Friday, December 9, 2011

When no news is BAD news

Popular wisdom is wrong on this one: no news is bad news.  And distorted news is worse.  

The Union-Tribune -- mainstay newspaper for generations of San Diegans – has been stashed deep inside the vest pocket of developer-extraordinaire Doug Manchester, known far and wide as the most ruthless, take-no-prisoners, narrow-visioned bull that ever ravaged a proverbial china shop. 

The paper’s new hyperbolic motto: The World’s Greatest Country & America’s Finest City seems to be in keeping with the hyped-up ego of its new owner.  

(Not that Manchester is the only local fellow with delusions of grandeur.  Candidate for mayor Nathan Fletcher has plans to rebrand our modest hometown The World’s Most Innovative City).

No, I’m not saying we should throw in the towel.  If there’s anything I learned growing up in NYC that applies to us here and now, it’s this: if you want to keep yourself and the people you care about safe and sound you better keep your eyes wide open.  You better know what’s going on down the street.  Around the corner.  And the next block over, too.

What I am saying is that public ignorance is dangerous to the public health. Keeping tabs on our city and on the people who run it may be getting harder, but it’s as crucial as ever.   So I’ll do my part as well as I can and I’ll count on you to keep me moving in the right direction.

Starting with law enforcementthere’s a new and threatening game on today's streets and it's a far cry from the old days when kids were spoon-fed the myth about your friendly policeman (click it, you’ll like it).  This ditty’s advice was always a little iffy, depending on the color of your skin.  But given the changing role of our police force, it's gotten a lot iffier…for all of us.

Here’s my advice: try not to be fooled by the kind-faced policeman who parades as our benevolent mayor because you can bet that our city is right in the thick of it.  Tiny Tim must be turning in his grave over the following brief sampling of current events, in and out of San Diego:
·      A little-known but influential private membership based organization has placed itself at the center of advising and coordinating the crackdown on the (Occupy) encampments. The Police Executive Research Forum, an international non-governmental organization with ties to law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been coordinating conference calls with major metropolitan mayors and police chiefs…(San Francisco Bay Guardian)

·      1400 members of the Los Angeles Police raided a park Wednesday morning and removed or arrested all of the Occupy LA protesters…the LAPD use a 'Bat Cat' bomb squad vehicle to remove protestors from trees and hundreds of officers dressed in Hazmet suits removed the tents and other personal belongings from the park…(

·      (At Occupy San Diego) in the middle of the night…with few cameras around, officers in riot gear swept in and arrested 51…(VOSD)

·      San Diego police arrested East County activist Ray Lutz for trespassing on private property at Civic Center Plaza Tuesday afternoon after he set up a voter registration table and refused to remove it…(SDUT)

·      David Bejarano (former San Diego Police Chief; US Marshall; Co-owner of the private security firm Presidential Security Services; 2010 candidate for SD County sheriff; current Chula Vista Police Chief) has ended his relationship with (Veritas) an outside security company that was linked to a plot to smuggle Moammar Gadhafi’s son…(Veritas) specializes in clandestine operations, armed combat and provision of weapons…and lists Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano as its executive vice president for law enforcement training (SDUT)

·      San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and Executive Assistant Police Chief David Ramirez appeared at a City Council committee hearing…to answer questions about a string of officer misconduct cases in the department… (and then our Police Chief claimed he was out of the loop about troubled people in his department like officer Anthony Arevalos, who was just convicted of eight felonies and four misdemeanors) VOSD

 Last piece of advice: keep an eye on who's running the new game in town.  They're big time players who carry guns. While they’re watching out for us they also take good care of one another.  The problem is, who is watching them?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Make the call, already

Gotta hand it to the guy -- New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg knows how to lay it on the line.  “The difference” he recently told an audience at MIT “between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level." 

Of course he’s right.  That's the beauty of local government.  It takes place in the here and now.  City politicians take a particular action (positive, negative, good, bad) and sooner or later the results show up in your neighborhood, around your corner. 

Back to Bloomberg.  Whatever else you want to say about him, this guy's not shy about how he uses his power.  And he's not coy about who's in charge of what goes on in his city.  As he informed the Cambridge, MA citizens, “I have my own army in the NYPD.”  

Back to OCCUPY.  Last week I wrote that mayors across the country consulted with one another about how to manage and/or quell OCCUPY activities in their cities.   Concurrently, police chiefs and federal agencies were doing the same thing.

Back to San Diego.  This may explain why our own Mayor Sanders managed to keep a straight face when he denied participating in conference calls with other mayors.  

Maybe what he really meant to say was that he let the city's Chief of Police Lansdowne do the talking for him, which would be consistent with his power under our newish 'strong mayor' form of government.  Under San Diego's new rules the SDPD is the mayor's right hand...if not his own army. 

Which brings me to the conference call I WISH had taken place.  

