2011: San Diego's Top Government/Politics stories.
December 27, 2011 1:04 p.m.
Katie Orr, KPBS Metro Reporter
Related Story: 2011: San Diego's Top Government/Politics Stories
ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John. It's been a busy year at San Diego City hall. We've seen vacillations on medicinal marijuana policies, controversy over major developments like the stadium and the Convention Center. And there's a big election coming up with major decisions on pensions and who is to serve as the city's new mayor. KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr, is here to give us a version of this, it's a good time to get caught up as to where we are.
ORR: Absolutely. It's going to be a busy year
ST. JOHN: Since we were thought talking about medicinal marijuana in the last segment, let's start there. How much work did the city put in to try to find a clarification on what to do about medicinal marijuana?
ORR: The city put in a lot of time. It had a task force. I believe it was about a two-year time period that they were working to create this ordinance. And the task force eventually recommended that the city limit dispensaries to certain zones. The commercial and industrial zones within the city. However, when the City Council actually passed the ordinance, they did not do the zone idea. And instead they were limiting how far in distance dispensaries could be, 600†feet from a school or park or church. In the end, what that did, the medical marijuana advocates believed it created a de facto ban. You couldn't have one anywhere. So advocates went out, collected enough signatures, and the City Council eventually overturned its own ordinance because they say they didn't want to spend the money to put the issue on the ballot
ST. JOHN: So at that point, it was a bit of a free for all for a whileful then the feds stepped in.
ORR: It was. It was sort of status quo for the city, but there was no zoning. The city attorney sent out letters to dispensaries telling them they needed to shut down because since zoning distribute allow for any medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, that means they're all illegal. Then the feds stepped in and started sending similar letters to dispensaries saying -- or to whoever owned the building saying this violets federal law, you need to shut down or we'll go after you.
ST. JOHN: So what was really the argument from the feds, from Laurie Duffey?
ORR: The feds were saying this has gone beyond people using it for medicine, and it's turned into a big business. And I have a bite from Lauraa did you havo that.
NEW SPEAKER: This industry is becoming more along the lines of drug trafficking in large part than it is about providing medicine to the sick.
ORR: And that was the message from her and the three other US attorneys in California that they're not going to go after cancer patients who are growing it in their homes, but they're not going to turn a blind eye to these collectives. However, the collectives, they were not taking this sitting down. And I spoke with attorney Jessica mackelfresh earlier this year about that.
NEW SPEAKER: We believe that they're going to be able to furn this back with a significant public outcry, and you can't reach through the mail and pull the letter back out, but basically get the policy changed.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: So the city attorney had to kind of change all of his strategies for that. Where are we at now?
ORR: Well, so basically status quo, the feds are -- still haven't backed down. We have had some state officials trying to say, hey, listen, this is our law, let's work together. But so far, not much has changed. All the medical marijuana advocates are still working to try and get something changed because a lot of collectives in San Diego and throughout the state have shut down
ST. JOHN: So what can we expect coming up in the new year on this one?
ORR: Locally, medical marijuana advocates have crafted their own referendum for the city, a new ordinance, and they're going to start collecting signatures. So that will be on the November ballot. So about a year from now we would see something from them
ST. JOHN: Okay. So it was a big year for redevelopment dreams, at least, in San Diego. We got the stadium the Convention Center, the library, and then there was the north embarcadero. And we're also hearing about Balboa Park.
ORR: Right, right.
ST. JOHN: Come ones have actually started? I think the library is actually -- broken ground.
ORR: It's broken ground. They are building it. I checked in with them a couple months ago. They needed about $25†million by the end of December for construction to keep going, and the fundraisers haven't released any numbers lately, but they say they're going to get it, they're confident about it. So that project is going forward for the moment. The Convention Center, they're in the midst of trying to come up with a funding plan to expand the Convention Center. It's a project that seems to have a lot of support, but it's a half a billion dollar project. And they're hoping -- and so the financing plan is not expected to be finalized until May
ST. JOHN: At least we've seen drawings of that, right?
ST. JOHN: So the dreams have manifested as far as the drawing board.
>> And they seem -- it has a lot of supporters, business leaders, the mayor is a big championship of it. But it's a matter of how you're going to pay for it. That's the question it comes down to for everything. And we saw an interesting twist where the chargers tried to jump on the Convention Center band wagon, and said let's -- they of course want to build their stadium downtown. So let's combine these two facilities, and we can kill two birds with one stone. That did not fly with the Convention Center people or the mayor. They -- very clear they did not like that project
ST. JOHN: So here we area the the end of 2011, and the stadium funding -- a couple things have happened to make it look more likely, and the least of which, the new owner of the newspaper is in favor of. But in terms of money and dollars?
ORR: The NFL revived its stadium loan program, which it puts out there so teams can build new stadiums, and that might help contribute toward a new stadium. It's bill about a $500†million public contribution, I believe. San Diego, last November, if you will recall, mayor Jerry Sanders, and Nathan Fletcher passed this deal to lift the cap on the amount of money downtown San Diego's development agency could collect, which got a lot of people angry because they felt it was done secretly. And some feel it drew the attention of the government to redevelopment agencies. He then said, Jerry Brown said these agencies are taking too much public tax money, and he thought they should be abolished am so he signed a bill abolishing then, then he signed another one saying you can keep existing, but you'll be more limited and give money to local schools. That's being fought over in the Courts right now.
ST. JOHN: Right.
>> And they expect to have a rule big mid-January because mid-January is also when the redevelopment agencies, if they choose -- if Governor Brown's legislation stands, that's when they have to pay this extra money to the schools to allow --
ST. JOHN: To go ahead.
