San Diego County Government Laid Bare

by on November 16, 2017 · 2 comments

in San Diego

By Norma Damashek

Who knew the race for San Diego County Board of Supervisors could be so hidden, so mysterious?

County government leaders have gotten negative press lately with charges of complacency … neglect … elitism … callousness … and worse! But that hasn’t stopped a vigorous set of candidates from vying for a seat on the tarnished Board of Supervisors.

What an intriguing mystery! It’s time for girl-crusader-for-good-government Nancy Drew to do some sleuthing.

She’s got five big questions about county government. And she’s got a few question for the candidates whose eyes are glued on the June 2018 primary election. All she wants are the facts, ma’am.

Question 1: What’s County Government For, Anyway?

  • FACT: Counties are political subdivisions created by state governments. As agents of the state, a county’s job is to assist in matters of public health and welfare. Different states award varying degrees of power and responsibilities to their counties.
  • FACT: Counties are in charge of an overflowing basket of public services, like tax collection, jails, law enforcement, elections, voter registration, property records, birth/death/marriage certificates, libraries, mental health, public health, child and family welfare, animal control, environmental health… you get the picture.
  • FACT: Counties work like financial funnels–directing federal and state funding and grants into local services and programs.

Question 2: Who Runs San Diego County Government?

  • FACT: Responsibility for county business is in the hands of our five-member Board of Supervisors, each elected by voters within a District. Term limits of eight years now apply.

Question 3: What’s So Special About San Diego County?

  • FACT: San Diego County is the fifth most populous county in the entire USA, with 3.3 million people unevenly distributed across 4,300 square miles. County borders stretch from Orange and Riverside Counties to Baja California, from Imperial County to the Pacific Ocean.
  • FACT: Within San Diego County we’ve got 18 incorporated cities (each of which has its own government) and around 23 unincorporated towns and communities (each of which is overseen by county government). About half of county land is owned by federal, state, and local governmental and tribal entities.
  • FACT: A breakdown of race/ethnicity categories of county residents tells us roughly:
    • 33 percent are Hispanic;
    • 47.5 percent are white;
    • 4.4 percent are African-American;
    • 15 percent Asian;
    • and 1 percent “other.”
  • FACT: Close to 85 percent of San Diego County residents live in the urbanized regions of the county. And as it stands now, the preponderance of high-income earners are concentrated in the northern part of the County–in Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Poway, and La Jolla.

Question 4: What Does the Board of Supervisors Actually Do to Earn Their Salaries?

  • FACT: The Board of Supervisors is the overlord of multitudinous county departments (check the organization chart above).
  • FACT: The Board of Supervisors also has legislative powers over the unincorporated areas of the county–something like a City Council for the “backcountry.” Supervisors pass ordinances, create growth and development policies, settle land-use conflicts, and are supposed to uphold the county’s General Plan, which guides long-term, far-reaching land use outcomes in the county’s rural and outlying regions.
  • FACT: The day-to-day management of county government is in the hands of a County Administrator (CAO), appointed by and answerable to the Board. The CAO carries out the Board’s directions and policies and oversees the preparation, adoption, and administration of the County’s $5 billion budget.

Question 5: Who Else Do We Elect to County Government?

  • FACT: County voters also elect a Sheriff, a District Attorney, an Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk, and a Treasurer/Tax Collector. These county officials are, for the most part, under state control and independent of the Board of Supervisors.

Enough with the facts. Let’s get to the politics.

Think about this: not since Leon Williams won a seat at the county has there been a touch of color on the Board of Supervisors.

And it’s even more lopsided. For decades, Democratic politicians have also been mysteriously absent on the Board of Supervisors. (But wait … wasn’t there recently a Democratic Supervisor — gay to boot — who ruffled county feathers for a single term before he was sent packing?)

And while it’s true that this once-exclusively male club has been breached by a scattering of female board members, it’s also true that the county’s mixed population has remained, decade after decade, under the collective thumb of five white Republican County Supervisors with a record of unlimited terms in office and redistricting practices bordering on the incestuous.

