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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

San Diego's homelessness calamity: You have just entered the twilight zone

I.  Say what you want about the faraway White House.  But watch what you say about City Hall and the people we elect to local government – they're practically family.

They live in our neighborhoods.  We have coffee with them when they're running for office.  We bump into them at the movies or supermarket.  We could hop a trolley downtown and collar them at work.  We elect them to work for us.

Their job is to pave the streets, limit what gets built on that empty lot around the corner, keep an eye on the police department, get the trash picked up, and make sure there are enough fire stations to keep us safe and good air-quality levels to keep us healthy and enough libraries and parks to help make us happy.  

In sum, they're public servants whose job is to create and enforce policies and laws that improve the daily lives of San Diegans.  Their job is to take care of the city so we, the residents, families, taxpayers, students, and workers can get on with our personal pursuits and quotidian endeavors in safe and sound surroundings.  

Sometimes they do a better job than they do at other times.  But who can deny that – when it comes to issues of homelessness-related health, safety, and welfare – the Mayor and City Council have flat-out failed.

II.  Let's say you're out shopping in your local neighborhood.  Or holding tickets
for the downtown Civic Theater.  Or inching around Sports Arena Boulevard and Rosecrans.  Or stuck in the bottleneck at Torrey Pines Road. You'll see clusters of homeless men and women (and occasionally little children) asleep on the sidewalks, or holding up cardboard signs soliciting funds (god bless), or hauling black plastic bags filled with personal goods, or rummaging through trash bins.  Some are drunk.  Some are arguing or mumbling or shouting at invisible foes.  Some are reading yesterday's newspaper.

And even after you've handed over some spare change or a couple of bucks you might wonder, what else can you do? 
Who could you call if you want to do something more?  You might think, there must be someone in charge who has a plan to alleviate this glaring calamity. 

So you turn to the people we elect to city government, the ones whose job it is to take good care of the city. 

You go to the city website but you find nothing on the home page.  You try the link for InsideSan Diego and end up with a bunch of uplifting stories. You type "homeless" in the search box at the top of the main page and Eureka!  You see a link for homeless services and another link for homeless providers and plenty more links to news releases and police responses and the Mayor's press conferences.  

You keep clicking, searching in vain to find out who is in charge.  You try 2-1-1 San Diego, the city's newest public resource.  You try the homeless shelter directory link.  The truth finally hits you: you have just entered the twilight zone.

III.  Let's say it for the record: there's no one in charge.  Not at our County, not in our City.  There is no regional, local, or comprehensive policy to address the needs, impacts, and future of the homeless people living on our streets, along our riverbeds, and in our canyons.  

For years we've relied on nonprofits like the Salvation Army, Episcopal Community Services, San Diego Rescue Mission, Alpha Project, Neil Good Day Center, YWCA, Feeding San Diego, and North County Solutions to pick up the pieces.

For three decades we've given lip service to the mission of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness to pull the pieces together into a utilitarian approach to ending homelessless. 

Then someone masterminded the San Diego Regional Continuum of Care to take all the pieces and put them into a broad data framework.

And the United Way of San Diego County appointed their first "Commissioner" to place all the pieces in a coherent pattern that would meld housing and supportive services and permanently end chronic homelessness.

These regional efforts have been successful, indeed, in providing temporary subsidized shelter for unmoored politicians waiting for their next election gig to materialize.  But they've utterly failed to facilitate, create, or implement the crucial missing piece: a comprehensive, publicly-accountable policy and plan to address the size and scope of San Diego homelessness.

IV.  Dare we say it? Here at home, Mayor Faulconer has no plan.  Instead, he offers us tentative wishes.  He wishes to add some temporary shelter beds to the city's anemic inventory.  He wishes for a Housing Our Heroes program for 1000 homeless veterans.  He wishes to reunite homeless people with their families.  He wishes that voters would agree to increase the hotel tax (TOT) to pay for an ill-advised Convention Center expansion, street repairs, and homeless services (in that order).  
Then he wishes that his newly appointed communications advisor would fabricate a central intake center to hook up homeless people on the streets with various services (however inadequate, it would be a more benign approach than his previous actions to clear homeless people from downtown streets, round up their meager belongings, and lay jagged rocks under sheltering overpasses to prevent reoccupation).

He goes on wishing, but so far the tooth fairy has failed to alight.

V. But don't despair! There may be light at the end of this tunnel!  As it turns out, the city already has what it takes to do the job!  

                We've got elected officials who owe it to us to take better care of the city.
                We've got a Mayor who wants to look as good as possible to prepare for his rumored-run for governor.
                We've got large wads of cash stashed away (the Mayor and other insiders know where to find it) already legally earmarked for low-income and homeless housing needs.
                And we've got a longstanding, well-funded, fully-staffed public agency that could and should have been in charge of meeting the city's low and moderate income and homeless housing needs  from the very beginning.  

We could almost say we're loaded for bear.

VI. Train  your sights on the San Diego Housing Commission, established almost 30 years ago to preserve and increase the city's stock of affordable housing and be responsible for providing rental assistance and related housing services to low-income households.

Over the decades the agency has strayed from its original mission.  It sold off assets, engaged in property investment and development, favored market-rate ("workforce") over low-income housing, artificially sweetened the pot for some in the nonprofit housing industry, snookered the city council about financial activities and intentions, failed to halt or even keep track of the destruction and non-replacement of affordable housing, and evaded public oversight.

A solid case could be made to dismantle the Housing Commission.

A more positive case should be made to reform and restructure the agency and transform it into the city's one-stop-shop, a designated and responsible public-benefit city department with sufficient resources to create public housing and coordinate services and programs for the widest spectrum of San Diego's lower-income and homeless population.  

We can escape from the labyrinthian twilight zone by putting a renewed Housing Commission in charge.  Run it by your elected representatives.  Let's see what these public servants – the ones who are so close they're practically family – are really made of.