Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
Hillel-City Council 
Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


Let's Hear It for
Bureaucratic Incompetence

                                                            San Diego Jewish Times, October 5, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

If you are a fan of the season-ending shows on television, which typically are cliff-hangers designed to get you to anxiously await the show’s return in the following season—well, you might have enjoyed the Sept. 27 San Diego City Council’s hearing on the proposed Hillel house adjacent to the UCSD campus.

The hearing also may have left you with an appreciation for the famous adage attributed to Bismark: “Anyone who likes the law, or sausage, shouldn’t watch either being made.”

Perhaps 50 La Jolla residents, encouraged by the La Jolla Town Council to oppose the Hillel house, were outnumbered 2-1, perhaps even 3-1,  by a group wearing blue Hillel t-shirts or campaign buttons.  The majority of both groups arrived at the City Administration Building at 202 C Street shortly before 2 p.m., creating long lines to be processed by security personnel in the lobby through the magnetic screening device.

The adversaries filled in every available seat in the City Hall chambers and overflowed into the 12th floor committee hearing room located across the hall from the chambers.  In the chambers, they found themselves intermingled among members of two other large groups who had arrived for a hearing on whether the lease on the Hyatt Islandia Hotel should be extended without competitive bidding. 

That hearing had been placed on the docket ahead of the Hillel matter. If you were a Mission Bay resident—or an advocate for the hotel or its workers—that hearing held intense interest. But it just droned and droned for the folks who had come to settle once and for all the five-year-long debate over the Hillel house.

During that hearing, people from both sides of the Hillel controversy drifted from the City Council chambers to the large committee room—some to make calls on their cell phones to tell their offices they’d be stuck downtown longer than they planned, others to strategize.

In particular, leaders of Hillel discussed the fact that although they had applied to purchase the property adjacent to UCSD from the City of San Diego, the way the docket item was written up made no mention of authorizing a sale, only a lease.  This meant that even if the City Council approved the use of the land for a Hillel house—a dicey proposition at best—the matter still would have to return to the City Council for approval of a sale.

With Rabbi Lisa Goldstein of Hillel, Rabbi Jeff Wohlgelernter of Congregation Adat Yeshurun, and Rabbi Moishe Leider of Chabad of University City among a phalanx of Jewish leaders attending the meeting, I don’t know whether anyone whispered a prayer of thanks to HaShem for making some bureaucrats in the property department so incompetent. From a political standpoint, if not a religious one, such a prayer would have been entirely appropriate.  Bureaucratic incompetence may have saved the day for Hillel!

The mathematics of the City Council did not favor bringing the Hillel matter to a vote at the Sept. 27 hearing.  To win authorization for a Hillel house, the proponents needed five positive votes—what normally would be a simple majority of a nine-member City Council.  However, the resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy and the convictions on criminal charges of Council members Michael Zucchet (District 2) and Ralph Inzunza Jr. (District 8) earlier this year had left the City Council with only 6 members.  So instead of needing 5 of 9 votes, Hillel had to rack up 5 of 6. 

Hillel’s opponents, on the other hand, had a far easier task—they simply needed to get two Council members to vote with them.  If the Council were to vote 4-2 in favor of Hillel, the Jewish organization still would lose because such a tally would be one vote short of the 5 votes required for passage.

For weeks prior to the vote, opponents and proponents of Hillel House had been lobbying the City Council members—who typically played their cards close to the vest.  Both sides may have thought they had persuaded the same Council member of the rightness of their cause.  Counting votes in advance of their being cast is a very tricky business.  After comparing impressions, various people who had lobbied on behalf of Hillel felt positive about the reactions of some Council members, and downright wary about those of others.   Donna Frye (6th District), in particular, gave off bad vibes on the Hillel matter—she being known as one who likes to vote the wishes of the various community groups, including those of the La Jolla Town Council. 

Notwithstanding the fact that she is running for mayor—and assumedly is interested in winning the gratitude of the citywide Jewish community, whose leadership turned out en masse for the hearing—Frye was considered a likely vote against Hillel.  Somehow she didn’t appear to grasp that having a Hillel house would benefit the entire city because it would help to turn out Jewish leaders with strong commitments to tikkun olam.  She seemed stuck on the not-in-my-backyard arguments of the wealthy La Jolla residents.

To a varying degree, there also were questions about how supportive the other five Council members were, with the gossip and rumors in the committee room in turn attempting to dissect comments made on the issue in the past by Scott Peters (1st district), whose district includes the dispute property; deputy mayor Toni Atkins (3rd district), Tony Young (4th district), Brian Maienschein (5th district) and Jim Madaffer (7th district). 

With so much uncertainty, the Hillel leadership asked its accomplished land use attorney, Lynn Heidel, to ask for a continuance on the grounds that Hillel wanted the hearings on the land use and the sale of the land combined.  The La Jolla Town Council, hardly what you would call politically unsophisticated, objected vociferously.  Here, its members said, they had been waiting all this time to testify—taking time out of their very busy schedule—and now they were being subjected to this stalling tactic by Hillel.  One even went so far as to say that while those students brought to the hearing by Hillel had time to waste, the residents had busy lives.  This prompted jeering from the Hillel students, the only outburst of the afternoon

Council members nodded sympathetically as they heard the complaints and wrung their hands over the inconvenience that the bureaucratic error had caused.  With Young and Maienschein seemingly on the fence,  Peters, Madaffer, and Atkins pushed through the continuance to an as yet-to-be-determined date.  Frye won some points with the opponents by saying that whenever the hearing is scheduled, it should be held in La Jolla itself and at night, thereby making it easier for interested parties to attend. The Hillel advocates didn’t object; perhaps the university itself would be a nice venue for the showdown. 

The unspoken subtext of the debate over the continuance was the fact that the dynamics of the Council may change dramatically after the Nov. 8 general election for mayor and the primary elections on the same date for the two Council seats.

  If Frye were to be elected as the mayor, under the new “strong mayor” system of government that begins a five-year trial on January 1, 2006, she would leave the City Council and not have a Council vote.  She would have a veto, but that could be overridden with just five votes of a City Council that would be reduced in size from nine to eight.  Five is the same number of votes needed to pass an ordinance in the first place.

If Frye went to the mayor’s office, a vacancy would be declared in her 6th Council District, probably prompting the appointment of an interim member of the City Council to fill out the less than a year that would be remaining in her term.  This may be only of academic interest as Frye reportedly trails her opponent, former Police Chief Jerry Sanders, in the opinion polls.

It is possible that some candidate in either the 2nd or the 8th Council District might win more than 50 percent of the vote in the November primary election, and thereby be able to take a seat on the City Council immediately. But given the fact that there are 17 candidates on the ballot in District 2 and nine candidates running in District 8, that is not considered likely.  Therefore, victors for those seats are not expected to be determined until the January 10th runoff.

Timing therefore will be critical in the Hillel math.  If the matter somehow were rescheduled before the November election, it would face the same lineup of council members.  If it were scheduled after the November election, there are several permutations that could occur depending on the outcome of Frye’s race and whether runoffs were required in the two Council races.

Finally, if the Hillel issue is scheduled after the January elections, it could be heard by a full City Council. Such a scenario dramatically would improve the student organization’s chances of prevailing—especially if candidates friendly to Hillel are elected.