A New Political Party You May Not Have Known You Registered For
KPBS Roundtable / February 14, 2020
Speaker 1: 00:00 The three person, city attorney's race features, charges countercharges and significant money. Then many San Diego ans who thought they were signing a petition, discovered they'd been registered as members of a brand new political party, measure C tax revenue would expand the convention center and benefit the homeless. So why is a homeless advocate against it and measure a will force a countywide vote on some housing developments. I'm Jade Hindman. The KPBS round table starts now.
Speaker 2: 00:33 [inaudible]
Speaker 1: 00:37 welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Jade Hindman and joining me at the KPBS round table today are Jennifer Bowman of I knew source Eric Anderson of KPBS news. Claire tried to sir of KPBS news also and Scott Lewis, a voice of San Diego. Welcome to all of you. Thank you. So the San Diego city attorney is the chief legal advisor to the mayor, nine city council members and all city departments. The office handles some 20,000 misdemeanor cases and 200 new civil cases each year. The current city attorney is Mara Elliott who's running for her second term two candidates are running to replace her. They are attorney Cory Briggs. And former deputy city attorney Pete message. So Scott, start by telling me about Mara Elliott. What are her interests? How long has she been in office?
Speaker 3: 01:24 Well, she's been in for a full term now almost. Uh, she, uh, uh, you know, there's been a debate for about a decade about the city attorney's office. It's an elected position. So does it really represent the people or does it, is it the lawyer for the city? And she came into office with this perspective that she was going to be kind of a quiet lawyer for the city. But as they all do, when they get into that space, they realize how powerful that post really is. And she's been very political and very forward with a lot of issues from a surveillance. And the cameras that came out to this lawsuit, she's taken, she's, she might shut down Instacart, uh, you know, that grocery app. Uh, there's all kinds of things that she's taken a front row seat on and, or a front, you know, a leading edge on and, and, uh, and it's caused a little bit of controversy.
Speaker 1: 02:10 And you mentioned the, the surveillance cameras. Tell me a bit more about that. Those were the, the smart street lights, right?
Speaker 3: 02:16 Yeah. They were sold to the public and to the city council as a way to help clean up traffic and the environment. And uh, and, and she came out just kind of randomly the other day and said, look at how great they are at solving crimes. And that was never part of how it was sort of set in motion. And so again, she's been really the face of a lot of very controversial issues.
Speaker 1: 02:35 And didn't she also try to weaken the California public records act?
Speaker 3: 02:39 Yeah, she did that. She partnered with Senate state Senator Ben waySo to, uh, to put up a bill that would have taken the only enforcement part of the California public records act out of it, uh, later. They abandoned that after a ton of scrutiny. So again, she was, uh, right in the middle of a very controversial issue.
Speaker 1: 02:57 Okay. Does it, didn't she make a big point of saying that she's
Speaker 4: 03:00 for transparency and, and that was one of the things that she was pushing in the campaign?
Speaker 3: 03:06 Yeah, exactly. She was actually, she came off to me in the campaign four years ago as the least interested in transparency, mostly just wanted to serve, wanted to not be in front of all these, these issues. And, but then she, you know, when she made the justification for this loss, she said, well, it just hurts. It's a burden for all these public agencies, but it really would've made it impossible to enforce the public records act. And that's the only thing we have.
Speaker 5: 03:31 And Jennifer, arguably her most well known opponent is Corey Briggs. Tell me about him and what kind of law does he practice? So Corey Briggs is, is well known for suing public agencies, including the city of San Diego. His name comes up and some of the biggest disputes you see anything from a waterfront project to any environmental concerns. Um, and uh, he typically represents nonprofits. One of his most frequent clients is San Diego, is for open government, um, and he in fact has filed over 20 lawsuits against the city. Um, some of which he's filed since he's announced he's running for city attorney. Um, sometimes he wins, sometimes you loses in court. Um, and, and supporters see him as an advocate of fighter against city hall. I'm fighting for the taxpayer. Those who don't believe that cm as someone who, um, uses, uh, the practice of suing to, to cash in and make a living and he's attacked a Elliot on a number of fronts.
Speaker 5: 04:26 What's his beef? Yeah. Um, so a couple of things that Scott mentioned, the, the public records act that happened about a year ago now, but it continues to become, uh, uh, a major point as far as the campaigns go. Um, and the smart street lights program, um, Corey Briggs has raised concerns about the, uh, surveillance and privacy standards and, um, the collection and the access that a private company would have. Um, and he's also zeroed in as well as, uh, Mar Elliot's other opponent, Pete message, uh, into, uh, her ownership of general electric stock. Um, GE owned, uh, at one point the startup that was installing the sensors and he's raised allegations of conflicts of interest.
