Picture this: you're at a crowded carnival. See that big beefy guy up on stage – the one with bulging pecs and thighs like a steel vise? Watch as he picks up that mallet, swings it high overhead, and smashes it down – smack on target. The bell at the top almost shatters with a ringing endorsement of this big tough guy. We all cheer.
Picture another carnival. Onstage is an international lineup of muscle-flexing politicians. See the iron-fisted man of steel Vladimir Putin? the vicious hanger-on Bashar al-Assad? how about the take-no-prisoners Kim Jong-un? And whoa! there's a joker in the pack – the one with a muscle-bound mouth. Could it be the Donald, our very own wild card? Even he gets cheers.
Now picture a different carnival setting. Let's make it city hall in sunny San Diego. Man-o-man, the politics on this stage are a feminist fantasy come true – not a grandstanding, fulminating, intimidating, testosterone-laden blowhard in sight (at least, not since Papa Doug Manchester pulled out at the U-T).
After ten years under our adopted "strong mayor" system… after dire predictions that abandoning our old city manager form of government would lead to sordid corruption… after gloomy forecasts that venal forces would dominate city affairs… the naysayers were left eating crow. Brute force? macho swagger? never happened.
For proof, just look at our mayor Kevin Faulconer – one of the most genteel, photo-ready manikins ever invented by the public-relations industry.
This gentlemen's gentleman has managed to convince San Diegans that nothing out of the ordinary – nothing unseemly – goes on in our city (give or take some boys-will-be-boys antics over a new billion dollar downtown football stadium).
But the fact is, there is something unseemly going on. When Kevin Faulconer became the city's heir apparent following the not-so-bloodless coup that rudely exiled mayor Bob Filner, the spoils of that peculiar political battle were immediately deposited into the hands of San Diego's old guard – the city's business-as-usual, self-serving, elite club.
The problem is, the political spoils happen to be us… you and me… residents and voters… neighborhoods and communities... the city's future.
But – to the victors – the public voice is a nuisance. Bad for business. Expendable.
Sure enough, a process has been set in motion that overrides, marginalizes, shoves aside, and manhandles the San Diego public by systematically eliminating city laws and procedures that once guaranteed the public right to be heard. And honored.
Rape is not quite the word for it. Let's call it a violation of the public trust. It involves the methodical dismantling of years of progress by neighborhoods, community groups, and dedicated public advocates who once worked alongside city officials as partners to promote good public policy and better decision-making.
Could it be that those "strong mayor" naysayers had a point, after all?
Here's a short list of civic assaults, with more to be exposed.
Government accountability to the public has all but disappeared. The proverbial buck stops nowhere. In fact, it seems that no buck exists anymore.
- Our duly elected mayor, Kevin Faulconer, is the city's CEO but he's AWOL when it comes to taking responsibility for or even acknowledging the documented lack of oversight within city departments; a series of critical reports from the independent city auditor; non-disclosure about how the city conducts business… chooses its vendors... monitors its contractors… sells off public property… ignores building code violations… puts public safety at risk…
- In the old days, an experienced well-trained manager – answerable to the full city council and to the public – was responsible for running city business.
- Nowadays, ever since voters traded in the city manager system for a "strong mayor" system, the mayor is the official head of city operations. He hires a personal appointee to do the job. This appointee is answerable solely to the mayor.
- Do you have any idea who runs the city for mayor Faulconer?
- Do you have any idea to whom is the public can turn with community grievances?
- Do you have any idea why no one seems willing to disturb our likable mayor with questions, complaints or demands?
Then there's the egregious public insult called Civic San Diego – the urban renewal non-profit corporation that replaced San Diego's former redevelopment agencies.
- Civic San Diego was created by the mayor, the city council, and downtown developers and financiers. It's a means of privatizing lucrative real estate activities in our downtown and adjoining neighborhoods.
- It replaces the former public planning process overseeing growth and development in our city.
- To the shock, dismay, and detriment of neighborhood residents and interested citizens, there is no longer an enforceable process where the public can be heard and heeded on big decisions affecting their own communities.
- The rules were changed and locked into place when no one was looking.
Then there's the process called Charter Change, which voters will confront this November on an obscenely long and complex election ballot.
- The City Charter is San Diego's basic constitution. In contrast to our concise U.S. Constitution, our City Charter is in need of a good cut and shampoo. Some styling, as well. But our city's elected officials have quietly sabotaged public rights to knowledgeably review and revise our local constitution.
- Rather than opening the process to public scrutiny, rather than actively engaging the public in a representative Charter Review Commission, rather than distinguishing between simple editing fixes and far-reaching policy changes, we will be blindly voting on City Charter strike-outs and insertions that will, in many cases, pull the rug out from under longstanding public protections.
- Once upon a time many decades ago, San Diegans created a City Charter in their own image. Today, the face of the public is being blotted out.
Then there's the blatant reality that we have no coherent policy or plan to ameliorate our mushrooming homeless population.
Then there's the careless support for a multi-headed "citizens" ballot initiative, created behind the scene by a select few – in the absence of public debate or input – that would rearrange huge tracts of land in Mission Valley and downtown, along with creating an ungovernable hodgepodge of private spheres of influence. (Ironically, support is coming from groups that pride themselves on government openness and transparency.)
Then there's the disappearance of a well-functioning, adequately-funded planning department, staffed by city planners who were once permitted to put the public (neighborhoods, communities) interests first.
Then there's the Balboa Park - Laurel Street Bridge imbroglio that denies public participation in the decision-making process governing major structural changes to one of our most treasured public assets.
The list goes on. But let's end, for the moment, with a cautionary political truism: If you're not at the table, chances are you'll end up on the menu.
Which means if we, the public, don't demand to be seated at the victors' big-boy banquet... we're lunch.