Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A well regulated city

right on target
In my previous commentary Poor Mayor Faulconer I used words like inconsequential… vacuous… lightweight… ineffectual… to describe San Diego's current mayor.   Judging from readers' responses, those adjectives seem to be right on target.  

But the nagging question about how a political nonentity like Kevin Faulconer could run unopposed for a second term as mayor with nary a single qualified opponent willing to challenge him – has taken a new turn.

Gretchen Newsom ­– community activist, chairperson of the Ocean Beach town council, rejected contender for a temporary council appointment when Faulconer moved from his council office into the mayor's office – shocked everyone at the recent County Democratic Party convention when she took the stage to declare that she would step into the void and challenge Faulconer in his run for reelection. 

It was a strategic and gutsy decision that ought to put both the labor establishment and the local Democratic Party's stagnant, bumbling, delinquent leadership to shame for coming up empty-handed at a San Diego mayoral election.  

(To be fair, Newsom is not the first person to step forward to challenge mayor Faulconer.   She joins Greg Morales, Latino activist from District 9's Encanto neighborhood, whose candidacy was written up in CityBeat last month.)

Gretchen Newsom's deus ex machina bombshell was a stimulating rush for many San Diegans in chronic despair over the barrenness of our city's political landscape.

I, too, entertain moments of hopefulness that a new generation of smart, principled, thoughtful, outspoken, public-minded, courageous individuals are working in the wings, honing their skills to eventually run for political office.  So what makes me skittish about the present scenario?  

It's not so much the lopsided David v. Goliath odds between financially and organizationally undernourished newbies and a propped-up incumbent mayor heeling to his fat-cat political handlers.  

What's so screwy is that San Diego voters seem to believe that the mayor's job can be done by any Tom, Dick, or Harriet. 

 But in a complex city like ours it takes professional wherewithal and specialized talents to do right by the public.   (Not that our batting record is encouraging.  For a reminder of the long odds in a city like ours, refer back to my report on getting away with murder.)

Up till a decade ago the full city council (which included the mayor) would hire a professionally-trained city manager to oversee city business.  Once we inaugurated a "strong mayor" form of governance the process became more politicized.  The "strong mayor" (Jerry Sanders, Bob Filner, Kevin Faulconer) now has exclusive power to hire and fire a personal manager, directly answerable to him, to oversee city departments.  

a well regulated city
We put our faith in the mayor to hire a trustworthy and qualified manager with integrity and loyalty – not just to the big boss but to the public at large.  It's a daunting job to supervise the whole gamut of public services: police, fire, financial, trash, utilities, streets and sewers, city computer systems, city property, contracts, neighborhood services, planning, construction permits, economic development…   

But faith won't suffice.  Reports from the city's independent auditor show how often the mayor and his second-in-command manager have fallen short in the management and delivery of public services.  

On the list are management failures to adequately regulate/enforce city laws and codes... failure to improve skeletal staffing levels in vital city departments... failure to address the backlog of basic infrastructure needs... failure to eliminate fraud and waste in city contracts... failure to track and manage the undergrounding of power and utility lines... failure to account for misspent funds appropriated for the Balboa Park Centennial celebration... failure to act on accounting discrepancies with Rural/Metro ambulance services... failure to permit in-house monitoring of police sexual misconduct complaints... failure to provide adequate management of capital improvement projects... 

Obviously, running city government is not a job either for professional charlatans whose talent is pulling the wool over public eyes or for well-meaning amateurs with minimal expertise and shaky backup support systems.

Ironically, the cynical vacuum in leadership and vision in the local  political scene has set us up for a dismal choice between an unworthy known and an untested unknown.  We run the risk of drifting into tea party territory where a term-limited shrunken role for government is glorified and the necessity for well-organized, experienced, enlightened politicians is devalued.  Let's not go there.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Poor mayor Faulconer

It's enough to make you cringe, the way they toy with our mayor – those brawny Chargers/ Rams/ Raiders sports team owners, our insatiable hotel magnates, those downtown real estate purveyors, our Chamber of Commerce henchmen.  So many entitled guys diddling with our small-time politicians just for the fun of it, passing the time until they clinch their publicly-subsidized, taxpayer-financed killer deals.