Speaker 4: 05:08 And I know back in 2015 I knew source investigated how Corey Briggs conducted his private practice. What did a Brad Racino who was a reporter with you? I'll find out.
Speaker 5: 05:18 Yeah. So we looked at dozens of nonprofits that Corey Briggs represented and found that, um, he had played a role in forming many of them, uh, whether it is helping incorporate the nonprofit, whether, um, the addresses matches law firms, um, board membership. A lot of the, uh, board members were actually overlapping and matching other nonprofits and we found that, um, more than half were out of compliance with state and federal disclosure laws. So filing documents that show your finances, your board membership, your board structure, your mission statement, things like that, um, had not been filed as required. Um, and so we looked at that again, uh, as, as he announced the city attorney run and found that, um, much had not changed.
Speaker 1: 06:01 And you need those, you need a client in order to Sue, right? That's correct. That was the reason. Correct.
Speaker 5: 06:07 So there've been allegations from attorneys on the other side, um, in, in court who have argued that nonprofits represented by Briggs are a shell corporations or a mere alter ego of, of, of their counsel. Um, and, and some of those have been, um, decided or not decided in court. So none of this led to any changes in the way Briggs operates its practice or can use to, um, Sue under nonprofits. Um, we have seen that some have stayed in compliance. He has gotten in trouble for, or at least been investigated by the state bar association for, um, representing nonprofits that were not in good standing non-active standing as far as, um, requiring filing those required documents. Um, this time around we didn't necessarily see that. Um, but we do continue to see that these nonprofits have for years fail to file documents and some received cease and desist orders from the state attorney general for not filing those.
Speaker 5: 07:02 So tell me a little bit about, uh, Pete message, the final camp candidate. So Pete messages the third, uh, third candidate in this race. Um, and, and judging from, uh, uh, UT and 10 news poll from, uh, earlier this year, it may be an uphill battle for him. Um, he came in third as that, but he has experience as a deputy city attorney, um, and has raised some of the same concerns that you hear from Corey Briggs when it comes to our Elliot as far as, um, uh, being a city attorney. He's more like a politician and not the head of a law firm. Um, and, and getting involved in that way. And he also has raised conflict of interest concerns, um, when it comes to that smart street lights
Speaker 1: 07:38 program. All right, something, I know you guys will continue to follow. Uh, moving on. What if you thought you were signing a petition for say, rent control and instead you were actually signing yourself up for a political party you never even heard of? That's been the experience of dozens of San Diegans is KPBS investigative reporter Claire dressmaker uncovered Claire. Um, this story, it involves a new political party called the common sense party. Tell me about this party who founded it and what is it? Well, so it's, um, it's
Speaker 6: 08:09 a new party that I think is aiming to be sort of like a moderate middle ground to the Democrats and Republicans who are, especially in California, increasingly polarized, uh, started by retired, uh, Republican Congressman Tom Campbell, who also ran for Senate a couple of times, I think in California and lost and then an independent, uh, state assemblyman. Um, and then locally we have Julie Meyer, right, who was in a governor, Pete Wilson cabinet and uh, used to head the regional economic development corporation here in San Diego. So they're kind of the big names who are behind it. So how did you stumble across the story? Well, it was interesting because it started out as just kind of looking at this new up and coming party and, you know, do they have a shot disrupting the two party system in California. Um, and I wanted to talk to people who had registered for the party about, you know, what'd you like about the party?
Speaker 6: 09:04 Why'd you decide to join? So I just started calling people. Um, I got the list of registered voters from the registrar of voters. And, um, the first person said, the, what the fuck the what party? I don't know what that is. The next person kind of said the same thing. I just kept calling people, calling people and I ended up talking to 31 people, 30 of them had never heard of the party, didn't know anything that I was talking about. And all of those 30 were signed up by signature gathers, whereas the one person who had intended to sign up had signed up online. It's all astonishing. We've got some video here of you with an SDSU student named Cameron Dollinger. Um, set this up for us. What did he think he had done originally and what happened? Right. So he says he was, I'm just shopping for groceries at the trader Joe's on campus and someone was outside and said, Oh, are you registered to vote? Um, if not, I can, I can sign you up right now. So he said, okay. And he just filled out a really small form with just his name and address and a birthday driver's license number, I believe. Um, but then I went and got his actual registration form that was filed with the registrar of voters and showed it to him. So then this happened.
Speaker 7: 10:17 Oh no, this is not something I recognize. That is not my handwriting. I don't remember sending this form out.