I wish that all mayors who felt so threatened by the OCCUPY activities in their cities (never mind that they've been essentially peaceful and lawful public assemblies, marred only occasionally by minor problems) were holding serious powwows over the ACTUAL common threat to cities across the country.

I wish that these mayors would come together to discuss the unprecedented number of cities possibly facing bankruptcy (yes, even San Diego) and understand that there's a connection between municipal financial failures and the Occupy Wall Street message.  

These mayors should compare notes on how their city's practice of gambling in the stock market destabilized their municipal pension funds and created unsustainable pension debt, leading to crushing financial crises in their cities.  

I only wish San Diego's mayor was kidding about how he didn't participate in OCCUPY conference calls.  As our city's top leader he owes it to us voters to act like a prime-time mayor should.  He belongs on the phone with other mayors.  And I don't mean talking football! 

My final wish for the day: I wish that Mayor Sanders would seize the opportunity in his waning days in office to set an example of good leadership for San Diego's future 'strong mayors' and start the ball rolling with the following small but crucial step to revamp our dysfunctional city finances:  

I wish he would initiate a conference call to mayors across the nation with the agenda of getting city employee pension funds OUT OF THE STOCK MARKET and back into stable and dependable public investments.

Now that would be an honorable and productive use of the phone wires! 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Who let the cat out?

Mayors across the nation seem to be quaking in their boots as large groups of remarkably decent and polite OCCUPIERS assert their constitutional right to assemble peaceably -- for the distinct purpose of expressing deep discontent over perceptions that government domination by a fabulously wealthy and powerful elite stratum of corporate and Wall Street monied interests produces negative public consequences. 

The overall discipline and good nature of the people in the OCCUPY movement (there are at least 400 ‘occupied’ cities across the nation) continue to be a marvelous, even miraculous, thing to behold.  

Still, it’s understandable that city leaders get nervous when unusual things happen within their jurisdictions, particularly if those things threaten to disturb or in any way recalibrate the status quo.

So maybe it’s only to be expected that a certain degree of conspiring has been going on.  Let me clarify that: conspiring not by the perpetrators of the OCCUPY movement but by the nation’s mayors and experts in law enforcement.  Plus other movers and shakers, as well.  

This is not idle speculation on my part.  It turns out that a series of conference calls and other communications have been taking place over the past months among mayors, law enforcers, and security-minded agencies on how to respond to (snuff out?) OCCUPY-related activities and events.  

The hapless mayor of Oakland inadvertently let the cat out of the bag in a recent interview when she acknowledged her participation in at least one conference call with the mayors of 18 other cities across the country.  The purported purpose of these calls? to trade notes, discuss best practices, share information, indulge in mutual therapy and moral support…simple things like that.  

What about certain confirmed conference calls from Homeland Security and the FBI to local police chiefs and mayors?  Therapeutic?  Guess again.  

Another high-powered caller on the communications circuit was a formerly obscure (at least to me) Washington, DC-based policing think tank known as PERF (Police Executive Research Forum).  They're on record as a coordinator of conference calls among 40 city police chiefs.  Their contribution?  Tactical and planning advice on cracking down on the OCCUPY movement.  

Maybe it's just a  coincidence, but here’s what happened: within days of these therapeutic and PERF conference calls, in more than a dozen cities, using the same police tactics (riot gear, middle-of-the-night clampdowns), and similar legal justifications (zoning, health, sanitation, curfews) -- law enforcement officials swept through and forcibly evicted OCCUPY gatherings and encampments in cities across the nation.  

Yes, San Diego was one of the pack, in lockstep with New York City, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Atlanta, Oakland, and others.

Collusion to deprive citizens of their constitutional right to peacefully deliver a message the "establishment” disapproves of?  Behind-closed-doors-coordination of political crackdowns?  Granted, this is pretty chilling information.  But wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall during one of those conference calls…??  Stay tuned for updates.   

Also stay tuned for a description of the nation-wide conference call I WISH had taken place.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wanted, for Mayor or otherwise

San Diego could be a place that unfolds like a rose.  Look at our city’s assets: strong neighborhood cohesion, entrepreneurial vigor, accommodating social values, renowned academic institutions, unique geography of canyons and hillsides and coastline, diverse communities, great climate… 

Now look at the mess we’re in: galloping public debt, collapsing city streets, shrinking libraries, accretions of homeless people, cracking water and sewer pipes, scarcity of good jobs, practical jokers passing themselves off as journalism moguls...

So here’s my question: How can it be that there is NOBODY in a position of responsibility in the city of San Diego who is willing to be open, frank, truthful, and honest with the public about the facts of life in our wilting city?  

Isn’t it odd that there is NOBODY in a position of responsibility who risks saying: 
I’m fed up with useless lip-service, let’s get serious about our shrinking public services and imploding communities.  
Time to stop fooling around the edges, let’s get started restructuring our crushing financial debt.   
You gotta be kidding about a 500-foot tall bayside erection.
Ditto for a pumped-up $800million super bowl-sized downtown football stadium.  

