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Emerald Alleges Vote Swapping Killed Firehouse Bond

Councilwoman Alleges Vote Swapping In Firehouse Bond Defeat


Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS


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.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald at council meeting February 25, 2014.

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.

Photo by 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.


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