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San Diego Will Ask Judge To Salvage Convention Center Expansion

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The City Council on Tuesday voted to go ahead with Measure C, a March 2020 ballot measure that seeks to fund an expansion through increased hotel taxes, even though it garnered approval from slightly less than two-thirds of city voters.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Generally speaking ballot measures, win or lose depending on the vote count, but then there's that little known third outcome limbo. That's where San Diego's measure C has found itself since last March measure C if you'll recall, was the ballot measure to expand the convention center and provide funds for infrastructure and homelessness by increasing the hotel occupancy tax voters overwhelmingly approved it, but not by the two thirds vote thought necessary. Now in light of a series of court rulings, the San Diego city council has decided to validate a win for measure C and prepare a court case to defend the decision. Joining me is KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Andrew. Welcome. Hi Marine. Thanks. So since measure C did not get the two thirds votes such tax hikes usually need people thought it was defeated. What's changed.

Speaker 2: 00:58 Well, there's been a series of changes over the last four years in how courts have interpreted the existing law that governs citizens' initiatives. Uh, it really all started with a Supreme court decision in a case out of the city of Upland, about two hours North of here in San Bernardino County, and this involved a citizens initiative to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries, without going too deep into the details. The Supreme court basically found that citizens' initiatives are not subject to the same rule as ballot measures that are proposed by government agencies. They didn't explicitly say anything about taxes and what threshold is needed for approval of attacks, but subsequent rulings have led us further down that path and got us closer to that potential outcome.

Speaker 1: 01:45 Now, how exactly does the city council's vote revive this measure? What needs to happen now?

Speaker 2: 01:51 Well, because of the lingering ambiguity, we haven't gotten a decision from the Supreme court, uh, saying, you know exactly what threshold is needed for these types of taxes. The city is going to ask a judge to confirm its decision or to validate it. If it gets a favorable decision from the trial court, it will then start collecting these additional hotel taxes. It can start issuing bonds to actually start construction on this long, uh, desired, uh, expansion of the convention center, whatever the outcome of the trial court, that decision of course can be appealed. So it could be a while before we have complete clarity on, um, on measure C.

Speaker 1: 02:31 Now the convention center has been closed to events for a year now, and the hospitality industry has suffered a great deal since the pandemic do supporters think measure C is going to help that

Speaker 2: 02:44 They do, and they argue that this would be a shot in the arm for the tourism economy, as it tries to recover from, uh, the, the shutdown, uh, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I think whatever boost to actual hotel occupancy that we might see from a larger convention center probably wouldn't happen until the actual convention center is expanded and we can start hosting bigger conventions. Uh, so, you know, the, there would definitely be, uh, additional economic activity say from the construction, uh, and the actual, um, jobs that come from that. Um, we could also again see more immediate funding for homelessness and affordable housing, which is the second largest area of funds that a measure C would actually give money to.

Speaker 1: 03:30 Now, there were three members of the city council who voted against validating measure. C why did they vote? No,

Speaker 2: 03:37 They say and point out correctly that the city's ballot materials and out to voters said that measure seeing needed a two thirds majority. And that was based on kind of a conservative interpretation of, uh, what the courts had decided at that point in time, they say, you know, voters were told this measure needed a super majority, and that the council deciding a year after the election, otherwise is a betrayal of the democratic process. Now supporters of the council's action on Tuesday argue that the California constitution and the court's interpretation of the constitution certainly matter a whole lot more than whatever is in, uh, the ballot materials that voters receive. And they say that no one really votes yes or no on a tax measure based on what the threshold for approval is. Rather, they just base their decision on whether they think the tax is a good policy or not.

Speaker 1: 04:32 How close did measure C come to getting that two thirds, majority vote

Speaker 2: 04:36 Very close. It w it passed with a little over 65% of the vote. So tantalizingly close to that two thirds, majority that it needed, and that perhaps gives a political boost to supporters of measure C it makes it tougher to argue that the council in declaring that measure C is approved is really betraying the will of voters. When the overwhelming majority of voters, uh, supported measure C um, opponents would just counter that. It doesn't really matter how close to the two thirds majority they came. It doesn't matter whether measure C is good or bad policy. It just matters that they can, the city is consistent with, um, what it's telling voters and kind of sticks to its argument that it, that it made a year ago when ballot materials were submitted.

Speaker 1: 05:22 And do the city leaders think this issue will wind up before the state Supreme court?

Speaker 2: 05:27 Well, so far the Supreme court has declined a, uh, to review a case out of San Francisco that would have kind of settled this question. Uh, there are some other cases that are, that have made, uh, gotten decisions at the trial court level that could be appealed up to the court of appeal. And let's say two courts of appeal come to different conclusions. Then I think the Supreme court would step in. Um, but it's possible we could get clarity with no Supreme court ruling. Uh, it really just depends on, on how all of those different courts throughout the state of California, uh, come down on, on these issues. And I've been speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew. Thank you. My pleasure, Maureen.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.