Isn’t it peculiar that there is no one in a position of responsibility, or in a political campaign vying for a position of responsibility, who will step up to the plate and speak the truth? 

Isn’t it mortifying that the public is an absolute loser when it comes to effective political leadership in San Diego?  

Despite it all, I'm an optimist.  So who’ll help me put the finishing touches on the following ad for Craig’s list? 

 A public-spirited leader who genuinely cares about San Diego and is eager to make a positive contribution to the city and to the people who live and work here.  
  • Must be experienced, smart, energetic, and thoroughly willing and able to tell and face the truth
  • Must be reasonably independent of political, monetary, and ideological ties that bind...inevitably
  • Must be bold enough to tell it like it is, call a spade a spade, and take the lead in the process of digging our city out of the muck
  • Must not be a procrastinator, bully, or higher-office seeker
  • Must revive and elevate the stature of ‘public servant’
  • Must go along with the metaphor of San Diego unfolding.  Like a rose.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It's no joke

Am I the only one having trouble figuring out what’s a joke and what’s for real?  You can help me out by taking a quiz.   Consider the following stories from the past week’s news and let me know, which do you think are jokes?  Which are for real?

* Mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher circulated a 9-point plan called San Diego Must Invest in Infrastructure.  He says that it’s “time to turn the page on City Hall and move San Diego into a new era…time to invest in our infrastructure and ensure we lay the foundation for a bright, prosperous future.”  His first step would be to create an infrastructure “strike force.”  

Huh? Our city has amassed a deficit approaching one billion dollars for overdue repairs to streets/ sidewalks/ sewer mains/ water pipes/ libraries/ recreation centers – these are basic infrastructure needs.  And that's not all.  This daunting deficit is dwarfed by our unfunded pension liability, which adds another couple of billions to San Diego's backbreaking financial burden. 

In a cynical maneuver to patch up the city until he is safely out the door, our current Mayor has been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul for day-to-day expenses.  It's like taking a 3rd mortgage on your house to pay for roof repairs and new downspouts.   Fletcher says he’ll do it the same way, but he'll use a strike force to lead the charge.  Is this a rational plan? or a joke?

* Not to be one-upped at the firing line, Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio came out last week with his Save Our Streets Action Plan, promising to fix our decrepit streets without raising taxes.  What's in his magic potion?  An “infrastructure lock box.”  And “innovation labs.”  

DeMaio has a knack for catchy phrases that capture attention and feed on public anxiety.  But here's a warning: his action plans take aim at a lot more than pensions and potholes.  His ‘innovation labs’ are an experiment in dismembering city government and selling it off, piece by piece.  San Diego is his guinea pig.

I'll give you a hint: it's no joke.  DeMaio works from a step-by-step manual for privatizing city government -- not to save money, not for purposes of efficiency, but to launch a new world order based on private corporate ownership of public services.  Don't walk blindly into one of  his 'lock boxes.'  They're traps.

* Another news item from last week: the small Rhode Island town of Central Falls (whose motto is A city with a bright future) filed a bankruptcy plan to plug a huge budget deficit caused by unfunded pension and retiree health benefit liabilities.  The story says it's one of a handful of U.S. cities and counties staring down the road of fiscal collapse.  

With a structural deficit in the billions, San Diego qualifies as a leader of the pack.  The public gets sporadic glimpses into the extent of our collapse during budget hearings each June, when the hatchet falls on increasing numbers of city services and workers.  In the meantime, in between times, city’s leaders and wannabe leaders are still whistling Dixie.  

* On the other hand, in a refreshing show of practicality and candor, the Chargers attorney Mark Fabiani finally told it like it is to the San Diego press: if we want to keep the Chargers in town San Diegans will have to ante up with a big wad of major league taxes.  Finally, someone who’s not kidding!  Too bad the joke's on us.

* And how’s this for a news item: you can WIN A GUN at the annual National Rifle Association fundraiser, to be held in October at the Scottish Rite in Mission Valley.  “This event raises money for local shooting clinics and events including Wounded Warriors, Women On Target, Boy Scout merit badge shoots, and the extremely successful NRA Shooting Sports Family Fun Camp… the ONLY fundraising dinner where you could win a gun!”  No joke, unfortunately.

* But wait.  Last week’s story on the Voice of America (also reported by the Union-Tribune) puts the NRA to shame: “Gun is Grand Prize in Al-Shabab Children's Contest: Somalia's al-Shabab Islamist group has awarded assault rifles and hand grenades to the winners of a children's Koran recital competition…the first prize winner of the Koran recital contest received an AK-47 rifle and $700, while the second-place contestant won an AK-47 and $500.  It says the third prize winner received two hand grenades and $400.” 

Where does this quick scan of last week's news leave us?  With the disconcerting reminders that San Diego isn't isolated from or immune to problems that beset far-away places and that we oughtn't to pass judgment since we aren't doing such a great job here at home.  

