San Diego’s Dance Fetish: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

by on February 23, 2022 · 2 comments

in History, San Diego

By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner / Feb. 22, 2022

Did you know that San Diego has a dance fetish?  Our obsessive routine goes something like this: We take one step forward, then two steps back… one step forward, two steps back…  one forward, two back….

Year in and year out, the city makes a bit of progress toward the common good and then pulls back– undermining and diminishing the quality of life in our communities.  To jog your memory, here are some random past examples of how we step on our own toes:

Once (circa 1980s), the city had a deal with SDG&E: we permitted them to exact surcharges on customer bills.  In exchange, they were to bury the overhead power lines that crisscross our city.

Somehow, millions of dollars of customer fees mysteriously evaporated.  Nevertheless, former Mayor Susan Golding (and her City Council cohorts) did a switchback step: SDG&E handed over a one-time $3.4 million cash payment to the city… a bandaid on the profligate mayor’s overburdened city budget.  In exchange, the city freed SDG&E from its previous undergrounding obligations.

Once (ante 2000), we had a stable pension system and a functioning, well-staffed city government.  Then (following the lead of City Manager Jack McGrory) our elected officials took backward steps that crippled the city’s pension system, tripped up San Diego’s financial stability, and hollowed out City Hall.  Today, around 2,000 essential city positions are rattling around City Hall… unfilled.  Might that explain why current San Diegans experience chronic gaps in basic public services?

Once (ten years ago), Mayor Jerry Sanders got the blessings of then-City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to pretend he was participating as an ordinary joe blow and not as the Mayor of San Diego when he actively promoted a “pension reform” ballot proposition (Prop B).  The State Supreme Court said: “NO WAY.”

Although this subterfuge is currently costing the city at least $100 million to unravel the resultant mess, you’ll notice that these two dance mates have waltzed away, scot free.

But no need to look to the past for deleterious examples of our dance fetish.  It’s happening right before your very eyes.

Once, an independent Redistricting Commission was added to our City Charter by San Diego voters.  Its purpose was to ensure that Redistricting activities would be conducted independent of and separate from the Mayor and City Council.  It was a forward step for our city.

But Councilmember Chris Cate recently attempted to influence the mapping outcome of our independent Redistricting Commission, claiming he was participating as an ordinary citizen, not as a duly-elected Councilmember.  Wasn’t the Court’s “NO WAY” injunction loud enough when Jerry Sanders tried that ploy?  Cate’s fancy footwork may or may not pay off for him personally, but the eventual cost to the public is yet to be seen.

Once, our city codified a system of Developer Impact Fees (DIFs).  The rationale was that new development should pay its own way… or at least that developers should facilitate the provision of community benefits and public facilities (roads, utility hookups, public spaces, etc.) made necessary by denser neighborhood development.

But with a hop, skip, and jump backwards, Mayor Todd Gloria now proposes to redirect these DIFs away from the neighborhoods that are directly impacted by new development.  He wants to funnel DIFs into the city’s General Fund… under his personal control… to be doled out as it suits his political agenda… never mind neighborhood impacts….  Is this legal? A judge may have another “No Way” to say about this maneuver.

Once, the city had a system for permanent retention of “official business” emails.  Undaunted, political consultant Stephen Puetz (chief of staff to former Mayor Kevin Faulconer) admitted he destroyed electronic messages integral to current legal investigations of the botched acquisition of 101 Ash Street.

But Mayor Todd Gloria has a fix for this issue, as well.  He’ll change the retention limit for important city emails/texts to a maximum of five years before they’re destroyed.  Compared to his previous decision to delete and destroy city emails each and every year (he was interim-mayor at the time, following Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation), today’s proposal looks like a baby-step forward.  But at a time when permanent storage is cheaper and more feasible than ever before, this signals a significant step backward for open government, transparency, and the public good.

So whoa, Nelly!  We’re beginning to see how today’s dance moves by our current elected leadership threaten to take the city not just steps– but a GIANT LEAP BACKWARDS.

Our Mayor and individual City Council members may have reasonable personal convictions about what constitutes civic progress.  But collectively, they’ve espoused the myth that urban super-growth will be San Diego’s savior to rescue us from the dire straits of housing unaffordability and the perils of climate change.

Abandoning principles of sensible zoning, they’ve taken a reckless dive into the YIMBY mosh pit to join assorted Growth Machine proselytizers and politically opportunistic lobbyists like Colin Parent (and his Circulate San Diego think tank).

Their rallying cry is Affordability! and their voices are well-nourished by financial infusions from the building industry and corporate real estate investors.   Whatever their motivation, they seem intent on leading San Diego backwards to an era of haphazard growth and environmental carelessness.

But the evidence mounts daily that “supply and demand” in the housing market does not increase affordability.  High levels of density haven’t made Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Tokyo affordable places to live.  It won’t be the magic bullet for San Diego, either.

This bears repeating: growth is not a dirty word.  But growth– the quantity, quality, rate, impacts, losers, and beneficiaries– comes laden with enormous challenges for which there are no quick and easy answers.

In the ongoing challenge to manage our growth and to continue efforts to make San Diego a more livable, well-run, environmentally sustainable, across-the-board affordable city, with social justice and fairness as our signature dance routine, one thing is certain: the role of and support for San Diego’s Community Planning Groups should be strengthened– not truncated– by our Mayor and City Council.

Current proposals to promote super-growth-– combined with plans to lobotomize Community Planning Groups and muffle rational neighborhood voices– are backward leaps that corrupt the public process to benefit private and corporate interests of the Growth Machine.  We should all be saying: NO WAY!



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page February 23, 2022 at 12:30 pm

Go Norma! I get a real kick out of imagining the faces of those you have correctly skewered here when they hear about, or maybe even – the gods forbid – read what you’ve written.


Mat Wahlstrom February 26, 2022 at 10:40 am

As always, you hit the nails on their heads, Norma.


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