A passenger boards the trolley at the Old Town station. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

A tax increase that regional planners were counting on to fulfill their vision for transportation in San Diego has failed before going to voters.

Supporters of the citizen’s initiative that would have raised the county’s sales tax to pay for transit, highway and road projects did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, according to a letter from the county’s Registrar of Votes delivered to proponents Wednesday.

The measure’s premature failure means not only that the San Diego Association of Governments will be unable to pay for the transportation vision it passed just six months ago, but also voters will not be asked to approve any new revenue on the November ballot.

Several months ago, there were as many as three or four other potential tax increases headed for the ballot.

What happened: The letter, sent to the union leaders and engineering firm listed as proponents for the measure, explained that the county conducted a random check of three percent of the signatures submitted to see the share of them that came from current registered voters.

That share of valid signatures, applied to the 141,326 total signatures the Registrar said proponents submitted, indicated a total of 94,787 valid petitions from San Diego County voters.

Not only is that short of the 115,788 signatures that the initiative needed to qualify, it’s below a lower threshold – 95 percent of those submitted, or 109,999 – which would have triggered an exhaustive count the petitions submitted, giving the proponents hope to qualify.

“The petition is found to be insufficient for qualification,” the letter from Cynthia Paes, the county registrar of voters, reads.

But wait: While the letter is conclusive, offering no recourse for the measure’s proponents, a Friday statement from the group argues that something has gone wrong.

The registrar’s letter details that the proponents submitted a total of 141,326 signatures – 70 percent of which the county deemed valid, based on its random spot check.

Proponents argue they submitted 164,316 signatures. They’ve provided a receipt, stamped by the registrar, from when they submitted the signatures that lists the higher signature total.

“We were shocked to learn that over 23,000 voter signatures are apparently missing from the total of nearly 165,000 collected to qualify this initiative for the ballot,” wrote Dan Rottenstreich, a spokesman for the proponents, in a Friday statement.

The Registrar did not respond to voice messages or emails sent Friday afternoon asking to clarify whether those additional signatures were not counted for some reason, or whether they were never actually submitted.

The group that sponsored the signature gathering campaign, the San Diego Alliance for Traffic Relief, Reliable Transit & Jobs sponsored by labor organizations and businesses, still had $1.15 million in their account as of the end of March.

It might not have made a difference: The registrar estimated, based on its random count, that the proponents submitted 94,787 valid signatures, or 67 percent of the 141,326 signatures they submitted. But that 67 percent validity rate, even if applied to the 164,316 signatures the proponents say they submitted would still not reach the 115,788 valid signatures required to qualify.

It would, however, place the measure within the threshold needed for the county to count every ballot, giving them a chance of exceeding the registrar’s estimate.

Why it matters: Late last year, SANDAG approved a $160 billion outline for transportation projects throughout the region in the coming decades.

But on the same day the board approved that plan, it also jump-started an amendment to the plan that would remove the expectation that the region would begin charging a fee on drivers for every mile they drive. That would remove $14 billion in funding for the plan that the agency would need to find elsewhere, or scale back the transportation network’s ambitions.

Now, the agency has an even bigger hole to fill.
The long-term plan assumed not only that county voters would approve this tax measure, but another one during the 2028 election. Combined, that would raise $20 billion. More than half of that is already gone.

The agency also assumes that voters in the Metropolitan Transit Service area will approve their own tax increase in two years, for another $6.1 billion.

One way to fill that hole: SANDAG could, technically (maybe), still put a sales tax measure on the November ballot. It would have to do so with a board vote, rather than through a citizen’s initiative, which would mean it would need two-thirds voter approval, instead of a bare majority.

That’s precisely what conservative board members, led by Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, had implored the agency to do earlier this year.

It would be a stretch, though, for the agency at this point to prepare a ballot measure and march it through the required approval process before committees and the full board in time to qualify for the ballot.

