Councilman Chris Cate and Councilwoman Jen Campbell / Photos by Jamie Scott Lytle and Adriana Heldiz

This post originally appeared in the May 16 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

There’s no longer any need to say we’re going to have another jam-packed ballot this year. It’s just the natural state of things that we vote on lots of big issues every other November.

But the San Diego City Council recently took some steps to determining which big issues we’re going to weigh in on this year, as its rules committee forwarded a handful of topics to the full Council for final placement on the ballot.

The height of coastal anxieties: Councilwoman Jen Campbell and Councilman Chris Cate’s joint proposal to exclude the Midway-Pacific Highway community from the 30-foot height limit for the area west of I-5, to boost redevelopment prospects near the Sports Arena, passed the committee and is one step closer to hitting the November ballot.

Without the blanket restriction imposed by a citywide vote in 1972, projects in the Midway area would instead be limited by the zoning restrictions in the community’s existing development plan, which range from 30 feet to 100 feet, depending on the parcel. But those limits could be undone by a vote of the City Council, whereas any exemption from the coastal height limit requires a citywide vote.

A poll from a labor-aligned group last month found the idea begins with about 48 percent voter approval, and the community planning group in the Midway area has unanimously supported the measure, but the public comments this week revealed it isn’t without controversy.

“We’ll deal with the obvious attack on the 30-foot coastal height limit – that’s what this is really all about: It’s the first step toward limiting the height limit on the coast,” said Scott Andrews during public comment.

“Ever since the 1980s, the plan in the city of San Diego has been to block the public from accessing their land, that they own, on the coast. This is again another incremental move to basically block anyone inland from enjoying the coast,” said John McNabb, another commenter.

(Yes, there were public commenters in favor of the measure, too.)

Only one member of the committee voted against putting it on the ballot: Councilwoman Barbara Bry, amid a mayoral campaign where she has already opposed attempts to increase dense development around the city.

But she didn’t mention the policy changes as her reason for opposing it.

“This may be a good idea but I don’t think this is the right time to do it, putting a measure on the ballot costs us about $500,000, we’ve heard the city attorney say they have limited time to analyze things, I think there are more pressing issues to put on the ballot at this time,” Bry said. “I have voted to increase density along transit, to approve 45,000 additional housing units, I voted to support the updated community plan in this area, in other areas, specifically Balboa, Morena Boulevard, Old Town, Mission Valley and at this time I don’t see an urgency in doing this, so I will be voting ‘no.’”

A spokesman for Bry’s mayoral opponent, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, whose district includes the Midway area, said in a statement he agrees with the committee’s decision.

“Todd agrees with the Rules Committee majority’s decision to advance a measure to give San Diegans the opportunity to consider a new life for the Sports Arena property,” said Nick Serrano, Gloria’s spokesman.

Money in politics reform: The committee moved forward a measure to create a publicly financed elections program to encourage new and different candidates to run for office, while diminishing the influence of outside money on city decision-making.

The program would force the city to budget roughly $5 million a year into a new fund, to be used by candidates who opt into the program.

Candidates would need to collect a minimum number of donations before they qualify (500 for Council, 2,000 for mayor), and they could raise a small amount ($7,500 for Council, $30,000 for mayor) to explore a run before announcing.

Once in the race, they could only make OK’d expenditures from the fund, and they’d agree if they won not to raise money for their next race (with exceptions for a legal defense fund and an account for officeholder expenses). They couldn’t use their own money on their campaigns.

The committee moved it forward on a 3-2 vote, with Council President Georgette Gómez arguing it would encourage more people to run for office. Bry voted against it, citing city finances during the pandemic and Councilman Mark Kersey argued the city’s current election restrictions are already sufficient to encourage plenty of candidates and blunt the impact of money.

Election by power rankings: San Diego could soon join San Francisco and Maine with its own version of an election system known as ranked-choice voting.

Instead of simply filling the bubble for one candidate, voters would instead get to rank their preferences. That way, if their top choice is out of contention, they could still have a say in the outcome.

The city’s proposal is its own animal, though. Most ranked-choice systems forgo a primary, skip right to the general and ask voters to rank their top choices from everyone on the ballot. The San Diego model would instead have a primary in which four candidates would advance to the general, and voters would then be asked to rank their preference among the four options.

The thinking was that it would be easier on voters if they didn’t need to rank their choices from a field of 10-plus candidates, and that it was an incremental step from the current system, where the top two candidates automatically advance from the primary.

That too advanced on a 3-2 vote. Opponents Gómez and Councilman Chris Ward, argued it would be confusing to have this system in place for city races while federal, state and school district races maintain traditional rules. Kersey said the city’s proposal was a balance between its existing system and a full ranked-choice voting system that skips a primary.

The committee, though, will still need to take another vote on the proposal, after the city attorney analyzes the idea more fully. But the proposal could address one of the concerns raised by opponents, after Kersey asked the city attorney to consider applying the new system to San Diego Unified elections as well. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery and Bry joined Kersey in supporting the concept.

That ol’ PLA fight: Back in 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition A, a measure that forbid the city from requiring project labor agreements – deals with contractors on big projects in which they agree to hire through union halls and pay certain wages and benefits – in exchange for unions agreeing to guarantee labor to finish the job without going on strike.

Since then, the state Legislature passed two laws that make cities ineligible for certain state funding if they prohibit PLAs.

That cat-and-mouse game has created the present situation, in which the city may be subject to lost state funds for big projects, like a proposal to cut how much untreated sewage it dumps into the water while creating a new source of drinking water for city residents, as long as Prop. A is on the books.

Eddie Sprecco, CEO of San Diego’s chapter of the Associated General Contractors, however, said the measure isn’t needed because threats of lost state funding have been levied since 2012 and have never come true.

Ward said the city’s “lived experience” since 2012 has been uncertainty around state funding, outside legal challenges that threaten funding and create project delays that increase costs. He said the ambiguity caused by Proposition A means it needs to be thrown out.

Bry and Kersey opposed moving the measure forward, though. “I certainly support workers’ rights, I support local hire, I support the city getting its fair share of state money,” Bry said. “As far as I’ve seen, we’ve always gotten our fair share of state money, and Proposition A allows us to do a PLA if it’s a condition of getting state money.”

She said she couldn’t support putting the measure on the ballot, based on the city’s finances from the pandemic.

It’s another interesting vote from Bry, who is locked in the city’s first Democrat-versus-Democrat mayoral race. The measure is proposed by the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council and has widespread support from organized labor, a traditional ally of the Democratic Party.

Kersey’s vote is notable, after he last year voted to impose a PLA on the airport’s proposed redevelopment of Terminal 1, despite a threat from former congressional candidate Carl DeMaio that he wouldn’t sleep again if he voted for the airport’s PLA.

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

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