Our San Diego County Government – What does it do and ‘what is it good for?’

by on February 18, 2009 · 17 comments

in Economy, Election, Environment, Health, Labor, Media, San Diego

County Admin Building

Food Stamp Controversy Throws Light on the Thrones of County Government

Residents in this County, when asked what San Diego County government does, are often hard-pressed I have found, to list more than a couple of things. Uh, collect taxes they’ll respond, … uh, run the sheriffs office, uh, … and then there will be a long, thoughtful pause. And maybe they’ll add one or two other services.

Well, the County does collect property and other taxes, and it does finance the Sheriff’s Office – although the Sheriff is elected separately. But the County does so much more.

The County runs not only the Sheriff, it runs the DA’s Office, the Public Defenders Office, juvenile hall, a probation department, the jails, the grand jury; it runs our elections, it collects our property taxes, it records property deeds, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, it delivers social services, and makes big-time land use and planning decisions; it manages a library system- although small, plus a medical delivery system clouded in controversy, a geriatric hospital, – then there’s the parks, the beaches, the landfills, and of course, there is a huge bureaucracy to support all these functions and services.

A formidable fortress?

The County does all of this and more almost as if it were run by a secret regime, operating behind closed doors and one-way mirrors, perched in a un-scalable and formidable fortress.  It’s almost as if ignorance by the citizenry of the machinery and functioning of County government is manufactured.  It’s as if  the Board of Supervisors likes it this way. They’re the five elected officials who run the County government – who look down from their golden, soft-cushioned thrones on-high, who rule over their private little fiefdoms – unchallenged and un-scrutinized.

It is true that there are other fiefdoms within the County – the District Attorney and the top Sheriff, come to mind quickly.  But Dumanis and Kolendar are not ones to rock the boat. They are heavy-weight allies of the Board. They have perks and budgets to protect.

Together the Board of Supervisors – the “Supes” – have created an all-white, conservative cabal, a tightly packed, arrogant club of incumbents, who hold a tight fist on a $4 to 5 Billion budget, the overlords of a staff of 17,000, who rule over a land mass larger than the land areas of 20 states (the County is larger than 20 individual states – not all of them joined). Together they  clench the reins of a government that ultimately fails to reflect or care too much for its citizenry. For, as we will find, the County simply fails to deliver on too many levels.

When the scandal of the food stamps broke, it opened up criticism of the County, and the growing thunder has yet to play out. The moment allows us to peek behind the curtain, to take a look at the mighty thrones themselves, and ask a few questions.

Actually, there are other reasons the County has been in the news of late.  There is San Diego City Councilmember Ben Hueso’s mindless suggestion that the City and County governments should be merged.  And not to be outdone by the City, the County has been airing its own pension problems, as Supervisor Dianne Jacob was publicly convulsing over the projected costs.  Plus, due to  budgetary weaknesses, the County had to lay some of its people off recently.  And on top of that, a month ago on January 15, our County filed another legal brief in its long-running battle against medicinal marijuana, with the fight now in the US Supreme Court, on our behalf, thank you. Oh, and not to mention the firestorms of 2007 that raised questions of the County’s management and preparedness for the predictable fires of drought.

The Food Stamp Disaster and $ Millions Lost

However, the one thing that set us off was the public acknowledgment that only 29% of eligible recipients in this County are able to receive Food Stamp benefits, which makes San Diego County the very last among the 24 top largest metropolitan areas in the country.  Last. The very last. Not near the bottom. The bottom.  This is us, San Diego, last.

To their credit, some local media, agencies and politicians have taken it upon themselves to reverse this outrageous and inexcusable eligibility rate among people who need food stamps. New Councilmember Marti Emerald, in particular, has been on the forefront of this laudable effort.

But according to Channel 6:

San Diego County is losing millions of dollars in federal aid because those in need are not applying for food stamps.

But that’s not exactly true. Those in need are applying, they’re just not accepted.

480-thousand people in the County face hunger every day. But 70 percent of San Diegans eligible for food stamps don’t receive them.

“San Diego county loses about 144 million dollars annually,” says Chris Carter, Director of Communications at the San Diego Food Bank. “This is federal dollars lost in food stamp benefits.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, every dollar in food stamps equals about $1.80 in economic stimulus. That would pump about a quarter of a billion dollars into the San Diego economy every year.

