Council adds slew of measures to November ballot
City of San Diego voters will face some crucial decisions on the November ballot, including whether to raise property taxes to build 18 fire stations, enact a local marijuana tax and boost the importance of higher-turnout fall elections over June primaries.
The City Council voted Monday during a marathon session to put those proposals and some others before voters, such as expanding the methods for ousting wayward city officials and increasing the qualifications for city attorney.
The council late last night also placed on the ballot an extension of a 2008 ballot measure that directs Mission Bay Park lease revenue to regional park improvements.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer could veto the firehouse measure and the marijuana tax, but both proposals received at least the six council votes necessary to override a veto.
None of the measures will officially be placed on the ballot until Aug. 1 or 2 so the City Attorney’s Office can draft language based on council direction, but Monday was the last opportunity for council members and other city officials to make or suggest any substantive changes.
These measures would be in addition to 17 statewide ballot measures, including proposals to legalize recreational marijuana and others affecting the death penalty, gun control, and grocery bags.
City Clerk Liz Maland said such a large number of ballot measures could force the county registrar to use two-card ballots for the first time in memory.
“This is a very, very unique ballot in November,” she said.
This ballot measure, which would require two-thirds approval because it raises taxes for a specific purpose, would build 18 new fire stations by raising local property taxes $5 per $100,000 in assessed valuation for 30 years.
That would yield an estimated $205 million to build stations that a 2010 study said would do the most to shrink local response times, which don’t meet national standards because of local population growth and the city’s many canyons.
The council voted 6-3 in favor of placing the measure on the ballot, with Councilman Mark Kersey, Chris Cate and Scott Sherman voting no.
Supporters say it would provide money for a clear-cut need in San Diego and also help tackle the city’s infrastructure backlog, which some have estimated at $5 billion, by freeing up infrastructure funding that otherwise would have paid for fire stations.
“Every day in every part of the city we are missing deadlines, and missing those deadline can turn an injury in a serious auto accident to a death, or a kitchen fire into a home that is devastated,” Emerald said.
Critics question whether city taxpayers can afford to pay the dozens of new firefighters and equipment needed to operate 18 new stations, which has been estimated to cost $23 million and $27 million per year.
This ballot measure would establish a local tax on recreational marijuana if Californians vote to legalize it in November. It would need approval from a simple majority of voters, not two-thirds, because the revenue for the tax would be used for general purposes instead of something specific.
Supporters say the city tax is a proactive way to deal with an expected increase in local costs if recreational marijuana is legalized, particularly for law enforcement.
“I don’t want this council or future councils to have to divert money away from things, such as street repair, or further stretch our public safety resources in order to manage an unorthodox legal framework,” Councilman Kersey said.
The council voted 7-2 in favor of placing it on the ballot, with Sherman and Cate voting no.
“Because there’s a product we decide we probably don’t like, we are going to put up a special San Diego-only special tax just to penalize that one industry,” said Sherman, suggesting alcohol, cigars or sport-utility vehicles might be next.
Many other large California cities, including Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland, have been imposing such taxes for years on medical marijuana. San Diego’s tax wouldn’t apply to medical marijuana sales, only recreational.
The local tax, which would be in addition to sales tax on recreational marijuana and a 15 percent state tax proposed as part of the California ballot measure, would be phased in.
It would be 5 percent each of the first two years, and then rise to 8 percent in year three. After that, the council would have the discretion to raise it up to 15 percent in subsequent years.
The city charter would be amended to prohibit ballots in June primaries from including initiatives or referendums, and it would require the top two finishers in primaries for mayor, council and city attorney to face off in November.
This would increase the importance of higher-turnout November elections compared to lower-turnout June primaries.
The council approved both of those changes 5-4 in party line votes, with Democrats in favor of both and Republicans opposed.
Since 1989, the city has allowed candidates to clinch victory in primaries and avoid November runoffs if they receive more than 50 percent of the vote in June. The change would require November runoffs between the two candidates receiving the most votes in June, regardless of whether one of them gets more than 50 percent.
Because turnout among Democrats is typically much higher in November than June, the changes would appear likely to boost the chances of candidates in that party relative to Republicans.
“The simplest solution would be for all city candidate elections to be decided in November as they are at the state and federal level. This will avoid confusion among voters and maximize voter participation in city elections,” said Council President Sherri Lightner, a Democrat.
“Just because more people show up at one election doesn’t mean we change the rules to make sure we accommodate those people who exercise their right not to vote,” said Councilman Sherman, a Republican.
San Diego would get new ways to remove wayward officials, something city leaders have been seeking since they struggled to remove embattled Mayor Bob Filner from office three years ago.
The council, however, backed away on Monday from some proposed methods that would have been more aggressive than what other cities allow.
Those include the opportunity to suspend officials when they’ve been criminally charged but not convicted, and letting the council put a removal vote on the ballot by unanimously declaring “no confidence” in the mayor or city attorney.
This ballot proposal, which is another charter amendment, would allow removal of elected officials for being convicted or pleading guilty to a felony, being convicted or pleading guilty to a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, or being found civilly liable for misconduct related to an official’s job.
Removal could also happen for dereliction of duty, unlawful non-criminal conduct such as racial discrimination, or being declared mentally or physically incompetent by a judge.
Despite Monday’s retreat by the council, the list would still sharply expand the opportunities for removing elected officials now included in the charter, which is unusually limited compared to other cities.
A 2008 ballot measure known as Proposition C, which directs millions in lease revenue from Mission Bay Park each year into improvements there and in several other regional parks, would be significantly extended beyond its scheduled expiration in 2039 to 2069.
The extension would allow the city to immediately fund major renovation projects, many in Balboa Park, by selling bonds supported by future revenues.
The lease revenue in Mission Bay Park is from Sea World, hotels, campgrounds, a recreation vehicle park and other uses.
The qualifications to become city attorney, an elected position in San Diego, would be increased to include being a member of the California State Bar in good standing and having a minimum 10 years of experience practicing law in the state.
The charter doesn’t list any qualifications for city attorney, potentially allowing a non-lawyer to get elected or appointed to the post when an unexpected vacancy arises.
Goldsmith said on Monday that a non-lawyer essentially couldn’t function as city attorney, because it’s illegal to practice law in California without a law degree.
The proposed charter amendment would also reduce the probationary period for deputy city attorneys from two years to one.
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