Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Progress, San Diego style: Where more gets you less

I've lived in San Diego long enough to remember what things were like "way back when."  And you know what?  Not that much has changed!  
True, there are more people living here than ever before.  More restaurants and bars and multiplex theaters.  More monotonous red roofs rimming bulldozed hilltops in the city's north suburbs.  Many more seals and sea lions hauling out on La Jolla beaches.  

There are also many more sleek highrises downtown (but, oddly, fewer pedestrians on the sidewalks than you might expect – a mere fraction of what you'll find in other urban downtowns).

You'll see many more homeless people sleeping on the streets.  Not so many as in New York or Los Angeles but substantially more than in D.C. or San Francisco or Chicago. 
Also true is that nowadays you'll find much more political clout embedded in the office of our mayor – a result of charter changes finalized five years ago.  The new strong mayor governance system has great potential for making progress toward the goal of increasing the public good.  
But in the world of San Diego politics there's a flip side to everything, including "progress." 
As it turns out, at this moment in our city's history we find ourselves saddled with a retrograde mayor – a former public relations professional masquerading as a public servant while pandering to the financial wellbeing of the Chamber of Commerce/ real estate industry/ good-old-boys-fraternity.  
It would be a good idea to keep close tabs on this evasive mayor, given his tendencies to abuse his strong-mayor authority by promoting private development interests over citywide and community interests.
In fact, mayor Faulconer's recent questionable use of the city's public TV channel to lobby against state legislation curtailing the undemocratic overreach of Civic San Diego (a private real estate development corporation created by Jerry Sanders to preserve and enhance the city's outlawed Redevelopment Agency) erases the line that should separate legal mayoral responsibility from unethical, self-serving political expediency.  
Coverage of Civic San Diego in some local news outlets insinuates that "organized labor" is behind the attempt to rein in the tentacles of the mayor's privatized redevelopment organ.  But in fact, the interests of regular San Diegans and their rights to community participation, representation, neighborhood protection, political accountability, and open and transparent decision-making within their own neighborhoods are threatened by Civic San Diego and the mayor's lobbying on its behalf.
And it's the people's investment in good government that gets abused each time the mayor brandishes his public relations wand to fund and promote a nebulous public/private creation called One San Diego – its branded logo stamped on both the official city website and also on a private nonprofit corporation that he, his wife Katherine, and the former councilman Tony Young are or aren't really  in charge of – depending on when and whom and why you ask.  
Is it just sloppiness and incompetence that causes the lines and boundaries of this mayor's agenda to be slippery and blurred?  Or is the public being massaged into passivity and submission by an adroit PR executive who's got inflated political ambitions?  To repeat myself: it would be a good idea to keep close tabs on this evasive mayor...
As for the question, how much has changed in San Diego since "way back when"? here's what we've seen: many quantitative changes on the outside but few qualitative reforms on the inside.  And when you look around to the right and to the left of the political landscape you'll probably agree that the prospect of real progress in our city is not yet in the offing.

Then again– if and when ethical, strong, and reform-minded leadership emerges in our city – the outcome will be more enriching, constructive, and rewarding than what the self-serving, fossilized San Diego establishment has ever provided... at least from the public perspective.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Civic San Diego: the kiss of death for San Diego neighborhoods

The city of San Diego has first-class universities, first-class biotech companies, first-class ethnic restaurants, first-class theater, first-class engineers, artists, and musicians.  Also:

Our city has first-class standing as a prototype of community-based planning. 

Who would have guessed that during the heady years of the 1960s, while the Pump House kids were tripping the waves fantastic at Windansea Beach other San Diegans – more firmly-grounded and civic-minded – were partnering with City Hall as official members of newly-created community planning groups.  The La Jolla community plan was the city's first.  Then the Peninsula plan.  Soon came the others.

Half a century later there are more than 40 recognized community planning groups throughout the city, where locally-elected members meet monthly to opine on neighborhood land-use issues, community goals, and proposed real estate development and relay their advice and recommendations to city officials.  

Although these planning groups are private organizations they have no legal power to take action on behalf of the city.  They're required to adhere to city council policies and city-approved bylaws.    
It's true, our planning groups are frequently dominated by people with personal or business priorities rather than communal well-being.  It's a fact, they generally represent the perspectives of homeowners over renters. Certainly, they can be contentious and rancorous.  Yes, they're sometimes short-sighted and overly-opinionated. 