So, with this level of mismanagement and incompetence by our County lords and ladies, we have to ask what else is going on? What about the rest of County government. What is or is it not doing? What does it do?

(Now, I’m not about to launch into some kind of exhaustive treatise with multiple links to original documents up the ying yang. No. But I am going to be discussing some basics, probably in a 2 or 3 part series.)

Board of Supervisors and their Districts. (Don't try to hit their links as this is not their web site.)

County (Government) of San Diego

A quick overview of our County government, necessitates first a look of the County of San Diego itself.  It’s a very large area, 4,255 square miles, the 7th largest county in the U.S., larger – as said – than each of 20 states.  Our county is so huge you could fit Rhode Island and Delaware in it at the same time.

It is the third most populous county in California, with a population of over 3,100,000. It’s a county of under 52% whites and nearly 48% non-whites, where Mexican-Americans and other Latinos make up over 29% of the populace, Asians and Pacific-Islanders another 10%, African-Americans over 5%.

The County government has primary jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas of the County, where some 481,000 inhabitants reside.  The remainder of the area’s population are scattered, of course, in the incorporated areas, with the City of San Diego having the biggest cut – over 1.3 million residents. The other larger cities in the County – in order – are Chula Vista (228,000 pop.), Oceanside (177,000), Escondido (142,000) , Carlsbad (101,000), El Cajon (97,000), Vista (95,000), on down to the smaller towns.  As a comparison, if everyone in the unincorporated areas were in one city, that city would easily be the largest city in the County after San Diego.

State law requires that the County provide municipal services to the unincorporated areas. Which it does. This translates mainly out to law enforcement and urban -land use power. The Sheriff’s Department provides the law out in the unincorporated regions and also has contracts with 9 smaller cities. County planners literally pave the way for urban sprawl in the outback, as well as for the rest of the County. Some social services are provided.

The Board of Supervisors

Okay, for the structure of the government (here’s the County website), first, you have the Board of Supervisors – all five of them – at the top. They’re elected, it’s true – but only in the most formal sense. We’ll get to that.

Greg Cox represents District 1, the South Bay generally, and was first elected in 1995 – 14 years ago. A Republican, Cox manages to keep his seat primarily by playing in the middle-of-the-road on many social issues.

Dianne Jacob has kept her seat in District 2 – generally East County – since 1997. Also, a Republican, she ensures that redneck politics are heard at the Board. Jacob is the current Board Chairperson, a rotating position.

Representing District 3, primarily the newly-developed northeast urban area of the City is Pam Slater-Price, another Republican. She was first elected in 1992, so she claims one of the longest incumbencies on the Board, having lasted 17 years.

District 4 is held by Ron Roberts, another Republican – did I mention they are all Republicans? – he represents the City’s urban core but also is a veteran of the City Council; Roberts ran for mayor a couple of times, and used to be described as ‘what passes for a liberal on the Board’ because at least he would sit down and talk with the unions.  He has had his seat since 1994, a mere 15 years.

Rounding out the Board in District 5, Bill Horn tries to out-flank the other Supes from the Right but keeps running into Jacob.  Horn has one of the chief incumbencies, sitting in his position since 1992.  He represents the North County Coastal region.

Together, the Supes sport an average of 15 years sitting as the legislature of our County government. No one ever heard of term limits around here, that’s for sure.

There’s other elected County officials: the District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, the Sheriff – Bill Kolender.  Those are probably the best known of any of the County elected officials. There’s also the Assessor – now the Acting Assessor David Butler (former Assessor Greggory Smith resigned suddenly in the middle of his term effective 01/01/09) and the Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister. How many County residents do you think could off-hand name these elected officials?

Then, natch, there’s the staff: the Chief Administrative Officer Walter Ekard , and the over 17,000 people who work in the various departments and branches who actually carry out all the functions and services.

Back to the Supervisors. These guys and gals. these lords and ladies are untouchable. Rarely have these five during any of their elections been forced past the Primary since they took control of the Board 12 or so years ago.  They obliterate their opponents, as a voice of san diego critique held over two years ago.  Token challengers are then completely overwhelmed. Cox wiped out his opponent in 2004, 82% vs 18%.  In a June 2006 Primary, Roberts beat Richard Barrera – now on the San Diego School Board – 60% to 31%.  Well known La Mesa mayor Art Madrid went up against Jacob in 2000, and lost 24% to 62%.  Can you name the opponents who just went up against the incumbents in the most recent election?

