Letter Regarding Ballot Question For “For a Better San Diego”

November 1, 2019


Members of San Diego City Council

City Administration Building

202 C Street, 10th Floor

San Diego, CA 92101

Re: Proposed ballot question for citizens’ initiative, “For a Better San Diego” 

Dear Honorable Councilmembers:

Alliance San Diego is a community empowerment organization working to build a more inclusive democracy. As part of this work, we are striving for greater government accountability, transparency, and oversight. To that end, we are interested in the City Council generating ballot questions that are fully understandable to the voters and are honest reflections of the measures voters are deciding on. 

We herein share our concerns regarding the proposed ballot question for the citizens’ initiative, “For a Better San Diego” (FBSD). Alliance San Diego has not taken a position on the measure and we do not do so here. Rather, we assert voters’ interest in clear language in a ballot question that accurately reflects the measure so voters can understand it and vote on it.

Under San Diego Municipal Code section 27.0503, the City Council decides the ballot question for each ballot measure. Under the Code, the ballot question should be a condensed statement of the measure. The proposed ballot question for FBSD is deficient in several ways. It states: 

MEASURE ___. INITIATIVE MEASURE - HOTEL VISITOR TAX INCREASE FOR CONVENTION CENTER, HOMELESS PROGRAMS, STREET REPAIRS. Shall the measure be adopted to: increase the City of San Diego’s 10.5% hotel visitor tax by 1.25 to 3.25 percentage points, depending on hotel location, through at least 2061, designated to fund convention center expansion, modernization, promotion and operations, homeless services and programs, and street repairs; and authorize related bonds; with a citizens’ oversight committee and audits by the independent City Auditor?  

The ballot question does not reference a bond in the title, nor does it specify a bond amount in the question. In addition, it overstates the independence of the City Auditor. It does not convey the temporary nature of a citizens’ oversight committee. Lastly, it does not include City Council’s discretion to amend the measure after passage. These deficiencies result in language that does not adequately represent a condensed statement of the measure. Moreover, the ballot question is inconsistent with ballot questions for prior measures. 

Due to the lack of clarity and consistency, these deficiencies should be addressed before finalizing the ballot question that will go to voters. We recommend the following changes to the ballot question:

1. Ballot question should include bond authorization in the title and specify the amount. 

The ballot title should express a summary of what voters are being asked to do. In the case of FBSD, voters are being asked to increase the hotel tax and also to authorize bonds. The latter is no less important than the former and should be part of the title. That would be consistent with other bond measures brought before voters. 

Historically, ballot questions involving a bond have also specified the amount of the bond. Because this ballot measure authorizes a bond, it should include the amount voters are asked to authorize in the ballot question. This is a debt voters will be responsible for. As such, they should know the extent of that debt. The FBSD measure authorizes the City of San Diego to issue $2 billion in bonds. It also authorizes City Council, with a single vote on a resolution, to issue additional bonds without a specified limit to cover convention center expenses. The lack of a bond limit should be made plain to voters. 

All of the recent city bonds, including city school bonds Measure YY (2018), Measure Z (2012), and Measure S (2008), as well as the most recent city bond for police, fire, and public safety facilities in Measure E (1990), all included the word “bond” in the title and specified the amount of the bond that voters were asked to approve. As a matter of consistency and clarity, the ballot question for FBSD should mention the bond in the title, should specify the amount, and should clarify that the city council is being authorized to exceed that amount.

2. Ballot question should not include “independent” to describe City Auditor. 

The proposed ballot question for FBSD includes the word “independent” to describe the City Auditor, but that word is not used in the City Charter establishing the Office of the City Auditor. See section 39.2. To use the word “independent” here in the ballot question would be to impose a description that is absent in the Charter. It should not be included. 

The language in the proposed question also does not specify the limits of what the City Auditor will do. According to FBSD, the role of the City Auditor will be limited to conducting performance audits. The City Auditor will not conduct financial audits. As such, if the ballot question is going to mention the City Auditor, it should specify that the audits that office will conduct will be limited to performance audits.

3. Ballot question should specify temporary nature of citizens’ oversight committee. 

Under San Diego City Charter Article V, section 43, City Council can create an advisory board or a citizens’ committee. The Charter distinguishes between the two and specifies the difference. According to subsection (a), an advisory board is created by ordinance, the members of the board are appointed, and they serve up to 8 year terms. According to subsection (b), a committee can be created by the City Council without an ordinance. It has a limited purpose, is temporary in nature, and shall be dissolved upon completion of its objectives. 

The FBSD measure directs City Council to adopt a resolution (not an ordinance) establishing a citizens’ oversight committee (not a board). As such, the committee is temporary in nature, and that should be reflected in the ballot question. Had the proponents of the measure intended to create an advisory board, they would have needed to direct Council to adopt an ordinance to establish something more permanent, and the ballot question would have to reflect that, as it did for prior measures establishing advisory boards, such as Measure G (2016) regarding the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices. As a matter of clarity and consistency, the ballot question for FBSD should specify the temporary nature of the citizens’ oversight committee.

4. Ballot question should specify City Council’s discretion to amend the terms. 

As written, FBSD authorizes City Council to amend the terms of the measure after its passage “in any manner” that does not alter the tax rate or constitute a tax increase. That means, under section 4(b) of the measure, City Council could alter the allocation of the funds currently allocated to the convention center, homeless programs, and street repair, or utilize the funds in an entirely different manner. It could also change the purpose of, or outright dissolve the citizens’ oversight committee, and it could alter the audit provisions. 

This wide discretion embedded in the ballot measure renders it a voter directive or voter preference that City Council could override in its discretion. Notably, the proponents of the ballot measure are currently asking City Council to use its discretion to override voters’ preference for November elections as expressed in Measure L (2016) to schedule FBSD for an earlier election in March. 

The City Council’s current potential use of discretion regarding Measure L makes the issue of discretion paramount. Voters should know what discretion they are authorizing in a ballot measure. The discretion granted in FBSD is much broader than in Measure L. As a matter of clarity and consistency, the ballot question should include language to specify that the provisions of the measure are subject to change if the City Council so chooses. 

Addressing the above concerns is essential to creating a ballot question that is a fair and accurate statement of the measure. The City Council has a responsibility to exercise good governance and to be honest with voters. An important step in that direction would be to amend the ballot question as suggested. This will build trust with voters by increasing accountability, transparency, and oversight. 

The concerns raised in this letter are relevant regardless of which election FBSD is placed on. These concerns are in addition to our concerns about preserving Measure L. We continue to urge City Council to place FBSD on the November ballot, when the most people vote. 

Thank you for your consideration. 


Andrea Guerrero, Esq.

Executive Director, Alliance San Diego

[email protected], 619-269-1823

Cc: San Diego City Attorney, Mara Elliott