Citing new legal rulings, the San Diego City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday to confirm Measure C, a 2020 hotel occupancy tax initiative that won 65.24% approval from voters but failed to achieve a two-thirds majority.
The measure, which could generate $6.8 billion in additional hotel tax revenues, including $4 billion to expand the San Diego Convention Center, $2.1 billion to address homelessness and $700 million for street repairs, was listed on ballot materials sent to voters as needing two-thirds of votes to pass. It fell slightly short of that threshold.
However, recent legal rulings, including one by the California Supreme Court, made it clear that a simple majority was all that was needed to pass.
“Voters should be able to rely on ballot materials,” Council President Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn said. “But the constitutional right is more fundamental. We need to go with the state constitution and 65% of voters and say it was approved.”
The three dissenters claimed approving the ballot measure set a bad precedent and sent a disheartening message to voters who may already be distrustful of government.
“The will of the voters must be maintained,” said Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who argued the ballot language was clear. “This can breed more cynicism during a time when faith in the government is at an all-time low.”
Councilwoman Vivian Moreno sent a news release earlier in the day, adamant that she would vote no on the council’s retroactive action.
“The ballot materials informed the voters that passage of Measure C required a two-thirds vote and the voters depend on that information being accurate and reliable,” she said. “Taking this action today to change the criteria for passage under which Measure C was presented to the voters is not forthright and I cannot support it.”
Councilmen Joe LaCava and Raul Campillo voted to pass the measure, but only to get a legal perspective on it. Similar such retroactive changes and eventual court decisions in Fresno, Oakland and San Francisco in the past year were cited by both sides.
“I can’t make that declaration,” LaCava said as to the legality of the council’s retroactive maneuvering. “Let the courts have the final say.”
Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert, an attorney, said last year’s council had punted on certifying the measure’s passage. She said “sufficient clarity now exists” on the issue.
Of the nearly 20 public comments on the subject, the majority broke in favor of the council’s eventual action.
Doug Hicks, special representative at the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said the voters had spoken loud and clear. Any delay, he said, would cost good union jobs and allow San Diegans experiencing homelessness to continue to suffer.
Several representatives from Alliance San Diego — a nonprofit community social justice organization — urged the council to respect the vote.
“In elections, close enough is not good enough, and this council has no authority to decide otherwise,” said Andrea Guerrero, Alliance San Diego’s executive director. “Voters decide ballot measures, not city council. It is absolutely unacceptable that San Diego City Council President Jen Campbell and five of her colleagues would override the decision of voters, and overstep their authority to pass Measure C.”
Mayor Todd Gloria, a major proponent of Measure C, applauded the council.
“Today’s affirmative vote by the City Council to validate Measure C is a necessary step to finally put to bed the long-awaited and much-discussed expansion of our Convention Center in addition to addressing two of our city’s most significant challenges: combating homelessness and getting San Diegans back to work,” he said. “The people of San Diego asked us to take up this measure and an overwhelming majority voted to support it. It’s time we implement the will of the voters.”
The legal validation suit for the measure means it will head to court.
That ruling is likely months away. Gloria has said the city will not collect the tax unless it receives a favorable ruling.