San Diego Proposition L, the quarter-percent increase in the sales tax that would have been earmarked for libraries, is dead and buried. And for the county's business, political, and newspaper establishment -- which until Prop L had gone three-for-three with successful election drives on behalf of the convention center expansion, a new Padres stadium, and the $1.5 billion school bond -- the pain and backbiting that always follow a failed campaign have been more excruciating than usual.
The second-guessing started hours after county voters delivered a bare 50.23 percent majority in favor of Prop L, far short of the two-thirds necessary for its passage. That despite a $650,000-plus campaign effort funded by five- and six-figure contributions from every blue-chip business in the county, including the multimillion-dollar real estate development lobby, whose well-funded pro-growth machine has of late become used to bulldozing its way past opposition.
The loss of face was severe. Blame was laid at the door of everyone from the out-of-town political consultant who oversaw the campaign to the decision to hold a $1.7 million special election in hopes a low turnout would benefit the pro-library cause. Others even claimed that the "L stands for Libraries" theme was too cutesy and turned voters off.
For their part, campaign insiders blamed the fact that they were forced to follow the budget-busting ballot propositions of the previous year. They also pointed out that their campaign budget, as rich as it was, was still far smaller than the millions spent by hotel owners and sports moguls to get approval of their own government subsidies.
Of course, with losers come winners, and the many conservative activists who for years have been the traditional butt of Union-Tribune editorial writers were grinning from ear to ear last week. Still, knowing who really won and lost will have to await future developments. The Union-Tribune, a force to be reckoned with, has officially declared open season on Prop L opponents and vowed a continued war to get the tax increase enacted. For the moment, however, here are some immediate results:
LOSER: Helen Copley and the Union-Tribune
Not only did U-T owner Copley personally contribute $10,000 to the pro-L campaign, her paper ran a pro-L editorial campaign, including personal attacks on those who opposed the measure. Copley's favorite charity, the nonprofit Literacy Council, for which she raises money through the annual Dr. Seuss marathon, poured big money into an independent "public awareness" campaign, including bumper stickers saying "Support your Library," which the San Diego city manager ordered affixed to all city-owned vehicles.
WINNER: Bernie Jones
The Union-Tribune letters to the editor page editor featured a stream of anti-Prop L letters, apparently reflecting public opinion, despite the overwhelmingly pro-L coverage that appeared in the rest of the paper.
LOSERS: Eleven U-T reporters whose bylines appeared above a series of unabashed Prop L campaign pieces disguised as news stories published in the weeks before the election. Headlines included:
-- Can't Judge a Library by Its Cover; Del Mar's Says It's Short of Books
-- Valley Center Library Aims to Mend Ragged Edges
-- Rancho Santa Fe Library Sees Need; Branch Seeks to Expand Hours if Initiative Passes
-- Coronado Library Expansion Is Dependent on Tax Proposal
-- Libraries Look to Prop. L for Help; National City Facility Has Run Out of Space
-- Fallbrook Is Aiming for Fresh Chapter; The Library Has Long Been a Cornerstone for the Community
-- New Poway Library Just Needs Books
-- San Marcos Library Is Caught in a Bind; It's Like Judging a Book by Its Cover
-- Prop. L Would Enhance Carlsbad's Planned Main Library
-- Space-short Library in a Bind; A Place to Stand Alone Is Goal in Solana Beach
-- Vista Library Would Enlarge Book Collection; Prop. L Money May Also Lengthen Operating Hours
-- For Chula Vistans, Prop. L Means More Services, Hours
-- Fiscal Fix for Libraries; Ballot Measure to Aid East County Facilities
-- El Cajon Library Now Outdated; Main Facility is Busiest in the County System
-- Prop. L Funding Would Let Oceanside Implement Its 5-year Library Strategy
-- Officials at Escondido's Libraries Say Tax Needed to Serve Growing Populace.
Only three of the stories included token paragraphs describing the views of Prop L naysayers: Libertarian party president Steve Green of Santee, and Chula Vistan Thomas Gibson, described as a "resident and library-card holder who has criticized the use of city money for posters and banners advertising the March 2 vote." Nowhere in any of the Prop L pieces was it disclosed that U-T owner Helen Copley had contributed $10,000 to the measure.
Post-election coverage continued the trend, with headlines such as:
-- Shock felt across South County After Prop. L's Defeat
-- Coastal Cities Say Libraries to Endure; but Prop. L Loss Dashes Hopes in Solana Beach
-- Library Backers Adjust to Defeat; Proposition L's Loss Shocks East County.
WINNER: Emily Dalnodar, a San Diego Daily Transcript writer, who covered both sides of the issue during the campaign. In one piece, headlined "Privatization vs. Public Funds: A Tale of Two Library Systems," Dalnodar wrote about Riverside County's decision to turn operational management of its library system over to a private company.
"Since entering into its management contract with Library Systems and Services Inc. (lssi), Riverside County Librarian Gary Christmas said his system has doubled its services for the same amount of money," Dalnodar reported. "Riverside County's library system operates with an annual budget of $6.5 million, $5 million of which goes to lssi. The 24 branches in 13 different cities serve about 800,000 to 900,000 people. That's about the same size as San Diego county's library system, which apparently can't get by on its $11.97 million budget."
The story went on to quote San Diego County Librarian Marilyn Crouch as saying that lssi wasn't interested in handling the San Diego County system. "They didn't see it as an effort that was worthwhile to them." That was contradicted by lssi vice president Robert Windrow, whom Dalnodar quoted as saying, "There was a lot of interest at one time until a lot of money might be raised in this initiative (Prop L). The decision not to manage the county's system was not made by lssi, it was more the library, the county administration. We would welcome the opportunity to look at the San Diego County Library to see if it made sense to both the county and lssi to outsource some of the services."