Remember when we worried here that Walmart may have broken the San Diego City Council? The giant corporation had just forced the council to reverse its city planning policy for absolutely no reason other than the prospective cost of holding an election. The worry then was that any organization could skip both the will of the people and the will of those elected by the people simply by trading on tough economic times.
Coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened a couple weeks ago. This time, the city council took back regulations for marijuana cooperatives after opponents gathered enough signatures to force a special election. They didn’t actually get enough votes to overturn anything, just enough signatures to hold a vote. Many applauded the change on policy grounds, supporting the impact of the change while largely glossing over the ominous long-term implications. The policy shouldn’t be overlooked, but whether it’s the corporate policies of Walmart or the more, ahem, grassroots policy of marijuana supporters, these developments confirm that the city council has put itself at the mercy of anyone who can simply qualify a referendum. And that should be scary.
In recent years, qualifying a referendum has proven to be particularly difficult in San Diego, but it’s still largely a function of money — enough financial backing means enough paid signature gatherers to get enough signers for qualification. Even more than that, it provides more power to large political operations that are often housed within rich corporations or large political groups. And that means that it’s even more likely that outside groups can parachute into San Diego and override local policy with money and personnel resources, imposing their own political agenda no matter how the city government or the general public might feel.
The blame isn’t with Walmart or the marijuana supporters who have taken advantage of this situation. Rather, after almost six full years of Mayor Jerry Sanders and a city council tasked with reforming the city’s budget and keeping things functional on some level, democracy at a fundamental level only happens as a happy accident in San Diego because we can’t afford it. Any policy that the city puts in place clearly now only stays in place if nobody has the money and interest to overrule the city government — not because there’s any actual power residing in our city’s government.
It doesn’t only mean that our elected officials have no more than an advisory role in the city’s laws. It means that the actual voting public is likewise disenfranchised. If voters can neither vote for particular policies nor vote for representatives to enact policies, then voters do not have any say in the laws they’re governed by at all, except insofar as they can choose which referendums to sign. And until things change, it’s only natural that the city council will try to anticipate these challenges and pass laws it thinks won’t be challenged — not the laws it considers to be best for the city.
To paper over this collapse, many in the downtown power structure have increasingly pressed to have private money fill in the gaps of public services that the city can no longer afford. It’s a disconcerting concept that can be passed off as pragmatism when it’s something like the Jacobs Plan to renovate Balboa Park. But when it’s private money that has veto power over both elected officials and the general public, it’s a much scarier proposition.
Now, the sting of Prop D’s failure is understandably fresh in the city’s political memory, but remember what that was: A regressive tax that didn’t fit into the broader agenda of any of its proponents. It was a last-ditch, compromise policy that didn’t have an effective champion, and so how did the faultlines end up breaking out? It became a question of the traditional power structure versus everyone else — perpetuating the incestuous decision-making system or standing up against it. Even Tony Krvaric said so.
But the lesson that the city has apparently learned is that revenue will never fly, no matter what it’s for. So much so that even as the city council has confirmed that San Diego cannot afford to have a functioning democracy, how often are we talking about new revenue generation? Even if it isn’t a specific policy, who even has the courage to consistently make the case? Heck, Todd Gloria — Todd Gloria — launched his re-election campaign earlier this summer with promises of continued austerity budgeting. And somehow, incumbents from Sanders to Carl DeMaio to Gloria are touting to various degrees the progress that has been made in recent years to get the city’s budget problems under control.
But as election season revs up and all of these people pitch their individual versions of how San Diego is finally on the right track, consider that whatever has changed for better or worse in recent years, San Diego has gone from being able to afford democracy to not being able to afford democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more troubling legacy.