The cabal of conservatism that runs our County, goes unchallenged. No one of consequence goes up against them, no one can match the money they already have right now – squirreled away for their next Primary. Why is that? Even though the office is officially non-partisan, what is the thinking of the major opposition party – the Democrats?

They go unscrutinized.  The major local media monopoly has ignored as much as it can the goings-on at the County Admin Building, focusing on the City instead.  The citizenry seem confused, ignorant and complacent about County government.

Yet these all-white Republicans, with two arch-conservatives at the helm, are a gross ethnic mismatch for our County, where 48% of our residents are non-white.They frankly are an embarrassment, and makes me think I’m really living in the South before the Civil Rights movement.

Three white-haired GOP men, who all wore red ties and black suits for the official photo shoot, and their two female compatriots all have such a similar philosophy that they often take votes on issues out of their jurisdiction.  They all took a stand in favor of the Iraq War. They all voted to support Brian Bilbray – a fellow Republican – in his run for Congress. All except Roberts support the County’s continued opposition to State medical marijuana laws.

As a group, the Supes don’t fit in. They’re from another time. Let’s use this moment to continue to pull the curtain open and examine more closely in a collective manner what goes on in our name at the County.

NEXT: Follow the money. Where does it come from? What does it pay for?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

mr fresh February 18, 2009 at 10:19 am

follow the money! there has to be a connection between the unabated land development throughout the county and the war chests these dinosaurs have accumulated.


ex-County worker February 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

I used to work for the County of SD – this article looks good.


Wireless Mike February 18, 2009 at 3:57 pm

This is a great article. We need more like this to help counter Copley, Clear Channel and the rest of the right-wing local news media that kiss-up to the powers that be.
San Diego County Government is just another example of how rich white conservatives have subverted our democracy for their own personal benefit. It’s all about money, power, and forcing their social agenda on an unwilling public.


not a redneck in east county February 18, 2009 at 8:34 pm

wow, i have lived in east county almost my whole life and just learned more about county government than i ever knew. maybe people just vote for the name that is more familiar to them, and seeing how long all these rednecks have been in office most people have heard their names, or some of them anyway.


nunya February 18, 2009 at 8:58 pm

“as Supervisor Dianne Jacob was publicly convulsing over the projected costs.

ARRRGGGGHHH. I HATE DIANNE JACOB. The DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, the not veiled well support of Blackwater (excuse me, the new one with the CEO formerly still known as Prince, moving into Potrero Otay Mesa to train sailors (in a navy town, WTF?) and THIS:
This could have all been avoided had Jacob and her colleagues not decided, in 2002, that in order to retain and recruit quality employees they needed to give the most generous benefits package in the region without a care to how they might pay for it. The retirement plan they had before was just fine.


Steve February 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Great job! As a fairly new out state transplant I’ve often wondered why San Diego county appears to be bucking the state wide trend of accepting medical marijuana. I now understand!


Another ex-COSD worker February 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm

This article also looks good to me. With some notable exceptions, I found the County Govt to be a secretive, poorly-run organization that was too often resentful the people it was in place to serve — and downright hostile to its own employees.

With that said, here are three things I think the County does better than many neighboring agencies:

1. Land use
2. Environmental protection
3. Fiscal spending

In terms of mindless sprawl, other nearby counties (and even the City of SD) are much worse. The new general plan for the County, whenever it finally comes online, actually includes substantial downzoning in much of the backcountry. This is a no-so-insignificant point given that SANDAG is projecting a population growth in the county of about one million new citizens in the next 20 years or so. Those one million people will have to live somewhere (hopefully not OB!), and you basically have to either do massive suburban sprawl or force people into populated clusters along freeways. The new General Plan for the County seems to me to be a document that forces density into places like Fallbrook and Valley Center, rather than one that promotes sprawl throughout the backcountry.

This will help to mitigate environmental degradation. The County actually has pretty good environmental practices in terms of land use and policy. With things like the MSCP, it might even be the thing they do best and the only area in which they are something of a model to other governmental agencies.

