Council President Sean Elo-Rivera at a press conference in April 2021. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

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It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal, historically, it is that Measure B passed in the city of San Diego.

For actual decades we have seen and moderated countless public discussions about the city’s finances where someone would say “the city needs new money.” And someone else would say “where would you get it” and the first person would say “well, we could repeal the People’s Ordinance and charge for trash service,” and two dozen pairs of eyes in the audience would roll.

Like reforming Proposition 13, it seemed both like it would always come up and never be a serious consideration.

But now it happened. San Diego voters have agreed to let the city study and implement a special fee for trash collection. As it stands, if you can get your trash into a city bin and out to a city-owned street, the city will take it. As the city’s independent budget analyst noted last year, it’s one of the only services the city pays for with the general fund that confers an exclusive benefit only to a subset of city residents.

Don’t expect a fee anytime soon: Remember that state law allows cities to impose fees for services or facilities that benefit the people who pay the fee. For example, say you want to charge a fee to enter Balboa Park. If you only spend the money from the fee improving Balboa Park, then you can do it. But if you want to use the money to pay for lifeguards and other general needs, it’s considered a tax and must be approved by a vote of the people.

But in San Diego, we had an additional law that literally prohibited the fee on trash service. That’s what Measure B overturned.

Imposing fees, though, is not a simple thing.

The city first must do a cost-of-service study. It will have to hire an independent analyst to evaluate exactly what it costs to provide the service. That means they have to decide what service they’re even trying to cost out. Just selecting a consultant to do the study and then the time to actually conduct the study could take more than a year. Then the city will have to alert the people affected by the new fee, who will have a chance to formally protest.

In other words, it will likely be up to two years before a fee could be implemented.

And what happens in two years? An election.

If, say, Mayor Todd Gloria, or an incumbent City Council member, is facing a tough re-election bid are they going to want to send bills out in the weeks or months before an election? Maybe.

Big choices: Every other major city charges fees for trash collection but they are very different. Some guarantee bulk-items can be collected. Others offer services for e-waste. San Diego’s promoters of Measure B promised free bin replacements so they should probably include that as part of the benefits.

Lots of people want recycling service to come every week – as opposed to every other week like it does now. So will that be offered?

For a while, recycling paid for itself with fees from the landfill and with the money from the recycling materials the city sold. But China stopped buying as much of our recycling and it no longer pays for itself. So any expansion of recycling is harder … unless they add to the fee.

And then there’s the question of how much a green bin food recycling service will cost to implement and how much of the money from the new fee will have to go to that. The City Council also doesn’t have to decide to cover the entirety of the cost of trash service.

These are all the kind of controversial, tough decisions that city leaders don’t typically make quickly.

Back to the historic nature of what happened: That’s not to take away from how big of a deal this was.

“It’s hard to think of a bigger, more transformative local political event in the last several decades,” said Michael Zucchet, the general manager of the Municipal Employees’ Association, the largest union of city employees, which paid for most of the campaign effort in favor of it. “At least going back to 1980, one mayor after another has told San Diego voters that the city was exceptional and could provide a high level of service without charging what other cities did.”

Zucchet said Council President Sean Elo-Rivera was the one who got it started and made it happen.

“Sean Elo-Rivera’s willingness to raise his hand after 40 years of this discussion going the same away and saying ‘Hey I think it’s time to test that assumption that San Diegans won’t do this. Maybe they’ve grown up and are willing to listen to the truth,” Zucchet said.

Why Elo-Rivera did it: Elo-Rivera told the Politics Report he had been thinking about the People’s Ordinance since he was involved in nonprofits before his election. But he also mentioned that the discussion about how to regulate vacation rentals also pushed it forward. He wanted them to be able to recover part of the extra trash these de facto hotels created and the People’s Ordinance stood in the way.

“If I hear about a problem enough times, I don’t want to hear about it anymore. I want to fix it,” he said.

History note: Elo-Rivera said he talked to former City Manager Jack McGrory as he thought about how to navigate this. McGrory told him that he brought the issue before the City Council two dozen times before the Council forbade him from bringing it up again.

