thing.

Now, we’re going to get back on that gondola.

This week, the Registrar of Voters confirmed that — AFTER ALL THAT — a citizen’s initiative with more funding for homeless services (and now the support of labor unions) did get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. It’s too late for this November, but will eventually appear before voters.

Take it to the bank: The mayor will now push for a special election, probably for April 2019.

There’s one problem, and it tripped the thing up last year: Measure L, approved by voters in 2016, requires that initiatives should only go on November general election ballots. Except! When there’s an emergency.

The reasoning: The mayor will make the case that this is an emergency, based largely on the funding for homeless services. As we learned a few weeks ago, the mayor’s team expected the new tax to fund the large tent shelters he helped put up. But there’s another urgent issue: Right now, the city is holding at bay the guys who own the lease on the waterfront land they need to expand the Convention Center. Those guys could pocket the city’s $5 million deposit on a $33 million deal and get final approval on the hotel they want to build, if the city doesn’t move quickly.

That hotel would block the Convention Center expansion the mayor envisions. They need to get this resolved as soon as possible. If they can get an election scheduled for the spring, they can maybe convince those guys to hold off …

One other point: The mayor’s staff and supporters of the measure are also worried that if they don’t get it voted on quickly, they may miss the chance to have the tax increase pass with a simple majority. Remember, there’s a court ruling that seems to indicate that tax increases enacted through citizen’s initiatives don’t need a two-thirds vote to be approved.

Not so fast: Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego and one of the major supporters of Measure L, says this is absolutely not an emergency. She told us, in a written statement, that initiative supporters “had an opportunity to qualify their initiative for the 2018 ballot, but that opportunity has now passed. Their next opportunity is in 2020.”

As for homeless services, well … Guerrero:

“We should not mistake political expediency for a real emergency. If the mayor and City Council are serious about addressing homelessness, they should not wait. They can act now by allocating resources through the budget process. That would be an example of good governance.”

Oh yeah, what happened to that? Remember the supporters of the initiative vowed to sue the signature-gathering firm they claimed had given them fraudulent counts on their progress and generally led to the disaster that caused them to miss this November election? We called Chris Wahl, the political consultant who led the campaign, to ask whether they had indeed filed the suit.

“We have every intent to recoup the dollars that we are owed in full. How that is done has not yet been determined. We’re considering all options that are available,” he said.

Weaponizing NIMBYism in D6

Tommy Hough is running for a seat on the San Diego City Council. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Late Thursday, an automated email from Tommy Hough’s campaign caught our attention. Hough is running against Councilman Chris Cate.

“Cate to Clairemont: Drop Dead,” the subject line read.

It linked to a story in the San Diego Reader, which used the same headline. “This isn’t the headline of a councilmember who cares about the community.”

The topic of the story, though, was a bit surprising.

It was about an affordable housing project in Clairemont that, according to the story, Cate had recommended to the mayor in 2017. San Diego County is looking to build 494 units of low-income housing on property it owns near Genesee Avenue.

Democrats on the Council have regularly tried to create more funding for low-income homes, so it was startling to see a Democrat use an affordable housing project to tar his opponent.

But Hough said he does not oppose the proposal.

“What I oppose (is) the way in which Mr. Cate tried to quietly drop it into the neighborhood and not push the county to meet with residents, and the way in which Mr. Cate failed to provide any leadership on the process in order to ensure it’s a success instead of a potential traffic nightmare,” he wrote in an email.

This is the second Clairemont affordable housing project to face NIMBY opposition. A smaller plan for 52 units headed off anger by agreeing to serve only seniors.

Cate responds: The county has not done a good enough job talking to neighbors to settle nerves about the size of the project, Cate said, and he’s pressured them to do better. He said community outreach can make projects better, and the county should be held to the same standard as any other developer.

But he said Hough is trying to have it both ways.

“This is a guy who started out promoting that he supports affordable housing, but now he’s using this trying to rile up folks who don’t like density coming in,” he said. “You either support housing or you don’t. He’s trying to play both sides.”

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 is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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