By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The delay of primaries in other states have garnered headlines, but San Diego has had its own election troubles because of the coronavirus pandemic as well. Both Uptown Planners and North Park Planners have had to cancel elections scheduled for March 12 and March 17, respectively.
When the seriousness of the coronavirus was still not reflected in government policies, the groups had to decide on their own how to move forward. The elections subcommittee for Uptown Planners went through several ideas of how to vote while maintaining social distancing. At first, they got rid of the candidate statements in one big, enclosed space and canceled all agenda items for the meeting other than the election. They settled on a system that had everyone waiting in a long, spaced-out line around the block on a rainy day with only a few people brought into the Joyce Beers building at a time. They finally canceled the entire election on the morning of March 12, when Governor Gavin Newsom requested gatherings of over 250 people not to meet.
“I had been looking for city and county guidance on this all week and everyone seems to be scrambling to come up with their own guidelines since the federal government doesn’t seem to have any guidelines that make any sense,” Steve Cline, elections subcommittee chair, explained on March 12. “We just reached a point where it just seemed like the risks far outweighed the need to get this done today.”
A deciding factor for Cline and the Uptown Planners chair, Soheil Nakhshab, was that Uptown is home to a large population of people over the age of 65 who are most at risk of getting the coronavirus.
The confusion of the week leading up to the election also points to the unclear legal position community planning groups (CPGs) have. In the lead-up to when Newsom and then the county declared no gatherings are allowed to exceed 250 people, the City Planners Department offered no real guidance on whether to meet or not.
The department released a letter the next day, March 13, laying out what the groups are legally allowed to do under the Brown Act. Since CPGs are private organizations maintained by community members, the city could not order meetings be postponed, unlike boards and commissions directly overseen by the city which had already been postponed by the time the March 13 letter to CPGs was sent. Instead, it was up to each CPG to decide. With elections expected to bring hundreds of people, the county order to limit events anticipating more than 250 people was a clear mandate against the March 12 Uptown Planners election. For a regularly scheduled meeting that brings in less than 50 people, what to do was less clear.
“The City Attorney’s recent opinion made clear that community planning groups need reform to comply with state and local law. This haphazard cancelation of elections shows that the system needs changes to clarify who is in charge, and how this form of local democracy can operate fairly,” said Colin Parent, executive director Circulate San Diego, a group that supports CPG reform.
Because of advocacy from grassroots YIMBY groups like Rise Uptown and Rise North Park, both elections were expected to bring in hundreds of people. Cline said Uptown was planning for 600 or 700 people to vote in the election, compared to less than 400 in the last election. This was largely due to canvassing and promotion from Rise Uptown, as well as the less organized countermovement it inspired.
“It’s very different from the primaries where there’s like 40% turnout. So, a lot of people from San Diego know about the election, but for this very localized and very specialized election, you need to gather people to come out. I know I’ve reached out to dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of people in the area to say, ‘Hey, come out and vote for us and this election.’ It’s hard to get everything printed and volunteers coordinated for support that night,” explained Oscar Taveras, a candidate endorsed by Rise Uptown. He spent much of March 12 contacting the people he had reached out to and let them know the election was off. Whenever a new election is held, that months-long effort could be difficult to reorganize.
“All in all, the reception to this action has been quiet in spite of the tension from the various factions, so I’m hopeful that everyone can get along and cooperate and recognize that this was in the best interest of the community,” Cline said. He said he did receive a few emails “out of left field” claiming the cancelation was to rig the election in favor of the YIMBYs.
Without the new board members, the groups cannot meet a quorum so no business can be conducted until after the election. This means any developers will have to wait until after the end of the quarantine to get their projects approved. Even phone meetings or some other adaptation that meets the social distancing mandate would not be adequate for those groups without new members.
Unless mail ballots or online voting was initiated for those CPG boards postponing elections, they cannot meet a quorum. However, other CPG meetings could meet if the bylaws allow them to use phone or video conferencing as other groups like City Council have found useful.
“The city mothers and fathers who have the power, with the city attorney, [should] implement whatever revision to the master set of bylaws concerning the structure of our planning group in order to facilitate this kind of arrangement. If it isn’t in there, it should be in there anyway,” said Helen Rowe Allen, one of the candidates running without the support of Rise Uptown. “This isn’t the only time that we’re going to have this kind of situation. And after all, we’re in the 21st century. We ought to have this just always.”
A video or phone option would certainly be more accessible to the community, although it was not included in the package of reforms seen by the City Council earlier this year that City Attorney Mara Elliott halted.
Under current rules, the advisory role of CPG groups will not be able to continue until after this crisis is over.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.