But in these planning groups you'll find plenty of altruistic, environmentally-aware, economically-savvy, intelligent and openminded social reformers and planning advocates, all determined to do what no one else will do for them – look out their own backyards.  Plus those of their neighbors and neighborhoods in the rest of the city.  

Granted, there's plenty of room for improvement within community planning groups. Dwindling staff support from city planners (who have, themselves, been hammered by planning department reorganizations, budget cuts, unfilled positions, and political machinations) doesn't help. 

But here's a fact of life we should not ignore: imperfect though they may be, San Diego's community planning groups are indispensable.  They're the eyes, ears, and vocal chords of our neighborhoods.  They're the  building blocks of a healthy city.  

Without them, the voices of everyday citizens to improve the environment throughout San Diego are easily diminished... overridden... eventually extinguished.  

Here's another fact of life we should not ignore: one by one, in this way or that, San Diego's community planning groups are being sabotaged.

Look what happened in Barrio Logan and its community plan update.  See what's happening at the opposite end of the city, in Carmel Valley's One Paseo project.  Watch how numerous communities are left hanging out to dry over their community plan updates.  Take note of the chronic battering in Ocean Beach by variances to permit out-sized development.  Notice the attempts to cluster and meld distinct neighborhood planning groups in North Park, Golden Hill, and Uptown.  The Serra Mesa community group knows how hard it is to prevent being devalued and ignored.  The Grantville planning group knows the same.   

Community planning groups routinely tackle blunt questions: Does the proposal under consideration benefit the street? the neighborhood? the community? the city? the public good?  They put themselves on the line each time they resist fast-tracking and outsized projects… each time they challenge spurious claims and empty clichés about "property rights" or "transit-oriented development" or "smart growth"... each time they open the debate about community benefits versus private profits.  

Which brings us back to Civic San Diego and its kiss of death.  

Does Civic San Diego – the recently-created private real estate consortium, endowed by its creator (the city of San Diego) with certain (unalienable?) rights to override, supersede, and nullify the voices of community planning groups – sabotage San Diego's longstanding public system of city planning and community planning groups?  Yes!

Is Civic San Diego's most recent proposal to become a provider of "community benefits" and "work with a diverse range of community stakeholders... on community priorities" a calculated farce to placate their critics and keep themselves in business? Yes!

City leaders created and empowered Civic San Diego as an autonomous purveyor of private development and transferred city government responsibility for planning, zoning, permits, and oversight to a private corporation.  They locked themselves, the public, and city planners out of the process.  They got it all wrong.  

They sabotaged the public's rights to be heard and oversee our own backyards.  The City Attorney's office tiptoes around the edges but appears to have serious reservations about city delegation of authority to Civic San Diego.  The courts may not be as easily intimidated by San Diego's power elite or remain sanguine about Civic San Diego's kiss of death for community planning.

City officials need to cut their losses and try to get it right.  How to do it? 

FIRST, DISASSEMBLE AND DISSOLVE CIVIC SAN DIEGO.  Land use decisions involving the future of our neighborhoods and communities belong in the hands of city officials and the public, not in the hands of San Diego's downtown landed gentry.  Contrivances like Civic San Diego take us backward to the bad-old-days of lining the pockets of the good-old-boys.   Just get rid of it.

SECOND, EXPAND THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY PLANNING GROUPS.   After a half-century history of constructive partnership between community planning groups and the city, the time is ripe to consider enlarging and extending the scope of planning groups beyond land use issues. 

"Backyard" concerns like neighborhood job creation, local crime problems, renters rights, city budget priorities, utility rates, water conservation, transit, homelessness, and government efficiency belong side-by-side with land use recommendations on the agendas of city-authorized, locally-elected, well-regulated neighborhood councils.  It's not a panacea but it is a step forward – in the right direction.

City officials unwisely transformed outlawed redevelopment agencies into Civic San Diego.  That decision should be repealed.  

Our city can get it right by wisely transforming community planning groups into top-rung public assets, namely full-purpose neighborhood councils.  

Think about it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Civic San Diego – like a hole in the head

We need it like a loch im kopf.  A hole in the head.  It's what people in the old days would say about a bad situation.  It's what I say about Civic San Diego –the reincarnation of our former downtown redevelopment agency.

