The new year started with a bang at city hall.
On January 2, 2019, the city council decided to put a measure on the ballot that challenges the McKay Avenue Open Space initiative previously qualified by citizens wanting to zone 3.65 acres of federal property near Crab Cove as open space. The council also decided to hold a special election on both measures in April, which will cost taxpayers between $580,000 and $730,000. Waiting for the November 2020 general election would only cost $25,000.
The property contains a few buildings that once served the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A nonprofit entity wants to acquire the property for a senior citizens assisted living facility and supportive services for homeless individuals. The federal government has already agreed to hand over the property to the nonprofit for free.
In December 2018, the city council removed the “government” part of the property’s zoning designation to make way for the privately-run facility. The council also directed staff to analyze the potential impacts of the open space initiative and to consider the possibility of a city ballot measure. Staff returned in January with its analysis and a ballot measure upholding council’s support for the private facility.
It’s the third time in recent history that the city has tried to undercut a grassroots effort by placing its own competing measure on the ballot. This is disturbing. If the council does not like a citizens’ measure, they should simply lend their names to the opposition campaign.
It does not matter that I agree with the city’s support for the facility. Populist measures should not be undermined by alternate council measures, funded with public money, supposedly for the “public good” or for “informational purposes.” That is what campaigns are for.
Councilmember Oddie called the council’s ballot measure a “values” proposition on whether we are willing to help deliver supportive homeless services. Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft said that side-by-side measures are good because some voters do not read the ballot arguments and that the city would do what it takes to support the facility.
Reasons for placing the ballot measures on a special April election date are murky. Before the council made their decision, neither the representative for the nonprofit nor city staff gave any reasons for needing a special election. And the proponents of the open space initiative said they did not want taxpayers to incur extra expenses for the advanced election date.
Councilmembers, however, came up with their own reasons. Oddie said the nonprofit will incur costs and add value to the property. He wants to resolve the matter sooner rather than later so that the city is exposed to less liability in case there is lawsuit for downzoning (“taking”) the property should the open space initiative pass. Vella agreed and said construction costs could also rise. Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Knox-White said the nonprofit was at risk of losing its committed funding.
Councilmember Daysog parted ways on both counts, saying no one, including the executive director of the nonprofit, had said project funding was at risk of being lost if the election were held in November 2020. Daysog stated the city does not have the money for the special April election and abstained on introducing the competing measure.
Over 6,000 registered voters signed a petition to place the open space initiative on the ballot. Now four people on the city council have decided to call a special election on both measures in three months when voter turnout will be lower than in a general election. The city council returned for a special meeting on January 10 to finalize the ballot language.
Whether placing competing city measures on the ballot is underhanded or fair play, I hope this tactic against citizen initiatives does not become a trend.