But don't give up yet -- there's a consolation prize for failing this quiz.  We may have little control over far-away places but we DO have the power and ability to choose what grows in our own backyard.   

Yes, we need to elect the right people and reject the wrong ones.  But our “leaders” can't and won’t do it on their own.  That's a fact.  It's up to us.  No joke. 

Here's my number one priority for our own backyard: extricate our city from the crippling financial crisis that hobbles us at every turn.   

Organize and produce a vigorous, rigorous public debate about resolving and surviving our city's budget crisis.  

Throw words like visioning, workshop, brainstorming, politifest into the trash Dare to speak words like insolvency, municipal bankruptcy, defined-benefit pensions.

Let’s get this one done and over with.  Then we can start on the rest of the world.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Back in the saddle

The official end of summer doesn’t happen until next Thursday but our Mayor and City Council are back in the saddle again after their 5-week break for R&R.

What did everyone do over their long vacations?  We know about the Mayor, since he stole the headlines with a summertime journey to the midwest to check out how other people pay for new football stadiums. The quick answer? by dipping into public funds and imposing new taxes -- not a great option for a broke city like ours.  But that’s the way the football crumbles.

And our other elected officials?  Some were transitioning into campaign mode, particularly the odd-numbered Councilmembers -- Sherri Lightner/district 1, Todd Gloria/district 3, Carl DeMaio/district 5 (actually, he’s running for Mayor), and Marti Emerald/district 7 (actually, she’s running for a new seat in district 9) who are up for election/reelection in 2012.

As if there isn’t enough confusion about who’s a candidate for which district on our newly redrawn City Council map (not expected to go into effect until December 2012), our 4th district Councilmember Tony Young seems to have spent his summer vacation mulling over how to throw a wrench into the whole process. 

In a heated exchange with the City Attorney, Council president Young defended his position that sitting Council members should take over responsibility for the newly-drawn districts immediately and divide up responsibility for the new district 9.  His motives are mysterious.  Ditto for his employment plans for the near future, which may put district 4 up for grabs sooner rather than later.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Here’s some more confusion.  Councilmember Emerald is serving in her first term in district 7 but she isn't running for reelection to a second term.  Instead, she's running for the new 9th Council seat.  

Since we’ve got term limits in our city: “…no person shall serve more than two consecutive four-year terms as a Council member from any particular district,” if she won in the new district 9, it would reset her elective clock, which might work out fine for her and maybe even the district, who knows?  

But in the terrible possibility that the nefarious, deceptive, misleading, and misanthropic Comprehensive Pension Reform initiative promoted by Councilmember DeMaio (and shamefully endorsed by the Mayor, Councilmembers Falconer and Zapf, and Mayoral candidates Bonnie Dumanis, Nathan Fletcher, and DeMaio) qualifies for the ballot and gets voter approval, it might also result in negative consequences for her, for other newly elected officials, and most importantly for the city's future.  

You can deduce what I think about this initiative, but more about it later.

This brings us back to naming the real and only issue that dominates and exerts full control over our city -- the growing mountain of debt that jeopardizes San Diego’s existence as the pleasant and promising city we call home. 

The cynical “pension reform” initiative promoted by DeMaio et al. will not touch, not even tickle, the multi-billion dollar city debt that hangs like an albatross around our necks.  In fact, this “pension reform” initiative, in conjunction with other attempts to delegitimize city government, will hasten our city’s demise.

Will the facts be addressed during the upcoming campaign season when candidates for Mayor and 5 odd-numbered Council seats start strutting their stuff? 

 Or will the usual political game orchestrated by insider power brokers and self-serving special interests go about their usual business as if Rome weren’t burning and the Titanic not sinking?  To them, the city’s health and well being may be just another cliché.  Russian  roulette, anyone?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

After ten months of redistricting

By the end of next year (December 2012) the city of San Diego will be swearing in a brand new Mayor.  At the same time City Council members representing Districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 will also be sworn in.  Bringing up the rear will be the (reelected, presumably) City Attorney. 

Does this lineup augur substantive improvements in San Diego’s civic health and well-being?  That depends -- almost entirely -- on who will be our next "strong" Mayor.  As for the nine individuals occupying the seats of what will be a reconfigured City Council — their roles will be much diminished.  The difference they will make depends on how many of them are sitting at which end of city hall's political seesaw.  
Much more about that, later.  For now, let’s see what the past ten months of the city’s redistricting process have wrought. 