We need Civic San Diego like a hole in the head.  It's time to get rid of it.
A quick backtrack:  It's been three years since redevelopment agencies throughout California were terminated and instructed to wind down their uncompleted redevelopment projects and make good on their financial obligations.  Other cities complied by doing the job in-house, under public supervision.  
Not so in San Diego.  To take care of the job in our city, former mayor Jerry Sanders created an unaccountable, autonomous corporation named Civic San Diego.  
Previous redevelopment agencies were required to answer to state and local law, to the City Council, and to citizen committees.  The private corporation called Civic San Diego is not required to answer to anyone – the public least of all.  

If we get rid of Civic San Diego, won't everything fall apart?  No.  Take a minute to look at the city's organization chart.  You'll see that our city has plenty of resources to get the winding-down job successfully done.  
The city has a Planning Department, a Park and Recreation Department, a Real Estate Assets Department, an Economic Development Department, a Development Services Department, a Public Works and a Public Utilities Department, a Debt Management Department, a Financial Management Department, a City Comptroller, a City Treasurer, and a Housing Commission.  We have options to hire consultants for specialized services. 
We have an independent City Auditor and publicly-elected officials – a Mayor, a nine-member City Council, a City Attorney – to take responsibility for city business.  We've got active, willing, and informed constituents to share the load.  

The city already has the tools and capacity (backed by a $3 billion annual budget) to wind down redevelopment and to move ahead with the repair and revitalization of our neighborhoods, communities, and local economy.  There's no doubt that the city could function more efficiently but that's no excuse for trying to privatize public business.
So why did former mayor Sanders hand over responsibility for the multi-million dollar redevelopment-decommissioning process to an appointed group of land-development private interests and grant them full exemption from public supervision?
And why did he give Civic San Diego control over planning, development permits, and financing schemes for future multi-million dollar redevelopment-style projects, not only in downtown but in huge swaths of the San Diego landscape like (take a deep breath) Barrio Logan, City Heights, College Grove, Crossroads (eastern El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, College Avenue), Grantville, Linda Vista, Liberty Station (former Naval Training Center), North Park, North San Diego Bay (Pacific Highway, Morena Boulevard, Loma Portal, Claremont), SDSU area, and San Ysidro?  You don't have to feel left out – there's probably a big development project coming to a neighborhood near you… 
What about our current mayor Kevin Faulconer? Why is he fully onboard with the downtown power bloc of developers, bankers, law firms, Wall Street brokers, financial middlemen, and other vested interests who promote and defend Civic San Diego? 
(Okay, we know the answer to why.  The important question is how to find leaders with enough smarts and integrity to hang onto their principles despite relentless pressure from big money.) 
There are some who say we should reform Civic San Diego by imposing "community benefits" stipulations.  But that's going nowhere so I'll say it again: Civic San Diego – we need it like a hole in the head.  It's time to get rid of it.  
If you need further convincing, read on: Civic San Diego was given the power to make private decisions about public functions like planning, public works, and community development in dozens of San Diego neighborhoods but isn't required to listen to or be monitored by the public.  It's a tax-subsidized fiefdom run like a private club – immune to public control, direction, or oversight.

What started out as a tool for winding down redevelopment has morphed into a shadow government with its own board of directors, paid staff, numerous departments, and stand-alone subsidiaries serviced by private lawyers and investment consultants.  It's on the receiving end of half a million dollars in annual funding from city coffers.
There's a new twist: Civic San Diego has a leg-up when it comes to competing for federal subsidies called New Market Tax Credits – a new breed of tax-saving incentives for Wall Street investors to stimulate new development in low-income neighborhoods.  Civic San Diego is permitted to skim its cache of New Market Tax Credits to offset its own tax liabilities or for its own administrative costs.  But in contrast to how this program is set up elsewhere in the state and country, under the Civic San Diego arrangement neither the city nor targeted neighborhoods have a say in how, where, or for what purpose these tax credits are used.  
Still not convinced? Keep reading:  The truth is, no one on the outside understands Civic San Diego's inner workings, not if you're trying to "follow the money." 

Huge sums have been socked away while projects sit idle.  The operations, financial
management, business arrangements, policy decisions, and other moving parts of Civic San Diego are an enigma to the public and incomprehensible to the City Council.  Even its own board members are often kept in the dark and out of the loop.  

