Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ballot on steroids: the burden of direct democracy

Still haven't tackled those 31 propositions on your bloated November ballot?  I counted 17 state, 2 county, and 12 city proposals on my sample ballot – enough to drive anyone nuts. 

If you've been beating up on yourself for procrastinating  – STOP!  You are not the problem.  The problem is the way we're overusing and abusing the supercharged, direct-democracy ballot tools we call the initiative and the referendum.  

Yes, let's debate the value of representative democracy versus direct democracy.  And weigh the pros and cons of ballot-box planning.  Let's juggle reform options for the signature-gathering process.  And agonize over how to finance ballot initiatives and candidates.  But let's save it for another day.

Today, let's get down to business, starting with some facts about ballot propositions:
  • Ballot propositions are an exercise in direct voter control over the political process (call it direct democracy or government by petition).
  • Ballot propositions deal with laws and statutes – legislative matters.  Once a ballot measure is approved by voters, elected representatives cannot make even minor adjustments or modifications to it, much less rescind it (not even when changes are clearly needed) unless language in the proposition explicitly permits legislative changes.
  • Ballot propositions involve complex issues.  But during the campaign season they're invariably reduced to superficial sloganeering and misleading advertising.  
  • Ballot propositions are often opaque and deceptive, which makes it crucial for voters to be aware of who was responsible for putting a particular proposition on the ballot.  Look long and hard to identify the one(s) behind the curtain.  It'll be more of an eye-opener than relying on lists of supporters and opponents. 
Ballot propositions come in two forms: the initiative (for creating new law) and the referendum (for confirming a legislative act or reversing a recently adopted law).

Here are 6 ways that ballot propositions (initiatives and referenda) find their way onto the ballot:
  1. Registered voters can put a proposition on the ballot to initiate a new law or bond measure by submitting a written petition and a specified number of valid signatures. The term "registered voters" includes well-financed business groups, corporate entities, or your neighbors down the street.  On your ballot it's called an Initiative Statute.  (Measures B, C, D and State Propositions 51, 58, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66 are Initiative Statutes.)
  2. Registered voters can place a proposition on the ballot to initiate an amendment to the state constitution/municipal charter by submitting a petition and a specified number of valid signatures.  This is called an Initiative Constitutional Amendment.  (State Propositions 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57 are Initiative Constitutional Amendments.)
  3. Registered voters can place a proposition on the ballot to nullify a law (or portion of a law) recently passed by state, county, or local legislators by submitting a petition and requisite signatures.  This is called a Referendum or "People's Veto."  A People's Veto can be put on the ballot by corporate, development, or large business interests as well as by community activists.
  4. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot to amend the state constitution/municipal charter, to propose tax and bond measures, or to amend a previous initiative.  These types of measures must, by law, be put to the voters for approval. This is called a Mandatory Referendum.  (Local Measures A, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and N are Mandatory Referenda.)
  5. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot that transfers approval of a particular piece of legislation directly to voters.  This would be called a Legislative Referendum. (State proposition 67 is a Legislative Referendum).
  6. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot as a symbolic gesture that does not create binding law.  This would be an Advisory Referendum.  (State Proposition 59 is an Advisory Legislative Referendum.)
Okay fellow procrastinators, it's decision time.  Here's how I went about it:

First, I did a sniff test on each ballot proposition with questions like: Does a particular issue have too many moving parts? Could it have been resolved by our lawmakers without turning it into a ballot measure? Who is the main beneficiary?  Does it even belong on the ballot? Do I understand what it says or does it confuse the heck out of me? Is this a rat I smell?

Then I drew a big black dot in the NO oval next to the local propositions that failed the sniff test.  

The first to bite the dust was Measure B (Lilac Ranch: developer-driven ballot-box planning), then Measure C (Chargers Stadium: football planning fiasco), then Measure D (Cory Briggs-Donna Frye-John Moores: unsustainable packaging of numerous disparate issues). 

Then there are the 8 City Charter amendments that were put on the ballot by the City Council under the pretext of "it's only a cleanup."  The City Council and City Attorney made substantive changes to the City Charter without the benefit of a Citizens Charter Review Commission for ensuring balanced community input, analysis, and recommendations – an unacceptable way for city officials to do the public's business.  

There's more mischief here than meets the eye, which is why I marked NO on Measures E, F, G, H, J, K, L (a public Citizens Commission is the democratic way to go to when initiating changes to the city charter).

But I have a confession to make: I'm not as pure and ruthless as I sound.  I did mark YES on Measure I (to retain San Diego High School location at the edge of Balboa Park).

Finally, I marked a reluctant YES on Measure A (SANDAG  traffic/road/transit tax: transit also needs road work), YES on Measure M (Affordable Housing Limits) and NO to Measure N (Recreational Marijuana Business Tax: unwieldy, unworkable, unenforceable).

The 17 State Propositions also have us trapped by the shorthairs.  Only a few passed the sniff test.

Big fat dots in the NO ovals went to Prop 51 (school bonds: ignores equity issues),  Prop 53 (revenue bond approval: backhanded approach to block 2 particular projects re. water and rail), Prop 54 (legislative bill approval: undercuts open government with dubious regulations), Prop 60 (condom use: no way does this belong on the ballot), Prop 61 (state prescription drug purchases: benefits the creator of the measure, not the general public - Bernie Sanders didn't do his homework before backing this one), Prop 64 (marijuana legalization: creating this particular  industry belongs in the hands of legislators, not a popularity contest), and Prop 65 (charges for carryout bags: would eliminate plastic bag ban if 65 wins over Prop 67).