San Diego’s Redistricting Commission approved a final redistricting plan last week.  The final map divides the city into nine Council districts with (give or take) ~144,000 people in each.  To satisfy constraints of census-based population changes, voting rights law, and recent city charter amendments some communities were shifted into neighboring Council districts and a new (multi-ethnic/Latino empowerment) district was inserted into the southern half of the city.  
Here are some speedy bullet points about the history of San Diego government to help put redistricting changes in a wider context:  
  • San Diego was incorporated as a city March 27, 1850 
  • The first city government consisted of an elected 5-member Common Council and an elected Mayor, City Marshall, City Attorney, City Clerk, City Assessor, and City Treasurer.  Other officials were appointed by the Common Council
  • After only two years the city went bankrupt and the State dissolved the government
  • The next several decades saw a turbulence of different government forms
  • In 1931 a Manager-Council form of government was created with a 7-member Council comprised of 6 Council members and a Mayor
  • In 1963 voters approved increasing the number of Council districts from 6 to 8
  • In 2006 voters approved a trial Strong Mayor government
  • In 2010 voters made the Strong Mayor system permanent; approved the addition of a 9th Council district; and created the requirement for a 2/3 Council majority (6 members) to override the Mayor’s veto
And that gets us to where we are today.  

The City Charter gives people one month to contest the Redistricting Commission’s final map.  If a successful challenge is mounted, the Commission would be required to produce a new plan.
        That could be a risky proposition for dissenters, who might wind up with a map they’d find even less acceptable than the one they're rejecting. 

Still, there are some pretty irate people out there.  For example, some Rancho Penasquitos residents have been up in arms over how Commissioners drew district boundaries for their Park Village neighborhood.  They're organizing a community forum on September 1 to discuss their discontent and decide on how or whether to mount an official challenge. 
        This unexpected flareup of economic/social elitism within the city's first “Asian influence” district brings to mind an old Life of Riley radio quote: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  

Then there are the heavyweights from Kensington, whose protests have been prodded not only by economic/social elitism but apparently by political pressure from on high.  (To their credit most, but not all, elected officials had the good sense to keep a low profile during the redistricting process).  
         A challenge from this quarter could easily end up biting them in the rear, so turning lemons into lemonade might be a wiser alternative.

Here’s what the new Council district map will look like if all goes smoothly. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Special strokes for special folks

Redistricting may sound like a dry topic but I assure you it's not. Redistricting is the church key that has pried open San Diego's can of worms and exposed to the light of day clods of hungry and competitive special interests that ordinarily maneuver underground. Redistricting has also unearthed big dollops of intra and inter-community strife, ethnic and racial tensions, and delusions of entitlement. It's a surefire way to get to know your city from a new perspective.

Earlier this summer I explained the process of San Diego redistricting this way: “Our city is currently engaged in REDISTRICTING -- drawing new boundary lines for City Council districts that will more or less equalize the number of San Diegans in each district.  This task is in the hands of a 7-member Redistricting Commission, which also has the added responsibility of carving out a new (9th) Council district” (see July 4,The Size of the Mayor’s Clout).
The target deadline for ratifying a final map is August 25. The job is almost -- but not quite -- finished.  In fact, new turns of events threaten to derail what was expected to be a respectable conclusion to the Commission’s lengthy efforts, and they could result in an expensive and disruptive detour for our city.

One brouhaha involves last-minute resistance by a cluster of Asian-Americans (apparently organized and spearheaded by their Caucasian suburban neighbors) to the formation of an Asian-Pacific Islander "influence" district in the north-central tier of the city, drawn to include Clairemont Mesa, Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, and a part of Rancho Penasquitos that includes their neighborhood of Park Village.

The other brouhaha involves the Redistricting Commission's decision to designate the city’s newest Council district as a Latino majority/multi-ethnic “empowerment” area in the part of town just south of I-8, behind and below where you’ll find San Diego State University.
Although it was disquieting to hear the objections of many dissenters not wishing to have their "whiter" suburban-style College-area neighborhoods included in this new District 9, general goodwill and civility on the part of these neighborhoods seem to have won the day.

But no such luck with the community of Kensington, which has been fighting with considerable muscle and political clout to extract and distance itself from the poorer and "browner" new multi-ethnic District 9.
Just last week, Kensington successfully engaged the cooperation of a majority of Redistricting Commissioners, who voted to violate their own oft-stated core principle of preserving communities intact and substituted a new principle called special strokes for special folks.
They redrew the redistricting map and set Kensington free from (undesirable?) neighbors residing in the newly created District 9 and from equally disposable fellow-Kensington residents. 

How? by hacking off the southern part of Kensington where its poorer, browner residents live; by slicing in half the unsuspecting next-door community of Normal Heights; by amputating Kensington’s sister-neighborhood Talmadge (too declasse? sleepy? undistinguished?); and by throwing them all into District 9.  Then by tenderly depositing the northern, affluent, picturesque portion of Kensington into the up-and-coming, politically well-connected Council District 3 lying to the west.  No justification, backup, principles, or standards required.  
Four Redistricting Commissioners gave their OK to this back-alley surgical procedure. Three said NO WAY.
Should there be a revote at the upcoming Redistricting Commission meeting this Monday, 2pm, at City Hall that reverses this unworthy action, some prominent Kensington people are already whispering referendum...lawsuit...