Still unsure?  Read more: Key commercial corridors in southeastern San Diego are ripe for the picking – there's development-gold-in-them-thar-hills.  But Civic San Diego's ambitious plans to expand operations into new neighborhoods – buttressed by powers to direct, control, acquire, rezone, issue permits, build, and otherwise reap bounteous private profits – come with no guarantees that residents, communities, and ordinary citizens will be the beneficiaries.  
Getting tuckered out? We've come to the bottom line: Does Civic San Diego operate within or outside federal, state, and local law? Did the city act illegally when it farmed out its legislative powers to this corporation?  Is the setup ethical or compatible with the public good? 
Why wait for the courts to embarrass and ultimately force the city to do the right thing?  It's time to get rid of this hole in the head.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Be nice. Play nice. A public interest message

Maybe you missed the story in the NYT a couple of months ago that characterized certain San Diegans as “aggressively bland…scrubbed of their character… command(ing) so little attention…”

Yes, the description is a dead ringer for our current mayor Kevin Faulconer.  But no, the story wasn't about him.

It was about a new No.1 starter for our  hometown baseball team– left in the lurch three years ago by a wily real estate developer who amassed mega-millions through canny downtown redevelopment deals with obliging city officials and then headed off to Texas with his publicly-subsidized loot.  For former Padres owner John Moores, the public good was hardly the point of his business plan.   

Turns out that the public good was not in the business plan of that other wily profiteer, the one with an equally-practiced eye for lucrative real estate investments.  Doug Manchester gobbled up the city’s sole daily newspaper and macerated it into a silly small-town rag, decimating the stock of local and regional professional reporters in cynical contempt of the public interest.  In the process he'll personally come off many $millions in the black.

How is it that the city of San Diego routinely gets fleeced by real estate developers, by hotelier/ tourism/ hospitality entrepreneurs, by Chamber of Commerce hacks, by well-heeled businessmen and sports team owners and self-promoting downtown partnerships and upwardly-mobile politicians?   

How is it that over the past couple of decades the civic notion of the public good has been trounced and buried in the pileup of downtown money, unsmart growth, and vacuous leadership?  Instead of community benefits we get bland, scrubbed clichés about civility: Be nice.  Play nice.  Don't rock the boat.

Now here's the latest civil warning: The free-for-all massacre of our previous mayor was A-OK but don't mess with our current mayor Kevin Faulconer – the evasive, ever-so-nice guy who's being powdered and groomed as a potential candidate for higher office, maybe even (gulp) California governor.   Haven't you noticed how our public-minded reformers, intelligent thinkers, and anyone else uncivil enough to challenge the status quo get harassed, discredited, and hounded out of town?

So who will risk challenging the policies of civil-tongued mayor Faulconer, one of the most airbrushed, remote-controlled, public relations-created marshmallow fellows our city has yet produced?  San Diego is definitely at a political low point.

Which brings us full circle to an important public-interest message about the San Diego City Charter: There are meetings underway at City Hall to modify our City Charter.  

While it's true that our City Charter is in bad need of cleanup and reorganization,  much of that work can be taken care of by the City Attorney's office.  But if major and substantive changes to the Charter are in the works, we will need an appointed or elected Citizens Charter Commission to do the job, not just a Council Charter Committee.  It may be expensive and time consuming, but to avoid the mischief that's inevitable without open and informed public participation, there's no way around it.

Our City Charter is akin to a government constitution.  It's the fundamental law of the city.  To address the fact that hardly anyone knows why the Charter exists, I recently sent a suggestion to the City Council Charter Review Committee to add a preamble to the Charter.  A preamble?  What's that?  

A preamble is simply a public interest message spelling out the purpose and intent of our city government / City Charter.  It enumerates the guiding principles that underlie San Diego city government and clarifies for people living and doing business in the city what the public good entails.  A preamble could help our city identify its better self and dig itself out from under.

Here’s my stab at what the San Diego City Charter preamble could and should say:

City government is the steward of the public good.  The purpose and intent of the San Diego City Charter is to provide for government effectiveness, efficiency, and fiscal responsibility; ensure government responsiveness to local needs; enable equitable development and environmental justice in our communities; foster transparency, ethics, and accountability in government functions; assure fair citizen participation in the affairs of the City; improve the safety, quality of life, and standard of living of all San Diegans; engage in long-term conservation and sustainable management of our natural resources; protect the integrity of government decision-making; and promote public confidence in city government.

We, the people of the City of San Diego, have established this City Charter under the home-rule provision of the Constitution of the State of California and ordain it as the fundamental law of the City.

(FYI: The next City Council Charter Review Committee is scheduled for Thursday, April 16, 2015 at 2pm in the City Council Committee Room, 12th Floor, City Administration Building (aka City Hall).   The Committee Consultant is Steve Hadley (619) 533-5906 or

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

San Diego – the silly city

San Diego can be such a silly city.  For proof, consider the oddly loopy hubbub that surrounds this year's annual City Council ritual of choosing a council president.  