Speaker 6: 10:29 Wow. I mean if you hadn't found this out, um, what would have happened had you tried to vote? Right. So I mean it's very complicated cause there's all these different, because the common sense party is not yet an officially qualified party in California. He would be treated as a no party preference voter. And so if he voted by mail, say, and he, you know, wanted to be a Democrat or was planning to vote in the democratic primary, he would get his mail ballot open it up and say, Oh, where's the democratic primary presidential primary race? It's not on here. He still could then vote in that race. But he would need to call the registrar or go in and say, I need a new ballot. Like specifically requests a democratic ballot. And if he was planning to vote in the Republican primary, he couldn't because you have to be a registered Republican devote in the primary.
Speaker 3: 11:20 There are three really interesting parts of this. One is the governor just signed a bill that says you can change your party preference now over the next like week. Um, the, the, the other part is there's, there is a definite appetite among people who liked Julie Maya, right? Locally were Republicans at one time but aren't on board this like loyalty to Trump train, right? So they're, they're very frustrated or even never Trumper types. And so there's this idea that there needs to be an alternative to the Democrats. And so clerestory is a real bombshell because they were, they were actually trying to get some momentum along the lines of like, Oh look, we are creating that alternative to the Democrats. And then I think, you know, uh, well I forgot my third point.
Speaker 1: 12:02 All right. But I, I'm curious to know, like as they are working to create this party, how many people are actually members of this new party and how many may have just been enrolled in air? I mean, any sense?
Speaker 6: 12:14 Well, yeah, so they say they have about 19,000 people statewide, about 5,000 in California. Um, based on my, you know, it's not a scientific, I mean, I did call people randomly, but it's a pretty small sample size. But I talked to an SDSU statistics professor who said that could mean like 83% of them were signed up. So that's about 4,000 people. I don't know how that correlates statewide. I'm, you know, working on following up on that to see, uh, if this is a trend across the state.
Speaker 1: 12:43 Wow. It sounds like it's, it's didn't quite work out so well.
Speaker 6: 12:47 I mean, I don't, you know, it's nothing against the party. Like they're trying to be this alternative. And when I talk to them, you know, originally for this story, it was more of the point of like, we wish we didn't have parties. You know, we want to just be an alternative. You know, the problem is this polarized party system. I think it's just w you know, using signature gathers is maybe what led to their,
Speaker 3: 13:10 yeah, let me, let me make that, I'm sorry I remember that. Yeah. The signature gathering, this signature gathering infrastructure in California is, is it very important political force and they get paid per signature gatherers per city signature gathered and, and so they're incentivized in a very odd way to make that close happen. And they usually serve as a, as a sort of fifth arm to government where they can, uh, you know, be a veto power over some law that gets passed or, or add a new law to the ballot. But to have them in this realm actually trying to create a new party and then incentivize to just get people into that with, uh, with whatever means necessary is, is a fascinating development. Maybe not as much common sense as they had.
Speaker 1: 13:53 Ah, there you go. There you go. Well, who was in charge of this signature gathering?
Speaker 6: 13:57 Well, so it's a, the firm that they hired is the LA Jolla group, which is based in Kearny Mesa and they've done several other petition drives. I think they did the Newlands Sierra, um, that, that Eric had covered. So it's, you know, pretty well known I think a firm that people go to a lot for, for these types of drives. But yeah, to Scott's point, I think one thing is usually you're collecting signatures for a petition to maybe overturn something the legislature has done or something like that. Not really to register people for a specific party. Like when you sign a petition, they'll say, are you registered to vote because you need to be registered to sign and then they can register you. But they don't. In the past, having been also gotten paid by a specific party to sign people up for that party. So it's kind of this like competing interests where they're, they're trying to attract additional people.
Speaker 1: 14:46 Oh, that's great. You're shining a light on it, Claire. Uh, moving on, the push here to the San Diego convention center is attracting money and some Hetus amassing more than 2 million in donations ahead of the March primary major C calls for an increase in the city's hotel room tax to raise billions of dollars to expand and operate the convention center and provides funds for homeless programs and street repairs. The devil though is in the details, which some find a bit sketchy. Scott. Uh, you know, San Diego has been really trying to enlarge the convention center for years. Why has that not really worked out?
Speaker 3: 15:22 Uh, it's just, it's an Odyssey of failure, like for 10 years of just, they tried to raise the tax without going to the vote of the people that failed. A court threw that out. They've tried in various ways. Uh, now they finally have something on the ballot. The real difficult part is that they need, or it's assumed they need two thirds of the vote. Now there's a way they might be able to get through with a simple majority, but that's kind of a LAR.