Apparently there are a number of San Diegans who consider coddling a right to which they are exclusively and unmitigatedly entitled.  
to be continued...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Comic-Con is us

San Diego’s delusional politics could have easily taken the grand prize at last weekend’s Comic-Con convention.   How can I be so sure?  Glance over to the sidebar on this page and scan halfway down until you find the heading Hot-Ticket Items.  I put a list there to keep track of important city issues until the time was right to deal with each one in detail.  
The time has arrived to look at the hot-ticket item "Balboa Park Conservancy."  You'll see that it's rife with enough capriciousness and absurdity to prove that Comic-Con and San Diego are tried and true soul mates.  Some details:

San Diego’s fame and success as a tourist destination have everything to do with our renowned, architecturally-idiosyncratic oasis, Balboa Park.  But like all aging facilities, Balboa Park is in constant need of maintenance and repair.  And given that the Park’s 2015 centennial celebration is just around the corner, wouldn’t it be nice to indulge in a few Park enhancements?  But the fact is, we can’t.

Why not?  Because the city of San Diego is flat broke. I’ve been beating this drum for quite a while. 
By this time we all know that city services have been slashed in the interest of paying routine bills.  And people inside City Hall know that no matter how fast and deep we slash, we are falling behind.  Faster and deeper.
But instead of grappling with reality, our Mayor and Councilmembers have turned a blind eye to restructuring our city’s rotting financial foundation.  The city’s new crop of politicians has mastered the standard routine passed down by their predecessors: simulate anguished gyrations during the annual budget process and then twiddle your thumbs for the duration of your terms in office.

If this sounds bad, it’s actually much worse.  The Mayor and City Council are not only taking the easy way out when it comes to the city’s financial crisis, they’re also lining up on the wrong side of the battle between a) the forces of self-proclaimed good-guys, who condemn government as bloated, voracious, and passé while hawking the efficiencies and efficacies of private enterprise; versus 2) the waning number of branded bad-guys, who persist in believing in the value, necessity, and public benefit of a strong, well-run government. 
Reason and fact may count for little in a setting where San Diego and Comic-Con are joined at the hip, but it’s truly disheartening to watch our politicians mount the private enterprise bandwagon and act as agents in the business of sectioning off our city into auctionable pieces. 

Case in point, Balboa Park.  It started a number of months ago when our elected representatives buckled under and acquiesced to recommendations from a high-powered, well-funded campaign to transfer the maintenance and management of the iconic centerpiece of our city, Balboa Park, to a private corporation. The Balboa Park Conservancy was thus created, with independent staff to manage and control projects and activities in Balboa Park.
To justify their decision, our elected officials endorsed the fantasy that magnanimous benefactors would miraculously materialize in the city of San Diego and would unselfishly and altruistically finance and operate Balboa Park on behalf of the public good.
(A quick aside: how many San Diego philanthropists have been falling over one another, checks in hand, to prop up construction of our floundering downtown library?  It could have been a nice gesture from John Moores, but he took all he needs from San Diego and moved on.  Have I missed a success story somewhere else?)

OK, the Conservancy is a done deal, no sense in looking back.  Let's get on to the “Balboa Park bridges“ item.  If you’ve been following recent local news, you’re aware of the current brouhaha over what to do with auto traffic inside Balboa Park.  You may also be aware that the City Council (save Councilmember Sherri Lightner), in lockstep with the Mayor’s wishes, approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with an entity called the Plaza de Panama Committee – a nonprofit corporation created by San Diego’s prominent businessman and benefactor Irwin Jacobs.
The MOU lays out a complex and costly (>$40million) solution to a supposedly straightforward goal of removing 67 parking spots from the Plaza de Panama in front of the Museum of Art.  The Plaza de Panama Committee solution entails the construction of a bypass bridge veering off the Laurel Street bridge entrance to the Park. The bypass bridge (plus other aspects of the “Proposed Project,” including a paid-parking garage) is anathema to a large contingent of civic activists and general members of the public.
While the proponents of the Jacobs project swore up and down that Council approval of the MOU would not obligate the city to give final approval to the Jacobs project, of course it does.  Even in Comic-Conland, everyone knows that a green light means go.  Yes, there will be more public hearings, but from here on out the public voice will be irrelevant.   The Conservancy, hand in hand with the Plaza de Panama Committee, will take care of the Park.  That’s their job now.

San Diego officials have a choice: honest accounting and bold financial restructuring to head off the city’s financial and structural collapse.  Or leading the parade to dismantle and privatize the city.  
Ironically, no bankruptcy judge would ever force the city of San Diego to transfer control of city assets and public property into private hands.  Yet that is what the Mayor and City Council are doing -- of their own free will.  It's a trickster's story.  San Diego has indeed morphed into Comic-Con.  

Monday, July 4, 2011

The size of the Mayor's clout

For my July 4th commentary I planned on doing some philosophizing about the nature of government and why government activities should be kept at arm’s distance from the activities of business/trade/commerce (my Roget’s Thesaurus lists “copulation” under the category of commerce -- I don't think I'll go there).