[political maneuvering, roman style]
People (many of whom should know better) have been turning themselves inside out over the roaring-hot question: will Todd Gloria be awarded a third term as council president or will another council member (presumably Sherri Lightner) get a turn to be the council's presiding officer?    

In case you’ve forgotten, every since San Diego switched over to a “strong mayor” form of government (it's been almost a decade) council members have selected one of their own to run council meetings and set the council agenda.  First there was Scott Peters (2005-’06-‘07), then Ben Hueso ('08-’09), then Tony Young ('10- ’11), and then Todd Gloria ('12-’14).

At Monday’s City Council meeting the matter of when to select next year’s council president was considered.   The decision was made by the council to take care of the matter this coming Wednesday.

At the same council meeting, the matter of the mayor’s 5-year financial outlook was also considered.  The harsh contrast between the mayor’s rosy financial outlook and the reality of San Diego’s fiscal crisis was startling.  Even more startling was observing how smoothly the City Council tuned out the bad news.  

But never fear, we’ll be returning to this much-neglected subject in the near future. Meantime, back to our silly city.

A group called Support Todd Gloria for Council President is soliciting hundreds of people to come down to City Hall this Wednesday... NOT to mark the swearing-in ceremony for newly-elected council members Lorie Zapf (District 2) and Chris Cate (District 6)... and NOT to protest the mayor's or council's nonchalance over unfunded community needs, decaying infrastructure, and depressed levels of city services...  

No, they’ll be there to cheer and/or jeer the selection of next year’s council president.  They’ve already signed petitions.  They’ve already received instructions to wear the color purple (wasn’t purple the signature color of the former movie star Kim Novac?  Apparently now it belongs to councilman Todd Gloria).   

Think about this: protests in our city and in cities across the country demanding economic, racial, and social justice elicit barely a stir in the political consciousness of the San Diego establishment.  Local-level fraud, chicanery, malfeasance, inaction, and double-dealing raise nary an eyebrow.  

So isn't it peculiar that an annual formality to select a council president would rouse the ranks to storm City Hall?  To be generous, I'd say it's pretty silly...


Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Secret of the San Diego Growth Machine: another case for Nancy Drew

Albert Einstein searched for a unified theory that would unite the forces of nature (he had his eye on relativity and electromagnetism).  

I, too, have been searching for a unified theory – albeit a more modest one  –  to unite the forces of nature (human, in this case) that make San Diego the chronically backwater/ amorphous/ uninspired/ tunnel-visioned/ closed-shop/ quasi-corrupt/ rigidly-manipulated/shady city it is.   

Come join the search.  Just follow the trail of clues, click on a sampling of news links about San Diego, and you'll discover a unifying theme that even Einstein would find surprising.

Clue #1: City governments are not bush league versions of the ones at the top.  The people and forces that drive, define, and control city governments are different from the ones that steer state and federal government.  
Clue #2: At the local level, control and power over city affairs is in the hands of a land-based growth coalition – private interests that profit from increased densities and intensification of land use.  Another term for intensification of land use is growth. 
Clue #3: Who belongs to this influential and politically powerful growth coalition? Corporate investors.  Developers.  Landlords.  Bankers.  Newspaper publishers.  Land use attorneys.   Real estate syndicates. Building trades unions.  Realtors.  Utility companies.  Boosters like the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Economic Development Corporation, Chamber of Commerce, and Taxpayers Association.  

Clue #4: The desire for and profit from growth is the glue that bonds and binds these land-based interests, even when individual members of the growth coalition are at odds over a specific political, social, or civic issues.  

Clue #5: Plain and simple: the goal of land-based growth coalitions is to make money off land and buildings by promoting specific government actions and decisions that will maximize profits through increases in the value of their private land holdings. 

(This contrasts with the goal of corporate interests, which is to maximize profits from the sale of goods and services while trying to circumvent governmental involvement.) 

Clue #6: What do mayors and city council people spend most of their time and attention on?  Land use and growth: suburban retrofits... new office buildings… low-income housing... town centers… residential developments… land giveaway... construction labor agreements… tax incentives for institutions and corporations... funding schemes for sports arenas and convention centers… hotel and tourism expansion… height and building code variances… zoning changes… urban overhauls… infrastructure to keep up with demands of new growth…

(Note this inconsistency: on the national level, business interests condemn job creation and other government interventions in the private sphere.  But at the city level, the pro-growth coalition actively promotes, engages in, and depends upon city government intervention to intensify land use and ensure maximum profits for the private sphere.)