The Tricky Role of an Elected Official/Political Consultant

About a month before Election Day, an independent expenditure committee supporting Ammar Campa-Najjar’s bid to become Chula Vista’s next mayor began a series of payments to the political consulting firm Grassroots Resources for online advertising on the candidate’s behalf. The payments totaled $50,000.

Chula Vista Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas, during her day job, is an employee of that political consulting firm. Her brother, Jesus Cardenas, runs Grassroots Resources.

Elected officials in part-time roles, like the Chula Vista City Council, typically maintain their profession from before winning office. But working in the business of politics, while also working as a public official, presents an unusual balance that Cardenas must strike.

Case in point: A few weeks after her firm got a gig from an independent group supporting Campa-Najjar to reach voters, Cardenas endorsed Campa-Najjar.

During a live podcast recording in Chula Vista Thursday night, we asked Cardenas about that.
Her firm has served operators in the cannabis industry, for example. How does she balance that while setting policy for the industry on the Council?

“It’s simple: There are boundaries,” she said. “Really, for me, if it’s anything that’s going to compromise my values and my path, I just don’t touch it. It’s very simple, my job is community organizations, and communications, and really talking a lot more with folks about how to engage not only people of color and immigrants and Spanish-speaking folks and young people, and when that is at the helm of what I’m doing, there is no conflict of interest.”

Cardenas said she does not represent any clients that she anticipates forcing her to recuse herself from a decision on, should they ever have business before the city.

“I don’t have any clients, really – I do a lot of the admin stuff, and you know, since I got elected, that’s been an even bigger market, it’s always been very difficult for people to force me to work on something that I’m not passionate about,” she said. “And so, even now when we’re talking about the cannabis industry, I’m very careful not to blend those lines, because if it doesn’t look good, it’s not good.”

If Campa-Najjar was elected, her firm’s work to help make that happen, she said, would not present an issue of appearances if she ever faced a difficult vote on which she ultimately sided with him.

“It becomes an issue when you decide that you are willing to compromise your vision, your morals, for money,” she said. “Anyone who is around me knows that’s just not how that works for me. Even though the firm that I work with worked on his IE, I was not convinced of him being our next mayor until quite recently. And, I was not involved with that, specifically to avoid these kind of situations.”


San Diego City Council District 2: Supporters of Jen Campbell sent out a barrage of mailers attacking former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña and another batch promoting the Republican in the race, Linda Lukacs. And they achieved what was intended. Lukacs will advance to the runoff election with Campbell.

Now, those supporters of Campbell believe her victory in that runoff is a foregone conclusion given the party makeup of the district and other wizardly deductions they’ve made from the data.
Lukacs probably has other ideas.

Now, that the coalition got their preferred candidate into the runoff against Campbell, though, it will turn its attention to …

City Council District 6: It is no surprise Tommy Hough and Kent Lee advanced to the runoff election. But in that runoff, business and labor and smart growth advocates are very interested in Lee becoming the representative. Hough has taken a sharp turn toward neighborhood populist ideas and the business groups would like to see Lee make it to the City Council seat.

Cops got what they wanted: The Deputy Sheriffs Association, the union of county employed officers, spent $40,000 supporting County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and more than $165,000 supporting Kelly Martinez to advance to the runoff for sheriff and be their new boss. They spent $10,000 against Georgette Gomez and $10,000 for David Alvarez in the closely watched 80th Assembly District race.

The result? Fletcher advanced. Not a surprise but they’re down as having done their part for him. Martinez easily advanced. Gomez didn’t and Alvarez did. Police unions in lots of places spent heavily against Gomez and for Alvarez and Alvarez touted his commitment to law enforcement.

In Chula Vista, for months, the Chula Vista Police Officers Association was unsure with whom to fight for the mayor’s race. They went in on John McCann eventually and he came out of the primary strong. It’s still unclear whether he’ll face Councilwoman Jill Galvez or Ammar Campa-Najjar in the runoff.

Not everything went quite their way. The cops in Chula Vista supported John Moot for city attorney and he did not make the runoff.

If you have any ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org

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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