But the philosophizing can wait.  Instead, I want to return to an item highlighted in my June commentary (Connecting the dots).  I ask you to scan down to where it says 4) the Republican Party lawsuit.

To recap: Our city is currently engaged in REDISTRICTING -- drawing new boundary lines for City Council districts that will more or less equalize the number of San Diegans in each district.  This task is in the hands of a 7-member Redistricting Commission, which also has the added responsibility of carving out a new (9th) Council district. 
Keep in mind: the driving force behind the increase in the number of Council seats is not, as one might expect, about better representation for our communities.  No, it is strictly about the size of the Mayor’s clout.  Here's a situation where size does count. 

San Diego’s political operatives and heavyweights have been waiting impatiently for the opportunity to redraw neighborhood boundaries in a way that increases the likelihood that a super-majority of Council districts (at least 6 out of 9) will fall securely into the Republican camp. This would, of course, make the Mayor -- should he/she be a Republican -- king/queen of the hill.

But what happens if the next San Diego Mayor is a Democrat?  No problem. The same 2/3 super-majority on the City Council could simply and decisively overrule and override a renegade Mayor, causing this hapless Mayor's clout to shrivel up, fast. 
You can see how high the redistricting stakes are. As any veteran of nominally "nonpartisan" local politics knows, redistricting is a heavily-mined, take-no-prisoners battleground.  In the offing are political fortune, influence, and power. 
Of course the Democrats know it and are pushing for a redistricting map that, at the very least, would provide the potential for most Council districts to swing either way.

To prevent that from happening, San Diego Republicans are lashing out.  Their holy grail has always been a stronger (Republican) Mayor and there’s no way they'll permit a decade’s worth of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to sneak up from behind and bite them in the rear.
  • Hence the Republican Party lawsuit;  
  • Hence the targeting, intimidation, and unrelenting public attacks on the personal integrity and ethics of Redistricting Commissioners -- ordinary citizens (could have been you or me, had we applied for the job), poorly prepared to withstand the heat of relentless harassment;
  • Hence the pressure (ultimately successful) to install a controversial, politically-tilted mapping consultant to assist the Redistricting Commission;
  • Hence the stalling and prolongation of the mapping process, in spite of promises to the public for a speedy public process and despite early deadlines set down by the Registrar of Voters;
  • Hence the squeeze (unfortunately successful) on San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, forcing him to renege at the eleventh hour on a contract agreement with a Sacramento law firm already selected to legally advise the Redistricting Commission.  Were there too many labor unions among this law firm's lengthy client list?
As for the aforementioned Republican Party lawsuit against the city and Redistricting Commission – the judge threw it out (frivolous, intimidating, distracting, menacing, disruptive, pugnacious, devious, and thuggish are adjectives that come readily to mind).  But don’t relax yet.  There's another groundless lawsuit waiting in the wings.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Connecting the dots

Adequate coverage of local news is still a pipe dream in San Diego.  Let me modify that – the U-T sports section is pretty good, ditto for entertainment and movie listings.  And I finally figured out where the U-T stashed Doonesbury and Mary Worth (yup, the business section).

But keeping informed via our daily newspaper about city politics, regional issues, or official decisions made on behalf of the San Diego public poses a real challenge. In-depth investigative reporting is a whoop-de-doo event when it ought to be the norm.  And helter-skelter placement of serious local stories makes them much too easy to miss.  I know too many people who have finally given up and cancelled their U-T subscriptions.
Compounding the fall of San Diego’s 4th estate (i.e., a competitive press and vibrant news media), the formerly full-of-potential online VoiceofSanDiego appears to have lost its way (with the notable exception of Voice reporter Emily Alpert’s tenacious focus on public education).  Whatever happened to its pioneering energy and commitment to aggressive, unbiased reporting on consequential and/or controversial local issues?  
The VOSD could have, should have, might have been a contender but seems to have fallen victim to the contagious San Diego virus called don’t rock the boat (attention all San Diego biotechs: a cure for this persistent pest is long overdue).

 So who’ll do the heavy lifting? For the time being it looks like it’s up to us to seek out the stories and connect the dots.  Look at it this way: when the big picture takes shape beneath our probing pencils and we uncover new, intriguing, and useful perspectives, it will feel great!  We can start with a few news stories that you may have missed:

1) City budget negotiations.  Budget hearings at City Hall are down to the wire.  Once again you can count on our elected officials, at the zero hour, to ride in on white horses brandishing miracle money to forestall devastating cuts to our fire stations, recreation centers, and libraries. The public has spent months at City Council begging and pleading for them to be spared.
Once again the Mayor and Council are effusively congratulating one another for fudging another year's budget (thanks to a “surge in revenue and some fund shifts," says a U-T editorial).  Never mind the mysterious absence of our annual required audit of city finances.  Never mind yet another decision to borrow money (this time $100million) for ordinary expenses like street repairs.  Never mind the $41million deficit already predicted for next year’s budget!
Yes, once again the San Diego shell game saves the day.  But it’s being played with a difference, nowadays.  Our newish “strong mayor” system of government seems to have unleashed greater duplicity and sinking political accountability.   Our city continues to bleed profusely out the bottom while getting botoxed up on top, but faking it no longer embarrasses anyone anymore.  Yucky image of our city, you say?  I’d have to agree.   Put your pencils on Dot 1.