Clue #7: In other words, growth-related land use decisions are the meat and
 potatoes of city politics.  In fact, San Diego is a textbook example of a growth machine whose central mission is to maximize land values and profits for private owners.  

We’ve reached the end of the trail of clues.  It led us straight to the theory of the Growth Machine.  But is it the end of the road for San Diego?  

Not if we open our eyes to the way the growth machine works in our city and decide that the way things work is not good enough for our city, our neighborhoods, or our society.

Not if we dethrone the controlling, self-enriching, home-grown growth coalition that's held our city hostage for decades.

Not if we replace our focus on growth (intensified land use for private benefit) with a focus on development (qualitative improvements for public benefit).

Not if we demand the creation of good and sustainable jobs that maximize public wealth through reinvestment in our streets, social services, sidewalks, sewer pipes, bridges, water stabilization projects, libraries, recreation centers, clean air, public transit, parks... in our arts, music, sciences, and education…  

 Only then will San Diego lose its civic identity as a backwater/ amorphous/ uninspired/ tunnel-visioned/ closed-shop/ quasi-corrupt/ rigidly-manipulated/ shady city and stand a chance of becoming a city to be proud of.  

(You can read a fuller description of San Diego's growth machine in action in Anatomy of Failure: planning and politics...)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

City government: why can't we run it like a business?

Last time we met we figured out how San Diego was begotten.  Now it’s time to unravel the purpose of city government and discover what’s it all about when you sort it out

We’ll start the sorting process with a couple of facts.  Then we’ll go for the jackpot question: why can’t city government be run like a business? 

First fact: city government deserves a lot more attention from you and me than it usually gets.  Why? because our elected officials have substantial influence on our everyday lives – more than we give them credit for. 

The political decisions of our mayor and council members penetrate our neighborhoods and reach straight into our private homes, directly impacting how we navigate our personal lives.  Sometimes it's for better.  Other times it's for worse.  

Second fact: did you know that San Diego is legally defined as a municipal corporation?  No, it’s not a business in the ordinary sense.  Our city is classified as a self-governing public entity endowed with the “right and power to make and enforce all laws and regulations in respect to municipal affairs.”

And exactly what are municipal affairs?  Probably not what you're thinking.  Municipal affairs are the city's raison d'être.  The city is created to deliver public public safety and essential infrastructure.  Core services invariably include police and fire protection (in a coastal town, throw in lifeguards), water and power, garbage collection/ sewers/ sanitation (public restrooms get short shrift), parks, streets and roads, libraries, and schools.

Can you think of any other items that qualify as a municipal affair worthy of government intervention? How about public funding for sports teams? public funding for after-school programs? hiking the value of land via discretionary zoning changes to enhance developer profits? reinvesting in the Housing Trust Fund to build low-income housing? city-sponsored WiFi? underwriting costs for the 3rd expansion of our Convention Center? mandates to reduce energy and water consumption? legislating the size of worker wages?

Making and enforcing laws in respect to municipal affairs seems benign but surprise! you’ve just entered the twilight zone of city politics, where competing political philosophies and interests go mano a mano in bloody battle for dominance, favor, and financial support. 

Which leads us to the jackpot question: why can't city government be run like a

Asking it another way, can the goals and values inherent in governmental responsibilities to the public (municipal affairs) line up with the goals and values associated with commercial business (making a profit)?  Can the practices of the public sector and private sector co-mingle in City Hall without producing corrupt mutant offspring?

Here's one way to think about it: in the existential quest for survival, we humans rely on a couple of different systems to satisfy our needs.  Both systems are valid and necessary.  One involves trade/commerce/ business.  The other involves government.  (For a detailed presentation of this concept pick up a copy of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs.)  

These two systems are complimentary but fundamentally antagonistic since each operates under a discrete set of goals, objectives, values, and attitudes. 

The ideals of business incorporate values like the freedom to seek one’s own self interest, competition with other interests, efficiency, innovation, and measureable output.  The bottom line is profit.  While business is often a force for good, the greater good is not the foremost goal of business.  

Government, on the other hand, operates under a set of values geared to serving and protecting society.  Some may view it as the guardian of the vulnerable and defender of the common good.  By its nature, government focuses on the greater good and is antithetical to profit-making and competition.  