Speaker 1: 15:45 Mm. So Eric, tell me about major C.
Speaker 8: 15:47 yeah. Measure C is a, it's pretty easy on its face, right? Um, if you vote yes for measure C, you're voting to basically raise the tourist tax, the hotel room tax that, uh, uh, visitors and others pay when they stay in a hotel. If your hotel is closer to the convention center, uh, you're going to pay a higher, get a higher tax increase about three and a quarter percent farther away. You can get as low as one and a quarter percent, but basically the raising billions of dollars, uh, and 59% of that money will go toward the convention center, uh, improvement. Uh, the first five years, uh, if this measure is past the first five years, the other 41% will go toward homeless programs, which are yet to be defined. Uh, and then the fifth year in the sixth year in, they'll take a quarter of the money for the set aside for the homeless and they'll use it to do street repairs.
Speaker 1: 16:36 Okay. And obviously of course, there are conflicting opinions of course, about what it will actually do. So here's Carol Kim, who is the convention center board on that convention center board. Rather with her take, we're going to raise this tax and spend it specifically on three things to be specific buckets, the convention center, expansion, homelessness, streets and votes. So Scott, what's the problem with a measure that does all of these things?
Speaker 3: 17:01 Well, it rests on a bunch of assumptions. One is, you know, the cost of the convention center will be something we can handle. The last estimate was like $700 million and they said it would go up $3 million a year. So if they don't break ground or $3 million a month, they don't go break ground in like 2021 or by then, you know, that could be a billion dollar project. And so can we handle that much debt and still make room for all of these, uh, other promises we've made. There's also believing that that would create 7,000 jobs. Those numbers are a little weird. Uh, there's, there's also a lot of promises about how much will be freed up for homelessness and the services after that. But those, again, all rest on certain things happening with the economy and with the conventions filling the, the uh, you know, homes or the hotels around the area and then churning off more hotel tax revenue. All of those are, are gambles. They're betting a lot of money on a lot of different promises that they're going to have to fulfill.
Speaker 8: 17:53 And while they have that, that big promise to expand the convention center, they don't have a specific idea yet what that expansion would look like. And uh, it concludes money for homeless programs, but there's no specific design that says, you know, a certain amount will go toward this particular area. Constructing homes or a certain amount will go toward programs, um, and the street repairs to it's sort of undefined. They leave it in the hand of the council of the measure gets approved.
Speaker 3: 18:20 I mean, one of the big worries is the state has provided the city a lot of money recently, the deal with homeless issues. And there's a, there's a very real possibility that this money will be needed to make sure that the state ever pulls out that it's there. But on the other hand, people like Barbara Bree, who's running for mayor see that as the main source of funding actual homes, permanent supportive housing for homeless, uh, homeless residents. And so I think, you know, there's a big, it's such an amorphous blob of money right now that everybody can say it's going to do what they want it to do. Uh, and, and yet there's no specific plan in the actual measure.
Speaker 6: 18:56 You know, a voice of San Diego, you guys did a report on Michael McConnell and his opposition to mercy. Why has that created such a stir?
Speaker 3: 19:05 Well, again, when you need two thirds vote, really nobody can be against it as in an organized funded way. He spent what looks like about $300,000 opposing this, of his own fortune, uh, against this. And so, you know, he says it's because of all these concerns about the risk and he actually worries that that will make it harder to raise taxes or provide money for homeless services for other actual homes that he wants to see bill. But also I think underlying that is that they didn't actually listen to his concerns or, or negotiate with him enough when he was part of the discussions when this was being formulated. And so, you know, he said, look, I'm going to spend the money against it and they called his bluff and it wasn't a bluff. And now we'll see if that, um, if that really does sink the measure or not, that's a big issue
Speaker 6: 19:49 cause you always say, I mean, you know, you can't have any organized group against it. This isn't, I mean it's not a group, it's just a person. But I don't know if anyone was expecting him to then did he actually, he sold his business to yes.
Speaker 3: 20:01 Sold his business and use the money for that specifically, uh, to invest in this. And, and you know, there's so many mailers, so many Facebook ads against it. Uh, there was, I covered a hotel room tax increase in 2004. There was just one mailer against it and they credited that with, with getting it under that 66%. And so $300,000 could have a significant impact.
Speaker 6: 20:20 And Eric, you talked to Donna a about major. See, here's part of what she had to say
Speaker 9: 20:27 is they've tried to combine it. The hotel guys have tried to combine it with homelessness and roads and make it sound like it's really for homeless people and for roads when there is no guarantee, there is absolutely nothing in the measure that says any housing mobile built for the homeless.
