“The City is a huge landlord. It has to quit giving away our own assets.”
By Doug Porter
Ed Harris wasn’t supposed to ruffle any feathers during his appointed term on the San Diego City Council.
The former marine and lifeguard union leader was supposed to be a bookmark, holding down the Second District seat vacated by now-Mayor Kevin Faulconer until election day rolled around. The city charter terms for this temporary tenure included a proviso barring him from actually running for the seat in fall 2014 election.
Then it came time for the kind of wink, wink, nod, nod agreement involving trading off public assets for political gain considered normal in America’s Finest City. Harris surprised a lot of people by taking a principled and public stand against what he believed was a sweetheart deal involving proposed lease terms of Belmont Park to Pacifica Enterprises.
According to City Beat’s John Lamb, Republicans Scott Sherman and then-District 6 Councilmember Lorie Zapf “acted as the loyal soldiers for the leaseholder, Rancho Santa Fe-based Pacifica Enterprises, a privately held real-estate-investment company.”
“Why do we have an appointed member of this council come in and start jackin’ this up?” Sherman seethed. “This has been a deal that’s been in the works for a while.” In five minutes of venomous diatribe, Sherman managed to call the proposed lease a “good,” “very good” or “excellent” deal eight times.
“You know, I hear a lot of people talking about appreciating your efforts and appreciating the city’s efforts,” Sherman told proponents. “We appreciate it so much, we want to make sure we try and squeeze more money out of you.”
Zapf, meanwhile, seemed completely flustered by the turn of events. She used the term “we” frequently when mentioning negotiations, raising the question of whether the future D2 representative was involved in the lease deal more than its current councilmember.
Then-councilman Harris didn’t back down.
When the matter finally came to Council on September 22, I had real concerns: The projected revenues; the insistence on a 55-year lease; and the lack of accountability to the City to maintain the property over time. Furthermore, the lease numbers I had been provided kept changing: The total amount of square footage; the total revenue Pacifica had already invested into the property; and the amount of revenue the City would realize.
The proposed new lease also called for valet parking at Belmont Park. Since when do we encourage paid parking at the beach? That’s a slippery slope that will undermine the character of our beach communities, and the ability for residents of all income levels to enjoy access to the public seashore.
Ultimately the lease terms were rejected by the Council in a 5-3 vote, re-opening the negotiations.
Harris’ involvement in bringing the deal to light led him to reflect on the larger question of why negotiators didn’t strive to get a better deal in the first place.
I’ve heard a mantra lately on how there’s a “war on business” in San Diego.
If this Belmont Park matter is any indication of business as usual, it looks to me like there’s actually a war on taxpayers and small business owners in San Diego. Deals like the Belmont Park lease further shrink our middle class in an era when it’s under siege.
By not making the most of our City’s assets, we come up with cost shortfalls that we pass along to taxpayers. That results in small businesses having to hire private security because we don’t have enough police officers, and for Business Improvement Districts having to self-fund the upkeep and beautification of their neighborhoods.
Fast forward a few months and Harris is gone from the council, back in the saddle as lifeguard and union leader.
A questionable deal on the Belmont Park lease, along with press releases touting its benefits got passed by the city council. (Later on, Attorney Cory Briggs filed suit on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, saying the lease violated the City Charter, the California Coastal Act, environmental laws and a 1987 voter-approved initiative governing allowed uses at the city-owned Mission Beach park property.)
Harris, meanwhile, is negotiating a new labor pact with the expectation that a five-year council-approved needs assessment supporting the implementation of “presumptive medical coverage”for lifeguards will be part of the deal.
It was a seeming ‘no-brainer,’ making it easier for public safety employees to qualify for workers’ compensation. Lifeguards, as individuals who regularly encounter dangerous environments, would be excused from the onus of having to prove certain illnesses are work-related, such as cancer, meningitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
Not happening, said the Mayor. From Joshua Emerson Harris, then writing for City Beat:
“Six weeks ago, they walked in and for the first time ever, they said, The mayor’s not supportive of this,'” said Ed Harris, spokesperson for the lifeguards union. “In our opinion that’s a bait and switch.”
