San Diego Ocean Beach attorney Lewis Wenzell is one of the plaintiff's lawyers in the Supreme Court case seeking to force a public vote on San Diego's $200 million convention center expansion. He sat down last week for an interview.
Q: What is this case about?
A: The San Diego City Charter says that whenever the city goes into debt, long-term indebtedness - it can be revenue bonds or general obligation bonds or anything - it has to get a vote of the public, two-thirds vote. The state legislature has passed a set of laws, at least which, the City says, allows them to create JPAs and finance these projects by funneling the money through the Joint Powers Authority, avoiding the two-thirds vote. Our position is that you can't use that circuitous route to avoid the vote, number one; and even if that were what the legislature intended to happen, that it's a violation of the home-rule provisions of the California Constitution, which say that when you have charter cities, which ours is, that the charter is the constitution for the city, and it can't be interfered with by the legislature except in very limited circumstances, and we're saying financially, public works projects are not one of those circumstances.
Q: How is the city council trying to avoid a vote?
A: The whole idea is, the way you avoid the vote is to get somebody other than "The City" to do the financing. And so you create these agencies, these Joint Powers Authorities - JPAs is what they're called - in this case, the Convention Center Expansion Authority, which is nothing other than a paper entity. But it does have a name different than the city of San Diego, and so by funneling the City fund through that agency, the city is supposedly not acting, and therefore the city charter doesn't apply. It's a ruse, and everybody knows it's a ruse. In fact, the Oregon State Supreme Court in a case not dissimilar to this one - and declaring this kind of scheme invalid under Oregon law - the closing line to their opinion was, "It's a scheme that could only fool a lawyer."
Q: The Union-Tribune has editorialized, saying, "We don't think there should be a vote on any big public debts."
A: Right. I don't understand that position. There is among the power elite and civic elite an attitude that the public is stupid, and we best know how to spend your money: "It's not your money in the first place; it's our money, and we know how to spend it better than you do." And I think that kind of attitude just prevails. But for a newspaper that's generally conservative, I just don't understand it. I don't understand how people who are Republicans or Conservatives can get into a position where they can say the public is generally incapable of making decisions about important projects. So I don't understand that. I have my own theories, but it involves some of the personalities, and I'm not sure that I want to bring this thing down any farther than it already is.
Q: And I guess they would come back and say, "Well, this is for the greater good, that we need these public works"?
A: I know, but that's the thing that I have a problem with: that somehow the people at the Union-Tribune know better for me than I do. And know better for you and the rest of the citizens what's good for them. I think most citizens would say, "Well, you know, I think I'd rather not have my car wrecked every time I drive down Bacon Street [because of potholes] and not have to have the beaches closed half the time than to see some people from Chicago cavorting at the convention center every January."
Q: Historically speaking, what is that charter provision calling for a two-thirds vote all about?
A: The history is being replayed a hundred years later. These provisions actually got started when, prior to the California Constitutional Convention in the late 1890s, cities and counties went into debt primarily for railroads, water canals, and water projects to benefit the mining interests. All of these projects went broke, then there was the Depression in the late 1880s and 1890. California went bankrupt. California cities and counties went bankrupt, and it was an economic catastrophe. The people went to the constitutional convention and formed our present constitution, at least in the convention in the late 1890s, and said, "We can't do that. It's got to be..." - and the words they used were - "Pay as you go." It's cash. When you want to build these things, you either raise taxes to build them or you pay for them with cash, so that we don't get cities and municipalities into this situation where they are so indebted for the projects that they can't meet the present needs of the public for public safety, et cetera. That's what it was for. The whole idea was we don't trust the politicians to make decisions in the long-term best interest because of the controlling special interest of the time. So we're going to require whenever they do one of these jobs that they come to us and get our permission so that we know we're being indebted for the next 30 years.
I mean, how much clearer and applicable to present day could that be? And now the situation is that instead of the city council having to come to the public and say we want your approval because this is a really good deal, now it's the public that has to go to the city council and say, "Please, please, please don't tax us anymore but don't get us into a public works project that could raise our taxes in the future." I mean, if the populace, the people that passed these constitutional and city charter provisions, were alive today, they would be shouting at the top of their lungs how wrong it is. I think they're turning over in their graves, to tell you the truth.