Politics Report: Faulconer Is Making Calls on a Ballot Initiative

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is not just playing pundit on KUSI these days. The Politics Report has learned Faulconer is also making calls to gauge support for a new citizens initiative he wants to get on the November 2024 ballot for the city of San Diego.

What it would do: It’s not clear what the measure will be or even if Faulconer knows the specifics but it will likely fall along the lines of the one Sacramento voters will consider in November. That initiative will make it illegal – a criminal misdemeanor – for unsheltered residents to camp on the street once the city has made enough shelter or safe camping space available.

We reached out to Faulconer’s longtime aide, Aimee Faucett, who confirmed what we had heard and gave us this written statement:

“A broad coalition of San Diegans including former Mayor Faulconer and respected community leaders are collaborating on a citizens initiative that will require the City to provide adequate shelter for homeless individuals so we can make our streets healthier and safer. Up until a couple of years ago, San Diego had become one of the only major regions in California where homelessness was decreasing. In fact, the people of Sacramento were encouraged by San Diego’s progress, and have gained the support of their community and Democratic mayor to place a measure inspired by some of San Diego’s actions on their local ballot. It’s time to do the same in San Diego by taking solutions proven to reduce homelessness and making them into law. We look forward to sharing more updates in the future.”

Why it matters: Mayor Todd Gloria regularly hurls digs at Faulconer about how the city was managed before Gloria’s team took over “a couple years ago.” This may be Faulconer’s sharpest dig back.

However, that’s not what matters. What matters is the horrific situation with homelessness in San Diego.

Police officers arrest a man from among the tents along Commercial Avenue early Monday, June 13. 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

A month after Mayor Todd Gloria touted an improvement in the dismal statistics about the unsheltered population downtown, the numbers spiked back up for June. The Downtown Partnership, as part of its monthly count, found 1,453 people living without shelter downtown. That’s up from 1,160 last year and 721 in 2020.

The Housing Commission, long a major part of the city’s approach to homelessness remains without a permanent CEO. The mayor has mobilized police but is also dealing with a shortage of police officers.

Gloria shrugs: Reached Friday, Gloria’s spokeswoman sent over a statement. They are already following Faulconer’s plan, she wrote.

“I had a chance to look at what they’re doing in Sac and it’s not clear it’s anything more than what Mayor Gloria is already doing. This administration has increased shelter capacity by 25 percent so far, and will continue to add beds and non-congregate options to help all populations of unsheltered folks off the streets. As Voice has covered frequently, the mayor has been absolutely clear that he doesn’t believe it’s acceptable to camp on our streets when alternatives exist, and he’s creating those alternatives at an aggressive pace. The only mandate Mayor Gloria needed from voters to do this was his election.”

How we got here: Faulconer is not a master solver of homelessness. After winning election in 2014, the former mayor and City Councilmember had always been reluctant to take a leading role on the issue and it was during his first several years of office that encampments in San Diego got so bad they generated a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A, which led to the deaths of 20 people and sickness among hundreds more. The shock of the disease, the mobilization of other community leaders and the sheer state of suffering in the streets led Faulconer, four years into his term, to mobilize the shelters-plus-enforcement approach we later labeled the Faulconer Doctrine.

In partnership with philanthropists and service providers, Faulconer’s team rapidly erected temporary shelters and ramped up enforcement and cleanup efforts on the streets. They took the slight decreases in the annual Point in Time count of homeless individuals as validation.

Faulconer built a campaign for governor largely around the claim: That he had found the right balance and he could help the entire state implement it.

And that promotion didn’t die with his lousy performance in the race to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom. In May, Faulconer appeared at a forum in Spokane, Wash. put on by business leaders there who were seeking solutions to the homelessness crisis that had developed there.

Here’s how it was characterized by Chris Patterson, the organizer of the group, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

“It will be the first symposium the ‘Hello for Good’ group has held, and brings a former mayor, housing director and nonprofit leader in San Diego to discuss approaches that brought about a 29% decline in unsheltered homeless people on the streets of that city from 2017 to 2019, Patterson said.”

We’re not sure where they got the 29 percent number. There were decreases in the reported number of homeless individuals in San Diego in the Point in Time Count administered by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (6 percent, for example, from 2018 to 2019) but the group had changed its methodology significantly in that time period and its leaders cautioned people against making comparisons year to year over that period.

Nobody is going to ever say “Boy I miss, 2019. Conspicuous homelessness was not so bad then.” But it was a bit better. There are now as many tents and encampments as there were when hepatitis A forced Faulconer and the city to confront the crisis. And after struggling with the issue himself, in his first two years in office, Gloria has largely embraced his predecessor’s approach – a new temporary large tent shelter is going up in Midway to accommodate 150 people and enforcement efforts to uproot encampments have increased significantly.

What’s next: We’ll be looking to see if Faulconer’s initiative substantially changes the city’s municipal code or whether it would be some kind of mandate from the public – light on actual changes to the law but heavy on political significance. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who had collaborated with Faulconer before, ended up endorsing the initiative in that city. And now we have another race to watch in November: whether that initiative succeeds and how well if it does.

