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.