Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Puny leadership: the San Diego conundrum


I was out for a mindful walk the other morning.  Here's how I once described it: you put one foot in front of the other while you notice what's around you.  First you notice... then you let it go.  Notice… let it go… notice…

Walking through the parking lot of my local Vons I noticed a small card table near the store entrance and, behind it, a (paid) signature gatherer.  Sign this for a new soccer stadium? he asked, offering me a pen.  

I smiled no.  I let it go… went inside… bought three pears plus a squeeze bottle of chocolate syrup (good for any emergency)… emerged from the store… noticed a nice-looking man at the card table talking to the signature gatherer.  

In his left hand he hefted a voluminous ballot proposal (weighed more than a sack of potatoes) to Replace-Qualcomm-Stadium-in-Mission-Valley-With-a-SoccerCity.   He was smiling and shaking the signature gatherer's hand while a nice-looking woman snapped a photo.  


Mindful walking puts me in a genial mood.  Don't tell me you've read the entire backup report! I kidded. Well, he said, still smiling… most of it.

I noticed the sign-in sheet on the table.  At the bottom of a short list of signatures it read: Michael Stone.  Could this be the founder of FS Investors, the promoter of the ballot proposal in question? I meditated on that for a moment.  Let it go?... I couldn't...

Oh, I know who you are, I said.   Your map museum is fantastic.  I just love it.   But I sure don't love your ballot initiative. 

Why not? he asked, maintaining a genial face.  Nothing's perfect… it's better than a huge parking lot... do you have a better suggestion for what to put there?  

It's not that I haven't given a lot of thought to Mission Valley.  It's not that I haven't noticed how we transformed a green riverbed into a noxious, exhaust-laden slapdash of strip-malls, dowdy motels, and cookie-cutter condos – a poster child for neo-blight and terminal urban uglification.  

So what's one more nail in its coffin?  Why not let it go?  One of these days it'll be developer Mike Stone or it'll be one of the others (take your pick: Doug Manchester, John Moores, Tom Sudberry, the Fentons, Oliver McMillin...) wearing a big, fat, satiated smile.

Here's the sentiment I conveyed to the genial fellow smiling at me in front of Vons: no matter the pros and cons, no matter my personal preferences, no matter how you look at it ­– the latest rage of using ballot initiatives for the purpose of city planning and large-scale urban, suburban, and rural development is a pernicious and destructive pursuit.  He shrugged. What else can you do in a city like ours? It was a rhetorical question.

I shook hands with my new acquaintance and went back to my mindful walk.  I tried…  I tried… but I couldn't let it go.  

Is he right? that the only thing you can you do in a city like ours (insider code for puny leadership and nasty NIMBY neighborhoods) is to take matters into your own well-connected, wealth-laden hands and finance a ballot initiative that trashes dependable environmental review, deceives the voters, and blithely ignores the public interest?

It could be that the guy is halfway right.  Puny leadership is a standard staple in a city like ours.

About a week ago I commented on how close our hometown elected officials are to us constituents.  And I noticed that these individuals are not equipped to resolve many of the city's complex problems.  Despite neighborhood planning workshops on local projects, despite city council hearings about city-wide problems, despite appointed committees doing technical work, despite nonprofits and volunteer agencies picking up the slack, despite the mayor's scripted platitudes – we're still left trying to penetrate a sea of silence and blank stares.  

After last Monday's marathon homelessness council session we're still dangling.  Who's in charge? Who's responsible? Who's answerable? Who's identifiable?  Who's voice can we count on?  Who will move our city beyond bandaids?  Where does the buck stop?  Does that sainted buck even exist? 

As for the billion dollar question about Mission Valley/ Qualcomm Stadium – shouldn't mindful planning for the future of our city be in the hands of responsible, sturdy professionals in a reconstituted San Diego Planning Department?  Shouldn't the city have a responsible, sturdy, professional Planning Director and City Architect?  Shouldn't the public and our elected officials have access to independent, informed, realistic, and exciting options for our city's future growth and development that could benefit all San Diegans?

I've come to a mindful understanding: the elite group of private profiteers, downtown interests, land developers, hoteliers, and the legal and financial services that serve them don't ever intend to relinquish their controlling iron grip on the city of San Diego.  It seems they feel genuinely entitled to run the show.   

Furthermore, they're perfectly right about San Diego's puny leadership.  But for them it's a golden opportunity that yields lucrative benefits and they're adept at eliminating elected officials who dare to flex their muscles.  For those of us on the public side of the fence, puny leadership is a brick wall, a dead end.

They're also right about the nasty NIMBY.  For them, community voices impede private wealth accumulation.  For the rest of us it's one of the few strengths our neighborhoods possess.  It's a defense that isn't easily snookered by genial, fast-talking faces.  


So I'm sure you know what to do when they try to hand you a pen.  Notice… and let it go.

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