2) Bridges of Balboa Park.  Indignation on all sides has been reported over last week’s proposals at City Council for traffic improvements in our city’s pride and joy, Balboa Park.
The Mayor, alongside notable public figure Irwin Jacobs, in addition to streams of  executives from downtown business groups and Balboa Park cultural institutions, pushed hard for endorsement of the "Jacobs plan" to construct a bypass bridge and new parking facilities in the Park.  Representatives of civic groups voiced vehement objections and offered milder alternatives to deal with Balboa Park’s parking problems. 
It’s not that San Diegans haven’t debated these issues in the past.  The official Master Plan for Balboa Park was developed in 1989 through public meetings and workshops and subsequently amended and re-amended  to reflect public and institutional changing needs.  Indeed, the Master Plan addresses and advises on automobile and pedestrian improvements.  We just haven't followed through.
I can imagine it’s very difficult for successful business people and other entrepreneurs to take a back seat or suffer gladly the messy and time-consuming process of public involvement over control of a public asset like Balboa Park, particularly when offers of private money are part of the equation.  Warnings at the Council hearing were legion about the foolhardiness of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
There will be much more to mull over in the near future concerning public/private partnerships, in general, and the creation of a private Balboa Park Conservancy, in particular.  Put your pencil on this one and call it Dot 2.

3) Mayoral candidates and who’s endorsing whom.  A handful of Mayoral hopefuls have been straining at the starting gate, looking to early endorsements to prime their fundraising pump.
My bottom line is set in stone: my heart, time, money, and vote will go to whichever candidate has the guts to pry this city loose from the powerful grip of San Diego’s establishment-sponsored, time-venerated practices of deception and denial
For the past seven years our sitting Mayor has indulged in these silent but potent vices.  Sad to report he’ll probably get away scot-free and glide out of office one year from now exactly the way he slipped in – with genial authority-figure, good-cop persona wholly intact.  But it will take much more than a disarming smile and being handy with sidearms to manage and navigate a troubled city like ours  So let’s hope that the gloves come off, along with the badges and holsters, once the race for Mayor takes off.   Make that Dot 3.

4) The Republican Party lawsuit.  It’s a big deal.  The San Diego Republican Party has been making lots of intimidating noise for the past few months at public hearings of the San Diego Redistricting Commission, an appointed citizens panel working on drawing new boundaries for City Council districts.
This once-every-ten-years redistricting process will not only modify Council district boundaries to accommodate significant population shifts but will also squeeze in a new (ninth) City Council district.
The Republican Party is suing the Redistricting Commission, claiming that its appointed members were illegally chosen and are politically biased.  The lawsuit cites other shortcomings, misdeeds, and reasons that the Commission should be disbanded and the process started over from scratch.
It’s bare-knuckle politics, pure and simple.
Right off, let me disabuse anyone who believes the city is adding a ninth Council member to better serve San Diego's growing population.  No.  The reason we’re getting another Council seat is that seven years ago, when the city switched over to a “strong Mayor” governing system (abandoning San Diego’s traditional City Manager system), the Mayor got the new power to veto most City Council decisions, and the City Council got the power to override the Mayor’s veto with a simple majority vote.
But proponents of the “strong mayor” system were never happy with this arrangement (note that the Council has chosen to override the Mayor's veto barely a handful of times).  They want a STRONGER MAYOR.  It would be better, they argued, if it took a 2/3 super-majority Council vote to overturn the Mayor’s veto.  But 2/3 of eight Council members doesn’t compute.  2/3 of nine does.  That's why we’re adding a ninth Council district, to firm up the Mayor's veto power.
Back to the lawsuit.  It was beginning to look as if the Redistricting Commission was more balanced and fair-minded than anyone had expected.  This apparently signaled that the Commission couldn’t be counted on to draw new boundaries to guarantee a Republican super-majority (here's where the 2/3 Council voting bloc kicks in).  Was this anathema to some sectors of the “STRONGER MAYOR” coalition?  Let’s name the Republican Party legal challenge of the legitimacy, moral character, and nonpartisan complexion of the Redistricting Commission Dot 4.

 What’s one Dot got to do with another?  Good question.  But before we analyze the picture that emerges once the dots are connected we need to take a break, step back, and philosophize for a minute about the nature of city government and its relationship to the world outside and inside its boundaries.  Don't worry -- it will be a pleasant and rewarding side trip.

Meantime, keep an eye open for the latest local news stories.  If you can locate them.