Sept. 22 2010 10:21 AM

Change at the top of the Downtown Partnership raises questions about Prop. D

Shirley Horton
Photo by David Rolland

“Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the President and do wonders for your performance.” —Donald Rumsfeld

Resign. Step down. Take leave. Quit.

Sorry, but any time these words appear in print in association with the departure of anyone of any standing from a high-profile position, Spin Cycle heads to the cupboard for a few grains of salt.

Last month, local media reported that Shirley Horton—former Chula Vista mayor, former state Assembly member—would be “stepping down” as the well-compensated president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership after less than 18 months on the job.

The organization, a coalition of dues-paying businesses that promotes itself as the “Voice of Downtown,” wields considerable clout in political circles. And it’s seemingly unafraid to dive straight into San Diego’s core hot-button issues, including recent efforts to get a handle on the size of the homeless population Downtown (ongoing) and whether voters should get a crack at approving a new City Hall complex (dead for the time being).

Now, for many observers, the unwieldy part: The partnership, which claims on its web site a “membership base of more than 325 companies,” is governed by a board of directors with 48 voting members, a whopping 15 percent of the total membership. (Another seven sit on the board in a non-voting capacity.)

That would be like having a 200,000-member San Diego City Council playing overlord to the city’s current population. (Oh my, no! Nine will be enough, thank you very much.)

“Any time you have a board that big,” noted one Downtown observer who requested anonymity (a common theme for this column), “you’re going to have a lot of different opinions. And it’s very tough for the one person who’s the point person to keep the entire board happy, or even a majority of the board happy, for that matter.”

This got Spin Cycle thinking—admittedly a dangerous proposition—and reaching for the salt. Was Horton’s departure just, as she explained, coincidental to a coming job prospect that she couldn’t pass up, or something more clandestine?

Privately, folks with knowledge of the partnership’s inner workings claim Horton was forced out by Chairman Scott Maloni, who coincidentally now holds the organization’s title of “interim president,” as well.

(Several attempts to contact Maloni for this column were unsuccessful.)

Maloni has a long track record of loyalty to Jerry Sanders and the mayor’s political guru, Tom Shepard, who employed him for several years, including a stint as campaign press secretary for Sanders.

Since 2008, Maloni has been the local public face of the ocean-to-tap-water movement as an executive with Poseidon Resources, which is currently constructing a desalination plant in Carlsbad after years of political wrangling over environmental concerns. Sanders pitched hard for the plant’s approval.

So, now with Prop. D—the mayor’s fiscal reform / sales-tax-hike ballot measure that goes before voters in November—in dire search of anyone in a business suit who will sing its praises, could a reach-out to the partnership be in the cards?

It’s not like the mayor isn’t trying to garner business support for Prop. D. Earlier this month, he appeared along with Prop. D slayer Carl DeMaio before the governmental affairs committee of the local Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), a powerful pro-development lobbying organization.

According to attendees, the mayor asked the group to hold off opining on Prop. D until Oct. 1, arguing that he was making progress on negotiating some of the reforms that must be in place before the proposed half-cent sales-tax increase could kick in.

DeMaio, attendees said, shot back that the mayor was simply trying to muzzle the group while he aggressively hits the fundraiser circuit. But when DeMaio suggested that the mayor had just come from a Prop. D finance meeting, Sanders hit the roof.

“That’s total bullshit, Carl!” attendees quoted the mayor as saying while turning a deep shade of crimson. “I came from a business meeting. You’re full of shit!” DeMaio declined to confirm the alleged mayoral blow-up, describing it only as “a typical political debate.” Rachel Laing, on leave from the mayor’s staff to serve as spokesperson for the pro-D campaign, said a few profanities might have been uttered. “The mayor’s a plain-speaking man,” she said.

“When someone says, ‘Hold your powder, stay neutral,’ and wants you to wait until October at the same time they’re aggressively campaigning for something, I just don’t know how convincing that is, and I had to basically point that out,” DeMaio told Spin Cycle.

In the end, DeMaio said, the AGC decided to oppose Prop. D. “And we’re very proud to have that support,” the City Council member added.

DeMaio said the Downtown San Diego Partnership, by contrast, has yet to take a formal position on Prop. D. The website, however, lists the partnership as a No on D backer. That was news to DeMaio.

“Look, you don’t need local groups to back you when you have a million bucks from labor unions and slick consultants,” DeMaio said. “I can tell you right now we won’t raise more than $150,000. We are in an uphill battle. They’re Goliath. We’re David.”

DeMaio did note one oddity about the Prop. D proponents’ website: no “Donate” button. “Why would a campaign not need a ‘Donate’ button on their campaign site?” he asked before answering, “Because perhaps special interests are going to bankroll it?” In response, Laing described the “milliondollar” claim by DeMaio as “fiction, made up out of whole cloth” to thwart Yes-on-D fundraising. She chuckled about the missing “Donate” button. “No conspiracy there. We’re gladly accepting donations,” Laing said.

She said local organizations, like the partnership and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, are still formulating opinions on Prop. D. “And why the mayor is telling them to hold off is because he really believes that significant reforms will come before October,” Laing said. “He’s basically saying, ‘Give me a chance to make the case.’” As for Horton, she insists there was “nothing mysterious” about her resignation and that her relationship with the board was fine.

“I’m very proud that the overall operations are much stronger than when I took it over,” said Horton, who said she’s now director of development for Chula Vista-based South Bay Community Services and will be involved in a start-up company in a couple months.

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