Is it any mystery that county government–historically–has been a hub of political and social conservatism? that its actions bypass environmentally-sane land development and promote urban sprawl? that it shirks its responsibility to provide residents with adequate social services? that (alongside the city of San Diego) it has permitted a hepatitis-A epidemic to ravage our homeless population?

Might upending the status quo by electing a more diverse Board of Supervisors (color, ethnic, party …) start the ball rolling toward a fairer, wiser, more representative decision-making process in county government?

Nancy Drew grills the candidates.

For today’s purposes, our relentless sleuth trained her eagle eyes on the Democratic contenders in San Diego County’s District 4, which happens to cover most of the city of San Diego.

She identified the candidates and peppered them with just-the-facts questions. Here’s her preliminary take:

Candidate #1: Ken Malbrough, a solid-as-a-rock kind of guy

? Grew up where? San Diego; graduate of San Diego High School, Miramar College

? Worked as what? retired City of San Diego Deputy Fire Chief; Encanto Neighborhoods planning group; O’Farrell-Valencia Park town council

? Political ID? Democrat

? Personal info? married with grown offspring; African-American; lives in Southeast SD; first-time candidate

? Distinguishing features? independence; reliability; trustworthiness; committed to public service and underserved communities

Candidate #2: Lori Saldana, a fierce and forthright kind of gal

? Grew up where? San Diego; graduate of SDSU

? Worked as what? Three terms in the California State Assembly; Sierra Club; San Diego Earth Day; Professor/ Associate Dean, San Diego Community College adult education-business information technology

? Political ID? Longtime Democrat, then “no preference,” then return to Democrat

? Personal info? Single; Latina candidate; lives in Clairemont

? Distinguishing features? strong environmental advocacy; outspoken; positive name recognition; principled; relentless; management and budgetary skills

Candidate #3: Nathan Fletcher, a persuasive and resilient kind of guy

? Grew up where? Carson City, Nevada then Smackover, Arkansas; graduate of California Baptist University in Riverside

? Worked as what? political director California Republican Party; district director for Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham; Marine Corps Reserves; two terms in California State Assembly; Qualcomm employee; lectured at UCSD

? Political ID? longtime Republican, switch to Independent, switch to Democrat

? Personal info? Divorced, 2 young children, remarried following long relationship with State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez; white candidate; lives in City Heights

? Distinguishing features? self-confidence; promoter of Chelsea’s Law; conservative voting record; advocate for veterans issues; premature endorsement for Supervisor by the County Democratic Party

Candidate #4: Omar Passons, an earnest and dedicated kind of guy

? Grew up where? Clairemont, Lemon Grove

? Worked as what? University of Arizona masters degree in Public Health; George Mason University law degree; San Diego Workforce Partnership; Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation; United Way, Center for Civic Engagement

? Political ID? Democrat

? Personal info? married; African-American candidate raised in white family; lives in North Park; first-time candidate

? Distinguishing features? knowledgeable; principled; committed neighborhood advocate; land use planning and public health perspective

Nancy Drew advises: keep your eyes wide open.

What’s clear so far is that the priorities of all four Democratic candidates are remarkably in tune with one another. Each of their platforms expounds on a common theme: the county’s responsibilities for delivering a crucial set of health and social services.

Yet to be revealed is how strong a stand each of them will take on county issues involving sprawl, law enforcement, labor contracts, transit, etc. Harder to lay bare is which of these candidates will be consistent about pursuing the public interest over political or private interests.

Insider intrigue within the Democratic Party has already put a heavy thumb on the scale in this race. But there are several months till the June primary when voters will choose the top two candidates to face off in next November’s race for District 4 County Supervisor. By all means, keep your eyes wide open.

This was first published at our online partner, San Diego Free Press.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Levy November 17, 2017 at 10:16 am

Again, Nathan Fletcher should have been our mayor for the whole city and I am backing him for supervisor in the 4th supervisorial district as he is energetic, committed , trustworthy, and a breath of fresh air at the COUNTY who will not get pushed around by the establishment but lead it in a more progressive and caring way.


Nanci Kelly November 17, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Thank you very much for providing this excellent overview of our county government. I, for one, need to pay much more attention to how we are being governed on that level – your information is greatly appreciated.


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