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Politics

Emerald Alleges Vote Swapping Killed Firehouse Bond

San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald at council meeting February 25, 2014.
Milan Kovacevic
San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald at council meeting February 25, 2014.
San Diego Firehouse Bond Fails At City Council
Councilwoman Alleges Vote Swapping In Firehouse Bond Defeat GUEST: Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS

A measure to increase property taxes for new fire stations look like it would be on the November ballot until yesterday evening. The proposal was advanced last week with the necessary 2/3 majority on the Council but that majority fell apart this week in a follow-up vote now allegations of vote swapping are emerging. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen joined us. Welcome Andrew. Thank you for having me. It appeared that this had the needed support to make it on the November ballot. What happened? It was actually Tuesday evening, not last evening. This measure had been working its way through the city Council committee starting in the spring. There were some skeptics out there but it hadn't really been stopped by anyone. Last week the city Council voted 6-3 in favor of putting this measure on the November ballot, asking voters to raise their own property taxes to pay for new fire stations. Five Democrats voted for it as well as one Republican. Tuesday they voted again on the measure in a somewhat procedural vote that was necessary under California law. The measure got a majority, 5 votes but not the super majority is needed under California law. That happen because the Republican who originally had voted in favor switched her vote to no. At the same time she was explaining her no vote, she presented this alternative plan, not giving a lot of details but the discussion of that plan was ultimately halted by the city attorney's office because it wasn't on the agenda. Counsel is not allowed to discuss things that they have not noticed to the public that they are going to be discussing. Remind us what the measure that was defeated, what would that have accomplished. The measure would issue general obligation bonds totaling $205 million which would be backed up by an increase in property taxes. It would have built 18 fire stations in the city. That number comes from a report that was commissioned by the city and issued in 2011 on the needs of the fire safety department. That report in San Diego found that the city had a serious lack, a deficit of fire stations. The response times in certain parts of the city were too long, subpar, particularly in the historically underserved communities, midcity and southeastern San Diego. This measure aimed to build all of the fire stations at San Diego needed quickly and build them all at once to essentially build up an economy of scale and reduce the cost of each individual station Potomac how much money was expected to raise? $205 million. You spoke with Marti Emerald who was a major champion of a higher house -- firehouse issue. What did she say? She was a major champion. She basically said the failure was a result of cynical partisan politics there she said that Mayor Kevin Fulcher -- Kevin Fulcher had allowed her to kill a different measure. This would essentially eliminate the rule in San Diego that allows elections to be decided in June if the candidate receives more than 50% of the votes. Instead this would force a runoff between the two goal -- vote getters as in state and federal elections. The current system is generally understood to favor Republicans. The next one is generally favoring Democrats. Many people believe that the Republicans do not like this reform. Councilman Emerald says Lori that -- Zaff had voted for this. She said that councilwoman's change of heart was essentially a retaliation for not trying to kill the other measure. I did reach out to the mayor and the councilwoman. The mayor's office sent me a one sentence statement saying this was untrue. Yesterday the Councilman sent me a statement saying that she did initially support the firehouse bonds but had doubts about it. This is all very inside baseball. This is city politics. Politically I am disappointed but I am not the loser. The people of San Diego are the losers because they are less safe pick there is no other plan, even envisioned that would build fire stations that we need to address today's needs, much less those of the future. What happens next, Andrew? As I said Councilwoman Zapf had basically discussed using funding from proposition H which was passed by voters in June as well as bonds. This measure would build, she says five fire stations instead of the 18 which is expected to become -- come before other committees. The property tax increase that Marti Emerald proposed is essentially dead. I have been speaking with Andrew Bowen. Thanks.

Emerald Alleges Vote Swapping Killed Firehouse Bond
Republicans on the San Diego City Council this week blocked a ballot measure to build 18 fire stations with an increase in property taxes. Councilwoman Marti Emerald says the measure failed because she refused to participate in a vote-swapping deal.

San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald on Thursday accused Mayor Kevin Faulconer's office of trying to organize a vote swap that would have saved her firehouse bond measure from defeat.

Last week, the measure appeared likely to pass, but it failed Tuesday after Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, a Republican, withdrew her support. The measure would have issued $205 million in bonds, backed up with an increase in property taxes, to build 18 fire stations across San Diego. Because California law requires a two-thirds majority for special tax increases, the proposed November bond measure failed in a partisan 5-4 split.

RELATED: San Diego Firehouse Bond Fails At City Council

Emerald, a Democrat, said the mayor's chief of staff, Stephen Puetz, had promised her six votes for the firehouse bond if she sided with Republicans in blocking a separate measure to change San Diego's election rules. That measure, promoted by the Independent Voters Project, would require a November runoff in all city elections regardless of how many votes a candidate gets in June. Currently, candidates win outright in June if they get more than 50 percent of the vote.

Emerald said she refused the offer from the mayor's office. When the election measure came up for a vote at the council meeting July 11, she initially voted with the Republicans to block it from the November ballot. After a moment of confusion, the council's electronic voting board was cleared and Emerald cast her vote with the Democrats. Emerald said she hit the wrong button by accident, immediately realized her mistake and asked to vote again.

"It's too bad partisan politics has come to this," Emerald said, referring to the alleged vote-swapping deal over the fire station measure. "But we see it everywhere, don't we? We see it in Congress. We see it now more vividly here in San Diego."

A spokesman for Faulconer, a Republican, emailed a brief statement Thursday to KPBS denying Emerald's vote-swapping allegations. "Her comment is untrue," the statement read.

San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf at a council meeting, Feb. 25, 2014.
Milan Kovacevic
San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf at a council meeting, Feb. 25, 2014.

Zapf explained her change of heart on the firehouse bond in a statement Wednesday, saying while she initially supported it, her concerns about raising taxes and the need to maintain existing public safety infrastructure led her to explore a separate proposal. The details of that proposal are few, but she said it would build five fire stations and repair existing police, fire and lifeguard stations with a combination of lease revenue bonds and existing city revenue.

Emerald had been building support for her firehouse bond measure since last year. She said its failure was a political disappointment, but that she was ultimately more concerned about San Diego's critical need for more fire stations.

"The people of San Diego are the losers here because they're less safe, and because there's no other plan even envisioned that would build the fire stations that we need to address today's needs, much less those of the future," she said.

It's unclear whether the firehouse bond would have won the necessary two-thirds majority in San Diego, where voters tend to be skeptical of tax increases.

The measure to change how San Diego's elections are decided needs a simple majority to pass. Democrats say it would improve democracy to settle elections in November, when voter turnout tends to be much higher than in June. Republicans say the proposal is a cynical power grab by Democrats, who tend to fare better in November elections.

Faulconer, Republican Councilmen Scott Sherman and Mark Kersey, and Democratic Councilman-elect Chris Ward won their elections in June by getting more than 50 percent of the vote. Two City Council races will be decided in the fall. Emerald is retiring from the City Council at the end of her term in December.