Chula Vista (Probably) Won’t Send a Republican to SANDAG

Chula Vista candidate for mayor John McCann speaks to reporters at the Republican election party held at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran for Voice of San Diego

Mayor-elect John McCann’s victory in Chula Vista was a major pickup for Republicans in San Diego County’s second largest city, but it probably won’t give the party control over the second-largest vote at the San Diego Association of Governments.

That’s because Jose Preciado, a Democrat, has opened a 1,100-vote lead in Chula Vista’s District 2 council race, over Republican Steve Stenberg. Stenberg 500-vote lead on election night gave him a 5.7-point edge, which Stenberg has totally erased as late-arriving ballots have been tallied.

Now, the special election to replace Councilman Padilla, who won his state Senate race in a landslide, will not determine partisan control of the City Council. Regardless of the outcome of that race, Preciado will join Carolina Chavez and Andrea Cardenas to give the Democrats at worst a 3-2 majority.

The partisan lean of a Council, though, doesn’t always dictate who represents a city at SANDAG, where each city’s vote is weighted to its proportion of the county’s population. After the 2020 election, Carlsbad’s Democratic Council majority nonetheless sent Republican Mayor Matt Hall as its representative, which became a source of controversy within the Democratic Party. Escondido, meanwhile, has been without a representative at SANDAG for most of the year after Democratic Mayor Paul McNamara nominated himself for the appointment, but failed to win three votes from his City Council. Rather than appoint a compromise candidate, he let the seat sit empty. Dane White, a Republican, has now won the city’s mayoral seat.

Notes

City Councilwoman Marti Emerald / File photo by Sam Hodgson

Troubleshooter back in office: Marti Emerald, the longtime TV news troubleshooter who went on to serve on the San Diego City Council looks to be headed back to elected office. Emerald ran for a seat on the Sweetwater Union High School District Governing Board and appears to have won it. She moved to Imperial Beach after her stint on the City Council and a neighbor and friend, Paula Hall, is the president of the Sweetwater Governing Board. Hall encouraged Emerald to run.

Now talking education: Emerald said she wants to restore confidence in public schools. “Paula was part of a new team that came on board trying to straighten things out at Sweetwater and I want to help them turn a corner, restore the image and address issues that kids are struggling with after the pandemic,” Emerald said.

Not fondly remembered by some: The news provoked some negative memories of her term on the City Council. Khalid Alexander tweeted that he remembers her being very dismissive of criminal justice reform advocates when they spoke at Council. “I will never allow anyone to treat me or the community that way again. I hope she approaches the students she is supposed to serve better than the constituents she was once elected to represent on the Council.”

Towing getting a look: We talked about the audit of the city’s towing practices on the podcast this week. The City Council now has agreed to review the troubling findings.

New assessor got a boost: Jordan Marks claimed victory this week in the hottest assessor/recorder/clerk race anyone can remember. His opponent, Barbara Bry, conceded. Marks is a famously good fundraiser but he also had some help. Former Port Commissioner Steve Cushman sent out a press release explaining why he helped fund a $200,000 independent campaign for Marks.

“As chief deputy assessor, Jordan has saved county taxpayers millions of dollars, uncovered waste and fraud, administered thousands of marriages, and restored faith in the effectiveness of government through his unmatched passion for service,” Cushman wrote.

Lee dominant in D6: A lot of us had convinced ourselves that the San Diego City Council District 6 race was tight. It turned out not to be. With the vast majority of the vote count in, Kent Lee is up 60 percent to 40 percent for Tommy Hough.

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

Scott Lewis

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

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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3 Comments

  1. “It’s hard to think of a bigger, more transformative local political event in the last several decades,” said Michael Zucchet,” What a ridiculous statement and from a pardoned criminal. But, it is interesting to know his union paid for the effort, that will need some serious looking into.

    1. Hey dude, we men love the dolls at Cheetahs! But how did “Big Mike’ pull the feminist vote ala Clinton?

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