Longtime hotel industry leader Mike McDowell speaks at the launch of a campaign to expand the Convention Center and fund homeless services with a hotel-tax increase. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Democracy is only as strong as the people who protect it — and elected leaders play a critical role. They are supposed to safeguard elections from undue influence and manipulation, and honor the will of the voters. 

The San Diego City Council is poised to do otherwise on Monday when it votes to place a citizens’ initiative to expand the Convention Center on the March primary ballot instead of the November 2020 general election. Doing so would go against the will of the voters who overwhelmingly passed Measure L in 2016.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

As Council members consider the upcoming vote, they need to ask themselves: What is so important that it should override the will of the voters, and who stands to gain?

Measure L was intended to end the election shopping that the downtown elite have long used in low-turnout primary elections to create favorable electoral outcomes. They’ve taken advantage of the fact that the city spends nothing on voter education (including no public awareness on when elections are held) to hand-pick their voters and then turn them out. 

The results have been disastrous for San Diego. 

In the last few years, a small percentage of the electorate made major decisions in primary elections that resulted in, among other things, making unlawful changes to city employee retirement plans, creating a strong mayor system that is short on accountability and overturning a community-created Barrio Logan plan

These ballot measures were pushed by moneyed interests with major help from the mayor’s office going back years. Now they’re at it again, and this time they are getting help from the morally bankrupt and abusive private prison industry.

In 2018, the GEO Group — one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the country — rescued the “Yes! for a Better San Diego” signature gathering campaign with a $50,000 contribution. The GEO Group holds a daily average of 60,000 people in its facilities, which include immigration detention centers, prisons and jails, including one in downtown San Diego.

Given the company’s entrance into homeless and rehabilitation services, its interest and investment in the ballot measure raise its stakes. 

As defined in the ballot measure, homelessness programs include transitional housing, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and counseling — all services offered by GEO’s new and aggressively expanding profit arm, GEO Continuum of Care. That expansion could include San Diego. 

Rather than providing a continuum of care, this private prison company has a long track record of providing a continuum of despair. They exploit migrants for cheap labor and have been accused of medical neglect, and bribery and kickbacks. The Department of Justice has highlighted instances of sexual abuse, “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Their deficiencies are so egregious, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General recently issued a rare “management alert” regarding the ICE Adelanto facility run by GEO in San Bernardino County, where immigrants stated, We don’t feel OK here. We’re in danger here.”

GEO’s involvement in the “Yes! for a Better San Diego” measure is an example of how the moneyed interests use elections to expand their businesses and fatten their pockets at the expense of communities and democracy. 

The voters have made it clear what they want: Schedule local measures for the November election, when most people vote. That’s why two-thirds of the voters voted for Measure L. 

Democracy is only as strong as its elected leaders. And how strong are they? 

Monday will tell. 

Andrea Guerrero is the executive director of Alliance San Diego, a community empowerment organization that led the campaign for Measure L in 2016.

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