It was more than mildly ironic that San Diego City Councilman Mike Gotch this week denounced the tactics of a citizens group in securing 80,000 signatures on petitions calling for a halt to a proposed commercial development at the site of the Mission Beach Plunge.
Gotch, the council's resident environmental populist who served as the chief spokesman during the 1985 Proposition A slow-growth initiative, led the fight for private developers to tear down portions of the dilapidated Plunge building to make way for 70,000 square feet of new shops and restaurants.
The proposed development has drawn strong opposition from the Save Mission Beach Committee, a citizens group that paid a consultant 25 cents to 35 cents per signature to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Gotch attacked the use of hired hands to circulate the petitions as "mercenary" and said that money served as a "powerful aphrodisiac" for the circulators.
"They were paid, and they didn't give a hoot for the cause but their back pockets," the councilman added.
What Gotch did not mention was that Proposition A supporters used the same consultant--Christopher Alan--and also paid 25 to 35 cents each for the majority of the 74,000-plus signatures that they turned in to qualify for the ballot, according to David Kreitzer, president of San Diegans for Managed Growth.
"The truth is that we knew from the beginning that we couldn't gather that many signatures with a volunteer organization the size that we had," Kreitzer said, adding that Gotch knew that fact.
"We met with him and (former Mayor Roger Hedgecock) several times and discussed the need for money to hire the signature gatherers, so I'm sure he had to know about it. Yes, I'm sure he knew about it."
Side Effect of Proposed Campaign Reforms
San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor billed her recent campaign-reform package as a means of ensuring that large political contributors are unable to exert undue influence over the City Council's decisions. However, critics of the mayor's plan argue that it could allow developers and other interest groups to consolidate their power at City Hall--via a Machiavellian maneuver that turns conventional political behavior on its head.
Interest groups often are accused of trying to influence the legislative process through contributions to incumbents or candidates who are supportive of their goals. O'Connor's plan, though, could enable developers and other groups to try to accomplish their objectives by making campaign contributions to their opponents .
The mayor's plan, now being reviewed by a special task force that itself has proposed various campaign reforms, would, among other things, prohibit a council member from voting on any issue involving businesses whose officers have cumulatively donated more than $1,000 to him in the past year.
Thus, if a development company feared that a particular councilman was likely to oppose its project, its officers could cancel his potential "no" vote simply by donating more than $1,000 to him, thereby disqualifying him from acting on the issue.
"It's a tactic that could be used to neutralize or silence a vote," noted Mark Nelson, chairman of the city's campaign review task force. "A contribution could become more of a defensive tool, rather than an offensive tool."
Under O'Connor's proposal, firms also would have to give less than $1,000 to friendly council members to avoid losing their votes. In short, the plan would, paradoxically, create a greater incentive for political high rollers to make large donations to their opponents than to their friends.
The mayor contends that council members would have to monitor the contributions they receive--and return donations that would put them over the $1,000 mark from any single firm--to prevent having their legislative hands tied. The likelihood of council members willingly shouldering that additional burden, however, appears slim.
The "give-to-your enemies" scenario is only one of several major criticisms that have been directed at O'Connor's proposal. Council members and others have complained that the mayor's plan would be unworkable, would expand paper work and could lead to legislative gridlock by creating the potential for a majority of council members to be barred from voting on issues involving major local companies.
"It's the old story with campaign financing--whenever you try to correct one problem, anything you do often has an unintentional negative side effect," Nelson noted.
Getting to the Bottom of an Emotional Issue
During a debate over San Diego County's hazardous waste program, Supervisor Leon Williams made some comments that should help prevent his colleagues from getting swelled heads.
Williams' remarks came during a hearing this week on how the county plans to implement Proposition 65, a statewide initiative approved last fall that requires local governments to publicly report serious hazardous chemical and waste discharges.
To handle the increased workload related to that task, county health officials suggested phasing out a program in which complaints over dogs creating nuisances, trash and debris are investigated. Williams and several other supervisors, however, expressed doubts over the proposed reallocation of county staff.
"If you don't deal with a dog dropping, we're going to have some problems," Williams said. "That's a very emotional issue. People get more upset about that . . . than anything else."
Kind of puts the job in perspective.