They have also spent very conservatively and are in much, much better shape than either the City of SD or the State government as a result of that. Should probably also be mentioned that the massive Health and Human Services cuts at the County were mostly the result of financial mismanagement at the state level.

Other than that, they are horrible in my book. The only thing they seem to think they have to answer to is lawsuits.


yippiereborn February 20, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Frank Gormlie for County Supe!


OB Joe February 20, 2009 at 3:25 pm

What ya been smokin’ boy?


OB Joe February 20, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Yippiereborn – I told you that if you kept re-appearing, I’d tell you one of my favorite local yippie stories, so here goes:

It was Spring 1970 and it was a crazy time (Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, jackson State, etc). Anarchists and leftist students at UCSD decided to stage the “Yippie Invasion of La Jolla”.

On one fine warm day, hundreds of students and friends assembled at UCSD – many in costume with fake plastic guns, and so forth. They marched down past Scripps into La Jolla. Locals freaked out.

THe funnest event occurred as the march passed this LJ house with an American flag flying on a flagpost. A couple of yipsters ran from the crowd and lowered the flag or tried to lower it. The owner of the house was standing on his front porch. He rushed over to stop the lowering, and as soon as he retrieved the flag, a great hooray went up from the marchers, and the guy was hoisted up on shoulders and hailed as a hero. That was the Yippies for ya, always making fun of the establishment and able to make fun of themselves at the same time. It was fun.

Later, however, during the same event, a couple of yippies jumped into the ocean off the cove – it was illegal at the time. One Lifeguard jumped in with his surfboard, paddled over to the first hippie and without saying anything, slugs the yippie. This time the crowd reacted in anger, so intense that the lifeguard had to be rescued by a boat and motored over to the Shores. Meanwhile, many in the crowd rushed over to the shores themselves to confront the assailant. The cops arrived in force, confused as to what exactly was going on.

In the end, the yippies in the water were arrested. The lifeguard walked away with boos, and the crowd broke up. There was an on-going student strike up at the campus, and that had to be attended to.


Dog Beach Dude February 20, 2009 at 4:10 pm

“All except Roberts support the County’s continued opposition to State medical marijuana laws.”

In my humble opinion, if we legalized and taxed marijuana, and then free’d the non-violent pot offenders from our over crowded prisons, our economy would make a much faster & healthier turnaround.

No reason to keep our heads in the sand anymore. If alcohol and tobacco are legal, why not something that God created especailly for mankind’s pleasure?

What, too easy?


Patty Jones February 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Dog Beach Dude, it’s not easy for them at all. They cannot be objective when it comes to things that conflict with their narrow views. It would be absolutely devastating to them to admit there is another way.

So, we get rid of them. How? I couldn’t tell ya.

And nunya, thanks for the link,
and the chuckle.


yippiereborn February 21, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Ob Joe – thanks for the story. I wish it would be easier to mobilize like minded people of my generation, but thirty years of Reaganomics and the corporatization of everyday life have left a very intelligent, OVER educated generation fairly apathetic. We saw a jump in activism during the election, and now it seems people are content having elected a black president. nonetheless, it is clear that we need to be more critical of the decisions being made – both on the Federal level and the local level.

As for the county government, it seems that they have wayyyy too much power. This group has made decisions that influence the lives of millions of people and have yet to be held accountable. This is made clear by the fact that they have all held their seats for a very long without being truly challenged for their seats.

My question for everyone is this: how do we hold these people accountable until we can solidify challengers who will right the ship? in what ways can the decisions the county supes are charged with making be questioned? where and when can the general public, their constituents, voice an opinion?


Maclovio28 February 23, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Great Job, very good piece. We need to start an initiative for term limits. Although, I hear that Donna F. will replace R. Roberts in 2010….


Ben There May 11, 2009 at 9:48 am

OB Joe
Re: Your brief recounting of the Yippie Invasion of La Jolla. I too was there. I remember that the whole thing was filmed (16mm camera from an open van door). I would love to track down a copy of that.


Frank Gormlie May 11, 2009 at 10:25 am

Ben There- How IS your memory? Care to submit an article about the Yippie Invasion of La Jolla? Of course, it can be submitted anonymously. No one else can see your email except us.


Fred October 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm

If you don’t like them, don’t vote for them. Seems simple to me.


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