Both systems have perilous limitations.  Fraud, greed, and public theft are generally the outcome of unrestrained or poorly regulated business practices.  And when public watchdogs are muzzled or marginalized, government can run roughshod over personal liberties and individual rights.

But at its best, local government provides a stable, lawful, structured environment for the business sector.  Commerce can thrive where government provides good infrastructure, education, health, transportation, and stability. 

And at its best, business provides the public sector with strong economic engines and technologic advances.  Local government can thrive when economic opportunities, options, and benefits are enhanced for city residents and workers.

It's called symbiosis – wholesome cooperation between government and business.  It's not only desirable, it's necessary since neither one does well in the absence of the other.

But symbiosis is different from inter-breeding.   Interbred hybrids create unhealthy mutants.  Think of organized crime.  Think of our nation’s investment bankers and corporate raiders. 

Closer to home, think about our termed-out politicians who have reincarnated as high-cost lobbyists. 

Think about former mayor Jerry Sanders, who laid aside the public good and joined the dark side as chief hatchet man for San Diego’s overweening and morally challenged Chamber of Commerce.   

Think about congressman Juan Vargas’s remunerative meanderings between political office and the insurance industry. 

Think about master-schnorrer John Moores, hovering once again over the heart of downtown to rake in new fortunes through the beneficence of city subsidies and land deals.

Think about the latest corporate welfare bribe from mayor Kevin Falconer making nice to the Illumina Corporation.  It might go a long way to keeping him comfortably afloat once his stint as mayor comes to an end.

It takes strong ethical leadership to curb the creation of municipal mutants like these.  It takes sturdy ethical moorings to prevent business interests from dominating city government.  It takes political integrity to synthesize the responsibilities of government with private business objectives while keeping them at arms length from one another.

Where does that leave us?  Will we stay silent as City Hall become a marketplace for monied business interests who walk away with the spoils?  Will we be passive as our elected council members abdicate their rightful role at City Hall?  Will we roll over for a mayor who is just following orders as he ignores his responsibility to the public and willfully conflates government's business with business's business?  

Or will we rally friends and neighbors and learn how to get ourselves heard now that we know what it’s all about when you sort it out…(don't miss the musical rendition)

Monday, August 11, 2014

San Diego's genome

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that San Diego’s switch to a strong mayor style of government begat “a fresh load of scandal, farce, confusion, and dysfunction….”  But can we lay the blame on the switchover?  Does the form of government really control the outcome?  

Not necessarily.  In fact, a recent report on this very subject suggests there is no direct connection between the form of city government (city manager... strong mayor) and how well local government serves the public.  

But we could have told them that, ourselves.  Especially now that – after many decades of doing business under a city manager form of government – we made the switch to a strong mayor system.  Yet even with the changes (we’ll get to them in a minute) San Diego has remained stubbornly true to its own nature.  Our city, it would seem, has a very idiosyncratic genome.  

After all, switch or no switch, can anyone dispute that business-as-usual is still king in our city?  Or that public tolerance for governmental mismanagement – wrongdoing included – is still a defining feature of our go-along-to-get-along town?

You may recall that the wild excesses of robber barons, labor exploitation, business monopolies, inflated stock markets, and gilded-age privileges of the late 19th century eventually led to Progressive Era reforms focused on driving out government corruption, domination by political machines, and the buddy-buddy spoils system.  

The new formula for squeaky-clean city government? insulate municipalities from the political fray by operating them like a business corporation in the hands of efficient, impartial, professional city managers.

The trouble is, managing a city is not like running a shoe factory.   Or Qualcomm, for that matter.  Running city government – whichever way it's arranged – involves the art and practice of juggling competing and often contradictory interests.  The cloak of reform can't hide the inherent conjoint relationship between a city's administrative and policy-making functions.

Think about it: a unique aspect of city business is the disproportionate amount of time spent on zoning and land use matters and on awarding city contracts.   In daily practice, elected and non-elected city officials make decisions that directly determine who benefits from government actions – who gets heard, who gets overlooked, who gets first dibs on city services, who is permitted to build, who receives the gift of public subsidies, who profits, who will be winners… who loses.

In other words, the business of city government is as political as it gets – which means that corruption, cronyism, and pay-to-play politics are not likely to go out of style.   What's always in flux is the degree of misconduct we're willing to tolerate and the public remedies we're willing to fight for.