ORR: Right. To keep operation
ST. JOHN: Most of us never thought in the spring we would still be talking about this at the end of the year. And still not know.
ORR: And it's a lot of money for these cities, not just San Diego, all around the state. So they are fighting that pretty hard
ST. JOHN: There's one project that has broken ground. The north embarcadero?
ORR: Right. That is the official -- the official groundbreaking is next week. That's a project you've covered a lot. It's been in the makings for years, a plan to sort of modify broadway, and harbor drive down by where they made the new cruise ship terminal. Put in a park, narrow harbor drive, and the port sees this as a really great project to revamp San Diego's waterfront. They were able to come to an agreement with some activists who really fought them tooth and nail to make sure they got the park space they wanted, and that it was about the public and not just the developers. So the first phase of that project has started.
ST. JOHN: So we've got the library and the north embarcadero actually look like they're going to happen, and the stadium and the Convention Center are still in this melting pot stage. Then there's the Balboa Park.
ORR: Right. And I think that will probably be a big story next year. Of course, the mayor and Erwin Jacobs who is a big supporter of KPBS, are the founder of Qualcomm, want to build an access road around the southern part of the museum of man to route cars out of the plaza de Panama, into a parking garage they would build. And the idea is to get this project done in time for the 2015 centennial celebration of the Panama exhibit at Balboa Park. The historic preservation people do not like this idea. They think it would change the character of the park. That will likely be a battle as well
ST. JOHN: Before we leave the whole Convention Center thing, we've got the elections coming up next year, is it possible that -- probably not the Convention Center, but would the stadium have to go to the voterses? Would the voters ultimately get a vote before a decision is made?
ORR: Yes. Mayor Jerry Sanders, I believe, has said he wanted a vote by next November. This coming November on a stadium. If public tax money is involved, you would have to send it to a vote of the people. But it's sort of idling out there, there aren't any firm plans that have been released at this point. And it'll be interesting to see if it ramps up again. Right now, the Convention Center has taken center stage. And it'll be interesting to see whether the chargers' season has any impact on the stadium. I mean, certainly no one wants to see them go, but they didn't have the greatest season this year
ST. JOHN: Yeah, yeah. OKAY, well, that's to unfold next year. Now, we've got a big volt coming up in November, which is the pension vote. So much talk. That was the cause of the city's crisis, and this is being touted as, like, the solution. What have we finally reached by the end of this year as a possible solution?
ORR: In Junes, voters will get to decide whether they want to eliminate city pensions for most new public city employees. It would not affect police officers. They would still get a pension, although their pension would be capped at 80% of their pay, come is lower than it is now. It would also freeze what they call the pensionable pay, basically the base salary of current employees for five years. And it's an effort to get away from this pension mess. It's pretty controversial. It's a little bit unique. You don't see a whole lot of this. It pops up, these issues are popping up in other cities around the country. But San Diego is a bit unique in that it's moving away from this government pension system or it's trying to. This is a pretty controversial thing. I have two bites for you, first is Carl DeMaio who is an advocate of this plan, and next laborer leader Lorena Gonzalez who does not like this plan.
NEW SPEAKER: There are three areas of savings, the cap, the freeze on existing employee pensions saves hundreds of millions of dollars in the first 10 years. Second, the increased contributions city employees will have to pay for their pensions saves tens of millions of dollars each year. And switching to a 401K, switching the investment risk to the city employee, rather than having the taxpayer bear that risk will save know unknown amount of money.
NEW SPEAKER: I can't imagine that anyone would want seniors to live with only a 401K when we saw during the recession what can happen to individual 401Ks, and if you don't have the safety net of Social Security, what that can mean for our seniors
And she was referring to the fact that San Diego is not unrolled in Social Security. And is they don't necessarily have to enroll in Social Security if voters decide to adopt this plan. So that is one of the concerns. We all saw what can happen to 401Ks when the economy goes down. And it's safer for the city, but is it necessarily safer for the employees who don't have Social Security to fall back on? It's interesting because just a couple months ago, governor Jerry Brown proposed a new plan for the state that would create sort of a hybrid pension 401K/Social Security system. It's not this all or nothing thing. So it'll be interesting to see if that moves forward at the state level
ST. JOHN: That was what mayor Sanders of proposing, was let's do something a little bit more along the lines of what Jerry Brown is suggesting now. But the voters are going to be faced with this.
ORR: Absolutely. And there seems to be a lot of support for it. People are tired of this pension thing, they think this is a solution. But the unions are not just going to sit back and let it happen. It's going to be a pretty dramatic fight
ST. JOHN: I agree. So in the minute that we have left, of course the other big thing on the elections is the mayor.
ST. JOHN: Who's going to be the next mayor? Would you say any of the four candidates are taking the lead at this point?
ORR: You hear all their names bandied about. Carl DeMaio is running hard, Nathan Fletcher seems to be getting out there. Bob Filner is appearing more. Bonnie Dumanis laid low for a little while, but it seems as the first of the year comes, and we're with six months out from the primary, the candidates are going to step it up a little bit as people get focused on the election
ST. JOHN: And which issues do you think will affect the race the most?
ORR: Definitely the pension. All of the three Republican candidates endorse this plan. Bob Filner, the only Democrat does not endorse that plan. You have to talk about all of them, really, because they all involve all the development projects which involve so much city tax money that I think they're all going to be right the the top of the issues that the candidates consider
ST. JOHN: Well, it's kind of interesting going into an election year with four such strong candidates, and it would be difficult to place a bet on any of them at this point.
ORR: I think so. They have all their different supporters, and they all draw from different parts of the community. And it's going to be an interesting election year.