But our mayor is a goodnatured sport.  He wears his what-me-worry grin even when he's left flapping in the breeze, flailing like wet underwear strung up on the clothesline to dry.  One minute limp and aimless.  The next minute puffed up and billowing like a hot-air facsimile of a political contender hoping to score in big-boy Republican Party politics. 

If presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is right about our country’s soul being captured by  mega-rich plutocrats bent on controlling the nation's politics and economy, these megalomaniacs must have done their internships in San Diego.  

Throughout much of our city's history we've been in thrall to a cadre of interlocking big-business elites who manipulate government policy and political leadership with impunity.  It's so ingrained, it passes for normal in this big/small town of ours.

It's why someone as inconsequential and vacuous as mayor Kevin Faulconer – a man whose landmark accomplishment as a city councilmember was preserving beach fire pits – can posture as a big-city politician with no pushback from the public.  It's why he's able to run unopposed for another term in office (the local Democratic Party has a lot to answer for on this front, I'd say).

It's why someone as lightweight and ineffectual as this public-relations-trained mayor is testing the waters for governorship of the entire state of California (ludicrous and insulting, I'd say).

It's why mayor Faulconer was a no-show at  SANDAG's regional planning meeting this month when he should have been there to vocally lobby hard and fierce for transit funding to back up his posturing over a strong climate action plan for the city (put your money where your mouth is, I'd say).

It's why our mayor was listed as a speaker at the recent ALEC conference held in San Diego.  
To refresh your memory: ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch brothers/tobacco industry funded conservative conglomerate of legislators and corporate lobbyists who create and promote model bills and resolutions that advance "free-enterprise" objectives like minimizing corporate regulation, reducing taxation, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter ID rules, weakening labor unions, and promoting gun rights (notice that for San Diego constituents Faulconer hides behind a sun-kissed, politically moderate mask – a man for all seasons and political preferences.  A cynical deception, I'd say).

Bottom line: maybe we shouldn't be feeling sorry for poor mayor Faulconer, after all. 
Maybe we should be feeling more compassion and indignation for ourselves,  the regular people of San Diego: residents and community activists, neighbors and civic caretakers, voters and grass roots reformers.  We're the ones who've been hung out to dry by many of the officials we elect.  And by the people they answer to.  

Think about this: over ten years ago our City Charter was drastically amended to beef up the status of the mayor from head honcho of the city council to chief executive officer of the entire city. 

This "strong mayor" amendment was sold to voters with a promise that San Diegans would henceforth know where the buck stops.  The new "strong mayor" – not some appointed city manager – would be accountable for running the city, for getting the people's work done, for snapping the whip over city departments, for delivering efficiency and excellent performance, for serving the public good.

True to its word, the "strong mayor" amendment freed the mayor from the city council.  Mayor Kevin Faulconer (already attached at the hip to his horse whisperer, ex-strong mayor Jerry Sanders) came into office with considerably more political power – at least on paper – than old-timers like Frank Curran, Pete Wilson, Roger Hedgecock, Maureen O’Connor, Susan Golding, and Dick Murphy, all of whom served as mayor under the bygone city manager form of government.  

But the City Charter "strong mayor" amendment failed to free the mayor from the professional manipulators and ventriloquists who comprise San Diego's ruling junta and who operate under a seemingly irrevocable, never-expiring private contract to use city government for their exclusive financial games and gains.  

A requirement for courage, integrity, independence, and intelligent leadership in San Diego's political arena – that's the only City Charter amendment we really need.  I'm not necessarily a Bernie Sanders acolyte, but the public benefit of a small political revolution in San Diego is pretty obvious.  I'd say.

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 charterreview@sandiego.gov)

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...)