Speaker 8: 20:46 Uh, and the point to make is that the three major funders, uh, of the, yes, they are a better San Diego campaign are the three hotels right around the convention center. It's the Manchester grand. Uh, it's the Marriott and it's the Hilton. And they would all benefit tremendously if the convention center is expanded. Um, and, and if you look at some of the flyers that had been circulated on this issue, uh, it tends to highlight the homeless. Uh, the money side being set aside for homeless doesn't really mention the convention center, although it's pretty clear when you set aside 59% of the funding for one thing that's a pretty big chunk of money and you know, this tax isn't for 10 20 or 30 years and that it retires, it's a tax in perpetuity. Um, it will literally raise billions and billions of dollars for the city of San Diego. These three, these three projects.
Speaker 1: 21:41 Well, taking a look at another major, uh, building new housing developments in San Diego is rural back country. We'll get a lot more difficult if measure a passes. Right now the board of supervisors can approve developments in rural areas that fall outside the county's general plan guidelines with measure a voters countywide would weigh in on projects with six houses or more if those projects require an amendment to the general plan. Eric, when was the general plan adopted and when has it ever been able to just be changed?
Speaker 8: 22:11 Well, the general plan is just something the County threw together in two weeks. No, this was a multi year process. Right. It took a long time. It took years. Uh, they got, uh, input from all the stakeholders, the communities, uh, in the San Diego, uh, unincorporated areas in San Diego County. Um, when they finally put it in place, what they said was, look, we're going to design a plan for growth that allows for growth, but it's going to allow for growth in these certain corridors, quarters that are connected to services that are inside the San Diego County water authorities, uh, ability to deliver water to those areas. Uh, for example, uh, it was one of the things they use as a guideline and we're going to try and concentrate development there where it makes sense and that will keep us from having these sprawl projects, uh, projects that are out in the middle of nowhere but pop up with the 2000 homes and, and amenities.
Speaker 8: 23:03 Uh, but the problem was is that, uh, this was passed in 2011 and you know, within the next few years, more than a dozen large sprawl projects were presented to the County, went through the County planning process and got approval from the County supervisors. Many of those are being challenged in court. A couple of probably gonna lose out, uh, if legal rulings that have already been issued stand. But, uh, what people in the, in the area and people who are concerned about development said was like, look, we need to do something that kind of takes this out of the hand of the County supervisors and gives people a voice. And that's what measure is designed to do. It's a County wide vote for projects outside of general plan guidelines.
Speaker 1: 23:44 Susan Baldwin of San Diego,
Speaker 9: 23:46 ins for managed growth talks in this clip here about who had input to the general plan in the eight years it took to craft it, business interests, the building industry, community members environmentalist's. And so if the plan needs to be changed, then there should be an over, uh, you know, uh, uh, review of the plan as a whole, not individual projects being approved in a piecemeal fashion.
Speaker 1: 24:15 So, so then what were the reasons for curtailing housing development in some of the rural areas?
Speaker 8: 24:22 Um, what, what the, uh, what, what planners looked at was, you know, is does it make sense to build a housing project in a particular area? For example, if you have a city that is here and you decided to build a housing project here, you have to build roads to connect that. You have to uh, run services there. You have to run water lines, you have to run electricity, there's a build all the infrastructure you have to protect it from fire, which, uh, has been known to happen in San Diego County. Um, and all those things, uh, carry a cost with them and not the least of which is, uh, the, the traveling back and forth between the populated areas on this isolated development area, which, you know, is greenhouse gas emissions, uh, which makes it more difficult for the County to comply with, with the state greenhouse gas emission goals. That those are the reasons why they decided to kind of move the development around existing services.
Speaker 1: 25:13 Do you all think that a, this major can pass? I mean, won't people be resistant to making it harder to build new housing area
Speaker 3: 25:23 banking on? Is this idea that if we don't allow these things, then people will move to Riverside and stuff like that. But there's been a longstanding movement, I think along the lines of we should have urban limit lines and the growth should happen in the urban areas to deal with greenhouse gases or not. And, and that's a big [inaudible]. The general plan actually created a weird incentive where, uh, agricultural land was valued at this much because it's, it's, um, yeah, you can't build homes and, and so people wanted to buy it and now they want to own it.
Speaker 1: 25:51 With this, we could go on and on. We've got to wrap really quick folks. That wraps up another week of stories here at the KPBS round table.
The new Common Sense Party needs some now. And we look at the city attorney's race and the cases for and against Measures A and C.