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Mayoral candidates field questions on real estate, land use

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Three of the four major candidates to be San Diego's next mayor took the stage Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the Urban Land Institute and the Burnham Moores Center for Real Estate.

While the three Republican candidates, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, were asked questions exclusively related to real estate and land use issues, they all found opportunities to address their usual campaign talking points: pension reform, experience and innovation.

Congressman Bob Filner, the only major Democratic candidate, was also supposed to attend, but staff at the event announced he was sick about 10 minutes after the forum began.

DeMaio announced at the beginning of the forum his three issues are "pension, potholes and prosperity," and directed many of the questions to those areas.

Dumanis took opportunities to cite her "executive experience" and work as a judge. At the beginning of the forum, she said she has been in San Diego for 38 years, "although occasionally you hear me 'paahk the cahh,'" a joke about her Boston accent. At the end, she joked she has lived and worked in San Diego longer than her opponents, DeMaio, 37, and Fletcher, 35, have been alive. Dumanis could not have made the joke if the 69-year-old Filner had attended.

Fletcher used the often-repeated theme that he represents a "new generation of leadership" in his answers to questions, and repeatedly mentioned what he called the centerpiece of his campaign, making San Diego the "world's most innovative city."

While Fletcher and Dumanis credited current Mayor Jerry Sanders with resolving the city's fiscal crisis and each painted themselves as the candidate to move the city forward, DeMaio strongly criticized their perspectives.

"It should concern each and every one of you to hear someone wanting to be San Diego's next mayor declare that the fiscal crisis is over," DeMaio said. "Either it's a stunning admission of ignorance about the true nature of the city's financial problems, or it's a revelation that they're not committed to making the reforms the city needs to make in its budget, its pension system. You should accept neither. You should accept neither."

The candidates also addressed questions from a panel of real estate and land use experts.

When asked what would be the mechanism for affordable housing without the redevelopment agencies recently eliminated by Gov. Jerry Brown, Dumanis said she would find different approaches.

"There are ways we can look at economic development, infrastructure dollars, other ways to look at it so we can partner to bring dollars here to San Diego," she said. "We also have to look at alternative options like assessment districts, BIDs (business improvement districts), Mello-Roos, other ways to look at funding redevelopment and the infrastructure that it took care of."

Fletcher said there is a working group in the state legislature "coming together to bring back the good," which includes affordable housing.

But, he added, the city also needs to look at "how do you get money into the housing trust funds."

While Fletcher said the usual answer is increasing the linkage fees that go into this trust fund, "the problem is, if you aren't increasing the ability to get projects done, 100 percent of no project is still nothing."

"My approach to a solution is, how do we get more projects going, because that will get more money into trust funds across the broad spectrum, not just housing projects," Fletcher said. "And also, how do you look at new ways to make affordable housing affordable to build? Because so much of what we do drives up cost dramatically."

DeMaio said "experimentation with various taxes and fees that subsidize affordable housing has not worked in San Diego."

"We need to treat this as what it is, a supply problem in San Diego," he said. "It's a supply problem driven by bureaucracy and a regulatory regime that can't get projects done, can't get projects approved. Nathan makes a great point, if we don't do projects, we don't have funds, don't have investment, don't have housing stock. That's why we need to reform the permitting process."

DeMaio said he has a plan to overhaul the city's development services department, including self certification permits, programmatic environmental impact reports and approving projects on time.

"I'd like to point out that the nature of this question is about the affordable housing crisis we've declared every two weeks since 2002, but there's not a whole lot of action," he said.

Swinging the topic back to the city's budget, DeMaio added, "but there are some who would like to convince you we no longer have a fiscal crisis, so let's not declare it. Imagine how little will be done when we sweep all the problems under the rug. Let me tell you tonight, pension reform is not in the bag."

Another question referred to the debate "around new housing projects infringing on existing industrial uses," which came to head in the recent conflict between Solar Turbines and the proposed Fat City Lofts.

All three candidates said they were committed to preserving jobs and industrial land.

"The real focus needs to be on community plan updates," DeMaio said. "It all comes back to the cost of doing business with the city and with pension costs."

Dumanis said the conflict was a "balancing act."

"We have to use common sense and update the community plans because that's where we get our certainty from," she said.

She added that the Solar Turbines conflict is a "community plan issue."

"We have to find ways to work together, to be consistent, to work on the best use of land so it's a win-win for everybody," she said.

She added that collaboration and cooperation are one of key points of her leadership experience.

Fletcher was more forceful in his response.

"I feel an overarching responsibility to do everything we can to keep those jobs," he said. "When forced to choose between thousands of jobs that have been here for decades and an apartment project that could be moved a few hundred feet, I am always every single time going to err on side of jobs."

Fletcher also said the conflict occurred because of the "failure of the community plan." Possibly in reference to Dumanis' response, he said the mayor sometimes has to make difficult decisions.

"You can't always get consensus when dealing with community plan updates," he said.

Another question asked candidates was whether land use projects should be "the battleground for labor issues."

Again, each candidate said he or she supports the "Fair and Open Competition" initiative on the June ballot that would ban project labor agreements on city construction projects.

"I don't think we should have a battleground, for one thing," Dumanis said. "When making decisions on who to hire, it should be left to the market and people should have an option. If they want to hire union people, they can hire union people, if they don't want to hire union people, they don't have to."

She added that it is more important to stimulate development "because that means good paying jobs, construction jobs for everybody."

"Everyone needs have an opportunity to kick-start the economy and work together, it's not mutually exclusive," she said. "If those that are in leadership positions are tough and can face labor with realities, then they can come to the table.

"As a former judge and district attorney, those are the kinds of tough decisions I have to make on a regular basis, facing people with decisions they don't necessarily like and explaining it to them and having them understand it."

Fletcher also voiced strong opposition to both project labor agreements, or PLAs, and to the involvement of labor issues in Planned District Ordinances, or PDOs.

"We have enough trouble getting projects going without inserting labor issues into it," Fletcher said. "It's not an appropriate forum for those decisions to be made."

"You can put in place safety standards, you can ensure money is properly spent, you can ensure timeliness of projects without resorting to project labor agreements, certainly without resorting to any interference in terms of the PDO process," he continued. "Our focus really needs to be on economic development, on having a competitive place not only for job creation, but for investment in infrastructure, and so many of these things we talk about merely raise the cost.

"So we have a conversation where on the one hand we say, hey it's too expensive to live and we don't have affordable housing, but on the other hand we're doing a whole bunch of things to make it more expensive."

DeMaio, who backed the anti-PLA initiative, not surprisingly said he does not support them. He said in addition to achieving pension reform, implementing the ban on PLAs is integral to his plan for running the mayor's office and that he does not want to wait until he is mayor to achieve both pension reform and the PLA ban.

"Both require turning to the public for help in imposing these types of reform on city leaders, reforming pensions from the outside and taking away the PLA threat," DeMaio said. "The extortion that occurs, and I use that word deliberately, the extortion that occurs in both public and private projects, where organized labor says we demand a sweetheart deal, we get all the jobs, we don't want fair competition, we don't want a crack at the bat, we want a guarantee.

"And we're going to force people into unions whether they like it or not, and we're going to use the power of government to compel it. May of you know the horror stories of private developers coming before the city, trying to get approval on a project, only to be told we can't approve that project unless you sign a labor peace agreement. It's completely unacceptable, and is not reflecting of the values of San Diegans who stand up for fair and open competition, for a level playing field."

The forum was moderated by Mark Riedy, the executive director of the Burnham Moores Center for Real Estate. Mayoral candidates will face off in an open primary on June 5.

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