Embroiled in labor negotiations with the city, Harris said the mayor’s office is specifically targeting him for his political actions as a former councilmember. Harris said he made enemies at City Hall last September after he led council Democrats to reject the terms of a lease extension for Belmont Park, the oceanfront amusement park in Mission Beach.
“I believe that my relationship with the mayor’s office after that deal has a lot to do with it,” he said. “I can tell you that when I opposed the Belmont Park deal, the relationship with me and the Republicans changed overnight. When you don’t go along with the program, they stop even looking at you or saying hi’ to you.”
The Scramble for an Opponent
Following his stint on the city council, Ed Harris thought seriously about running for termed-out Toni Atkins’ assembly seat. City councilman Todd Gloria, coming off a high-profile stint as interim mayor, decided he wanted to run and Harris folded his candidacy.
Behind the scenes, the Democratic party was in turmoil, trying to find a candidate to run against Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Elected officials Toni Atkins, Todd Gloria, Lorena Gonzalez and David Alvarez were all named in discussions as potential challengers.
All passed, daunted by polling showing strong job approval numbers for Faulconer and their own political ambitions. The big “if” in all the surveys hinged on the incumbent mayor not getting slimed by issues associated with tax increases for a stadium or infrastructure.
OB Town Council President Gretchen Newsom surprised everybody in late October, taking the stage at a county Democratic Party gathering in Escondido and announcing her intention to take on Faulconer. She’d gained some city-wide exposure as a candidate for city council in 2014 and was well-regarded in activist circles. Six weeks later, she withdrew from the race, citing personal issues.
In January, former Assemblywoman and Democrat-turned-Independent Lori Saldaña declared her candidacy. Past bad blood between the local Democratic leadership and party rules meant she was facing an uphill battle as a grassroots candidate. Saldaña, touting her success in beating the odds in earlier contests, was undaunted by the lack of official support. (I’ll profile her tomorrow.)
Discussions within the party increasingly turned towards encouraging Ed Harris. On March 1st, he announced his candidacy. His entry into the race increased the odds that Faulconer could face a runoff in November.
Organized labor and Democratic party clubs have declared their support for the former councilman. Voter interest in the June Democratic primary, combined with get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at supporting a minimum wage referendum on the ballot are elements working in his favor.
Tired of the “Deception of Government”
Harris has made it clear that his campaign is about good governance, and says that the incumbent’s agreeable nature masks a host of problems needing solutions.
Here’s what he told the Times of San Diego:
“As a whole, San Diego government is not paying attention or listening to its constituents,” he said, adding that this is especially true when it comes to large development projects like One Paseo in Carmel Valley.
San Diego needs affordable housing — and higher densities — but this requires better public transit, he said. In any event, city planners need to level with residents. “You can’t come into neighborhoods and not be truthful to them,” he said.
He said that with interest rates at historic lows, San Diego has a unique opportunity to borrow to fund infrastructure improvements. “We’re at a point in history when we can borrow money and put San Diegans to work to fix our roads, to fix our infrastructure,” he said.
The Harris campaign has put up a “Where’s Kevin?” website, chock full of information and links to articles pointing up the shortcomings of the incumbent mayor.
He told City Beat
Harris said voters are tired of the “deception of government,” in which politicians “perfect the ability to not tell the whole story to the public.” How good is Faulconer at that? “I think he’s really good. He’s an illusionist. He’s a magician, and I think his victim is the taxpayer. All he wants to do is show the budget is intact, show that it’s all smiles and walk over our backs to climb up into the governor’s chair.”
For more information:
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ed.harris.3304
Tomorrow: Lori Saldaña’s Grassroots campaign.
Yesterday: Being Cool is a Full Time Job for Incumbent Kevin Faulconer
On This Day: 1911 – James Oppenheim’s poem “Bread and Roses” was published in IWW newspaper Industrial Solidarity. 1989 – Student protestors took over Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 2005 – President George Bush signed a law that allowed for up to three years in prison for anyone that pirated music or films on the Internet.
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