And just to prove I know how to say yes, I marked YES on Prop 52 (MediCal funding fees), Prop 55 (income tax increase on $250K individuals), Prop 56 (cigarette tax increase), Prop 57 (sentencing reform), Prop 58 (Bilingual education option), Prop 59 (advisory vote on political spending: sends a clear message that we oppose Citizens United), Prop 62 (death penalty repeal), Prop 63 (background checks for purchase of ammunition), and Prop 67 (plastic bag ban: affirms state legislation to ban single use plastic bags).

That's it.  Congratulations for hanging in there.  The rest of the day is all yours.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

To the victor belong the spoils

What is it about brute force and macho swagger that mesmerizes so many people? 

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. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

San Diego is led around by the nose

How about taking a break from our city's inane preoccupation with a behemoth sports palace for the San Diego Chargers?

And let's give ourselves a break from the fiasco called a "Convadium," a zany proposal to link a convention center annex to a new football stadium just down the street from our 18-acre ballpark.  Talk about blocking pedestrian access! Talk about walling off the heart of downtown!  

What self-respecting city in the USA would fall for such a ludicrous proposal?  

So let's NOT to take a break from simple questions like: Why are we even thinking about cramming a mammoth new football stadium into our modestly-proportioned, pedestrian-starved downtown streets?  What rational person would want to do such a dumb thing to our city?  Are we nuts, or what?

And while we're at it, how about taking a clean break from convoluted (fraudulent?) financing schemes involving hotel taxes and bonds and subsidies and giveaways that inevitably come back to bite San Diego taxpayers and residents?  

Think back to the last John Moores promise to San Diegans that his "more than a ballpark" would pay for itself.  Turns out we were sold a bill of goods.  Hotel taxes (TOTs) notwithstanding, the city is bleeding millions of dollars of public money out of the General Fund to pay off Petco Park debt.  "More than a ballpark" turned out to be more of a ripoff – a financial net loss for the city.

Which means let's take a break
 from signing any ballot initiative or supporting any ballot proposition that calls for, encourages, or in any way facilitates the erection of another downtown sports stadium or massive downtown "Convadium." 

Surely we all deserve a break from San Diego's heavy-hitters and influential manipulators and major league players who've been leading us around by the nose and knocking us silly with their concussive games of power and greed.  


This brings us to a related matter – though (and I hope you'll bear with me) it may be hard to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) the connection at this very moment.   

You may have noticed that last week, on the 6th floor of the San Diego Superior Court Hall of Justice, in the courtroom of Judge Timothy Taylor, 12 jurors in a court of law dismissed sexual harassment and battery charges lodged by a city parks worker against former mayor Bob Filner.

It turns out – according to last week's jury – that suing a mayor for giving you the creeps, for taking hold of your hands, for casting a leering look in your direction, or for putting his arm around your shoulder (even if it startles you) doesn't necessarily add up to a hill of beans.  The jury didn't think it warranted an award of half-a-million dollars, though the accuser and her lawyer did.  Not even one dollar, as it turned out.   

Does it make you wonder whether other San Diego juries might have dismissed the piling-on of sexual harassment and battery charges leveled against our former mayor, had they been given the opportunity to hear all sides of the story?

Does it make you wonder if there's a bigger, juicier, more intriguing story behind the multiple accusations that led to the ignominious ouster of former mayor Bob Filner?  

Does it make you wonder how high were (and are) the stakes for the city's heavy hitters and influential manipulators and  major league players that they had to force mayor Filner out of office ASAP?  

And doesn't it make you wonder whether the full Filner saga – still waiting to be told – is destined to be an eye-popping exposé, a high-jinx blockbuster, a surprising political thriller... featuring the finest of San Diego's political and business stars in the lead roles?

Meantime, while we're waiting, regular San Diegans can keep track of the saga of the San Diego Chargers in the comics section of our daily newspaper.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

When is a headlock not a headlock? Maybe when it's called a chokehold

A friend phoned me yesterday to let me know that I was called out by name during the second day of testimony at the civil trial of former-mayor Bob Filner, who has been accused by a city parks employee of putting her in a "headlock."  Or maybe it was a "chokehold." Or maybe both.

Barney Google of the goo-goo-googley eyes!
Also of stroking her arm.  And of surreptitiously grazing her breast by letting his left elbow strategically droop.

And if I heard correctly, there was something about a "leer."  They even threw in the old-time word "ogle."

My friend told me I could watch the court proceeding on youtube and see for myself.  Which I promptly did.  And sure enough... 

Now, why the plaintiff’s lawyer chose to name my name when questioning a witness is a big mystery to me.

But it was no mystery when the lawyer asked defendent Bob Filner if he knew the answer to a certain question.  I jumped out of my chair shouting at my computer, I DO! I DO!  

This was the plaintiff lawyer's question: "Do you understand what a headlock is?"

It just so happens that barely three years ago I published a photo essay on this very subject.  For readers who might still be in the dark about these matters, I'm taking the liberty of reprinting The Filner Headlock Exposed.   Be sure to click here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

San Diego's multi-headed beast: an up-close look at the Briggs/Frye "Citizens' Plan" initiative