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.