Back to the switchover.  Here’s how city government looked pre-2006 – before San Diego voters decided to abandon the city manager system and join the big boys club: 

Back then, San Diego voters elected a 9-person city council comprised of the mayor and 8 council members.  Voters also elected a city attorney.

The mayor was the city council's chief honcho.  He/she attended all public meetings, heard and responded to public testimony, and voted alongside council members on legislative and policy measures.  The mayor did not have the power to veto council actions. 

The day-to-day running of the city was in the hands of a city manager, who was appointed by the mayor and council.  The manager was responsible for the administration of most city departments (with direct control over department directors) and for the preparation of the city’s annual financial plan/ city budget.  He (it’s always been a he) was accountable to the full city council for carrying out city ordinances, programs, and policies but was supposed to be free of political pressure and interference in the daily business of running the city. 

It was a big job.  But sic transit gloria mundi.  Raise your hand if the names of San Diego’s most recent city managers ring a bell: John Lockwood, Jack McGrory, Michael Uberuaga, Lamont Ewell... 

How it came about that San Diego switched from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government is a long and interesting story.  For now, let’s just say that less than a decade ago San Diego was hitting bottom and the tide turned.  Here’s how city government looks today – now that we’ve got a strong mayor system:

On the surface it looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it?  San Diego voters still elect the mayor, city council members (recently upped from eight to nine), and city attorney.  

But you can see that the mayor has become chief honcho in his own right.  He (the past four mayors have been a he) is no longer a legislative official chairing the city council in open public meetings but an official with the power to veto most council actions (he can be overridden by a 2/3 council vote).  The mayor is now the city’s CEO, the chief executive officer ultimately responsible for running city departments, directing city workers, and carrying out city ordinances, programs, and policies. 

It's an ironic twist: the Progressive movement of the early 1900s intended to reduce the corrupting effects of politics on city government through a professional city manager.  Eight decades later San Diegans amended the city charter to take the job of running the city and managing municipal finances out of the hands of trained and credentialed municipal management experts and put control back into in the hands of politicians.  Again in the name of government reform.

Note that the strong mayor amendment gives the mayor authority to appoint a city manager (aka COO, chief operating officer) to manage city business.  But notice that it's fundamentally a politicized position since the COO works for the mayor, is hired and can be fired by the mayor, and reports and answers only to the mayor.

Also appointed to the mayor’s staff is a chief financial officer (CFO), who prepares the city’s annual budget and oversees the city’s financial management.  The CFO, too, carries out the mayor’s agenda and answers only to him.

In this setup, you can see how the flow of official information can be manipulated as it travels between the mayor and the COO, to city departments, and back again to the mayor.  The city council is outside the loop. 

To partially remedy the problem, the city council was given authority to appoint its own financial and policy advisor – the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA).   Although the IBA answers directly to city council members and is not under the mayor’s jurisdiction, the brutal fact is that the IBA’s office depends on the goodwill of the mayor and mayor’s staff for dependable and adequate access to city information and data. 

Take it from superman: information is power.  And when the generation and flow of information is controlled by political players, the opportunities for obstruction, obfuscation, coercion, and the silencing of opposition are intensified.

While withholding of information occasionally raised hackles under the city manager system, under the strong mayor setup it’s a political fact of life for the city council as well as the public.

This bears repeating: it’s not the switchover itself that's the problem.   

Strong mayor charter changes focused on rearranging mayoral power and council power, but the real struggle for a democratic balance of power in our city isn’t between the mayor and council.   It’s between city government and the San Diego public.   

And the public was shortchanged by the way the switchover came about.  The question of public power and public access was sidelined.  Checks and balances in the public interest were truncated.  (You'll find some published comments here about the last round of charter change.) 

Yes, the city charter created a budget analyst for the stranded city council but the office was never sufficiently empowered to be a true public advocate.   

Yes, the charter created a stronger role for the city auditor (a key official charged with keeping the bureaucracy books and conduct clean) but this office was also cut off at the knees by a convoluted system that denies true independence and limits public advocacy.  

Yes, there's an ethics commission, but it has a limited role as a campaign finance watchdog and keeps its distance from the minefield of official breaches, misdeeds, and transgressions.

Lately, we're hearing that the current city attorney – who has unconscionably politicized his office in the service of influential private groups – has new charter changes up his sleeve.  But none of them deal with strengthening the public voice, creating stronger checks and balances, or empowering public advocates.  

The people of San Diego need more than politically-motivated charter changes.  We need to fix the strong mayor system with reform measures devoted to safeguarding and strengthening the public interest.