SANDAG’s Plan to Kill Its Driving Fee Is Stuck in the Slow Lane

The intersection of Friars Road and Frazee Road on October 28, 2014. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

The San Diego Association of Government’s board is well positioned to continue fighting well into the future over whether the region should charge drivers for every mile they drive.

The board voted Friday to direct staff to draw up a path for removing the driving fee from the region’s long-term transportation plan, while making sure the plan still complies with state environmental laws requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Staff said they expect that proposal to come back to the board sometime next spring.

The vote was nearly identical to one the board already took in December, telling the agency’s planners to draw up a way to eliminate the driving fee, which had become a source of significant controversy after conservative board members criticized its inclusion in the regional plan. Now, seven months later, board reiterated that they did, in fact, want staff to come up with a way to remove the fee and maintain a legal transportation blueprint.

“I appreciate the recognition that we’ve been waiting for some time,” said Mayor Todd Gloria, who led the charge in December to begin the process of killing the fee, just days before the board was set to approve a plan that included it. “I would be open about my frustration for how long this takes.”

SANDAG staff and Hasan Ikhrata, the agency’s executive director, also gave conflicting answers on when the board could, officially, excise the fee from the region’s outline of all the infrastructure projects it wants to build in the coming decades and how it will pay for them.

The staff’s presentation, for instance, says that they could come back to the board in spring 2023 with options to remove the fee, while replacing the lost revenue and compensating for the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that would only occur if the fee were in place.

But the same presentation also included a visualization of the timeline that suggested removing the fee would trigger public outreach and environmental reviews that could stretch until 2025. Staff even indicated that, owing to that timeline, the agency could simply remove the fee as part of its next state-mandated blueprint, due in 2025.

“We have on the screen, the deadline you see goes all the way to 2025, but that does not mean the update is going to wait that long,” Ikhrata said.

“Based on the action today, we will make a change to the 2021 plan – when that happens and if it coincides with the 2025 plan, that’s a decision for you to make later,” Ikhrata also said, after staff had emphasized that a change to the plan would come back to the board in 2023.

Patching up the plan: Taking the fee out of the plan creates two related problems for the agency. It deprives the region of revenue that the plan is counting on to build all of the projects it envisions, and it deprives the region of emissions reductions that it needs to demonstrate to make good on state requirements.

With the fee, San Diego would cut emissions 20.4 percent from 2005 levels by 2035, while without it regional emissions would fall by just 18.6 percent – below the state’s mandate for a 19.1 percent reduction.

But now that it’s updating things, SANDAG staff said it’ll have to go ahead and update the costs in the plan to reflect inflation. So with revenues down and costs up, staff said it expects to eliminate or scale back some of the road, highway, bus and rail projects that are in the plan.

There may have also been some foreshadowing of how the agency can get back some of the emissions reductions it’ll lose when it pulls out the fee. The agency’s current model is based on from 2016. Staff will now use fresh numbers based on behavior after the pandemic.

The state’s approval: In December, SANDAG approved a new plan, then minutes later passed a motion promising to change the plan. Then the agency submitted the plan it approved to the California Air Resources Board for certification that it meets environmental requirements.

CARB is poised to sign off on that plan by the end of the month, said Antoinette Meier, the agency’s director of regional planning. She indicated that the pending approval is why the agency is just now getting started on the change that the board directed on the same day it approved the plan it wants to change.

“We have been waiting for state approval of the (regional plan) before beginning conversations about updating the (regional plan),” she said. “We did not want to compromise that approval and we did not want to put funding at risk.

That caught the attention of San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, who asked whether the state was aware that SANDAG was promising to change the plan that it was just about to certify.

“I don’t see anything misleading here,” Ikhrata said, arguing that they had submitted a legal plan to CARB for approval, and if they made changes to it after it was approved, those too would go to CARB for approval.

What’s at stake: The regional plan, importantly, does not actually impose a driving fee. It can’t do that. It says that the region, as a whole, assumes that it will implement a fee by 2030, and uses the money it would generate to account for all the stuff it wants to build. But the state would still need to make such a fee legal, some sort of technological solution to charge drivers for their driving would need to be selected and deployed, and the agency’s board or voters would eventually need to actually implement the fee. It’s enough to wonder why regional officials have spent so much time fighting over what amounts to a hypothetical.

“It’s true that the regional plan does not have taxing authority, but you can only include projects in your plan that have a reasonable chance to be funded,” Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a leading opponent of the fee, told us in an interview. “And the regional plan calls for a lot of projects to be funded based on this fee and other taxes. So even though SANDAG does not levy a tax through the regional plan, just by planning to have all of these things included, it necessitates them coming to fruition. The plan does not impose a tax, but included them creates a plan that then requires taxation.”

The other lost revenue: Pending a surprising reveal any day now, the agency has also already lost another major revenue source it was counting on: a sales tax that it thought voters would approve in November. By next spring then, when the change comes back to the board, the loss or delay of that money would also presumably need to be included.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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