Rhetoric vs. Reality

by Carolyn Chase


Hate traffic? Want clean water? (Who wouldn't?) Clean beaches? Stop sprawl? The major local political campaign themes are beginning to emerge for the March 7th primary. In a good economy, growth, specifically the impacts of badly managed growth, is on the minds of San Diegans.

As moneyed-candidates' sales and marketing ads begin to hit the airways in earnest, it dawned upon me how few members of the voting public know anything about the candidate's real records, temperaments, and day-to-day interests, vs. the motherhood and apple pie claims being put forth to match polls and focus groups being conducted with great earnestness around town. As the ads, mailers and signs descend, the feedback mechanisms for matching the marketing messages against the reality of day-to-day politics are few and far between.

Where have all the candidates been and what have they been doing, say, for the last five years? What kinds of interests - volunteer or otherwise - have they taken, if any, in the issues they are now touting for action?

On all of the candidate questionnaires coming back to Sierra Club and San Diego League of Conservation Voters, every single candidate fairly gushed with support for clean water measures, especially the installation of low-flow storm drain diverters to keep polluted runoff off of local beaches. But why, then, did the council have to be essentially publicly shamed into taking action by local community activists? Why are there so many polluted and impaired water bodies and precious few additional resources for clean-up or prevention? Where were any of these people at hearings or other events? Have they made it a priority in their lives, careers and agendas so far?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against candidates who learn from the process how to make better decisions over time and integrate issues into their agendas. It can only be a positive thing to have candidates finally listing environmental and quality of life issues as key concerns and now promising action. Elected officials do deserve credit for getting on board when they do. But behind the scenes of every vote, there is the issue of what kind of leadership was provided. Where did they come from in the negotiations? Do they genuflect to these issues the way most of us do, but without making the often harder choices to help change our behavior?

What I do have a problem with is taking credit for actions where the efforts have either been marginal, ineffective, or they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new political reality for an issue.

For instance, Ron Roberts for Mayor touts that he, "Founded 'Smart Growth' Coalition which brings the environmental, building and business community together to protect our quality of life through finding solutions to growth, housing, and transportation issues."

This so-called coalition essentially melted down and hasn't seen the light of day for many months. There have been no substantive policy initiatives coming from it. Where's the beef, Ron? Where were you when it came to resolving the differences between the developers and environmentalists when the committee process broke down? San Diego needs a "Smart Growth Coalition," but I don't see it happening through the effort you are touting.

Another angle is what candidates are not talking about. Roberts' campaign has the interesting approach of promoting high-profile policy statements over which he would have little to no jurisdiction as Mayor (health care, gas taxes). And how much of the general public know that his office is a veritable shrine to baseball?

Sometimes, candidates responses simply don't add up.

Karen McElliott, carrying Barbara Warden's endorsement for her district 5 council seat, has had some disjointed responses about dealing with growth. In answers to questions by the Sierra Club, she stated that she would put additional resources into "providing affordable housing in our urban core." Yet in answer to the question, "Should infrastructure facilities be paid for before increasing densities in existing communities to accommodate projected growth increases?" she had a one word answer, "No." Hmmmm. Just how is that going to work? Dumping growth, low income growth by the way, into the urban core without infrastructure? Not exactly a smart growth platform.

I saw an ad for Barbara Warden for Mayor. Showing Warden in "action settings" in the community, on the screen it rolled a title about reducing sprawl. "What in the world has Warden done to stop sprawl?" I wondered aloud. I've been asking people - not just environmentalists. I haven't turned up anything yet. Perhaps she was proposing something better for the future.

I was also surprised to see Warden seeming to call for tax increases on developers. This is something I also haven't known her for in the past. On her website it states, "I would also implement a plan that calls on developers to pay their 'fair share' to reduce congestion, and contribute local dollars to preserve open space as a way to attract more state and local funds."

One is tempted to ask how much she has pursued policies to achieve this during her tenure at City Council. I had understood that Warden's position was that developers did not have to pay any additional dollars toward open space beyond the exactions agreed to in the MSCP (Multiple Species Conservation Plan which is also touted on their website with an incorrect number of acres for preservation. (The website states that 582,000 acres of land will be preserved. That number is actually the size of the entire County of 900 square miles!). As far as funds to acquire the remaining most critical acreages subject to short term development pressures, the plan has gone begging for local acquisition funds and Warden has not yet put forth any proposals to fund it. Warden also supported the so-called "No Surprises" clause required by developers specifically as assurances that there would be no going back to that well, if more land or money were needed.

Credit is also claimed by Warden who "Fought successfully for the funding required to make San Diego's sewage system meet the Clean Water Act requirements." Ahem. The "system" still doesn't meet CWA requirements. Last I checked, the City resisted all the way and it took legal action by the volunteers of the Sierra Club to compel enforcement. At some point, I'm bet Warden voted for the funding that was required to comply with the court settlement order.

Next comes a pet peccadillo of mine. Having served for many years now as Chair of the backwater City citizen's committee known as the Waste Management Advisory Board, I have long followed the region's solid waste and recycling sagas. According to Warden's website, she "Pushed to expand recycling citywide and make greenery recycling available to as many homes as possible." Citizens lobbied the City Council for years on this issue - with no luck. I met - along with other community representatives from the League of Women Voters and the WMAB - with Warden's staff about expanding curbside recycling. They opposed it. I can't believe she's taking credit for it now! Warden herself wouldn't even meet with us. The expansion is happening now, not due to the efforts of our elected leaders on the City Council, but mostly because State Assembly member Howard Wayne included funding from the state level. I'm sure Warden supported that bill, but she has not had as a priority over the years to expand recycling.

Next we come to every candidates' favorite "whipping boy" issue: traffic.

Just about everyone has got "religion" about doing something about traffic. Problem is, past city councils have not done so effectively. SANDAG (upon which Warden has served) has not done so effectively. And Warden's listed record of accomplishments on these issues makes her look like a tax-and-spend Democrat:

"Gathered over $300 million", "Accumulated over $110 million,"
"Secured over $180 million," "Secured funds from a developer...."

And it was all money for more freeways. While transit gets a brief mention in her platform, the common theme of her record - and most incumbents - is that more money - from all sources - for more roads is the answer - with transit as an afterthought. That approach hasn't cut it for the last ten years and it won't work for the next. This is the perhaps the most defining characteristic of "Los Angelization" - local politicos - and the electorate need to come to grips with the fact that perpetual taxing and spending and building on roads with token transit can never fundamentally work. That is exactly what gets us "Los Angelization." Treating transit like a leftover - and supporting approaches that are not based on solid market research data - will never help get people out of their cars and forces everyone else to be stuck there as well.

More than ever, we need innovative approaches to transportation planning, taxing and spending. But Warden and McElliott - among many others - are part of the status quo that hasn't quite digested the fact that more roads equals more traffic. As long as transit planning is disconnected from mobility market analysis and land use and transportation decisions remained disconnected, we will continue to hurtle down the exact same road to sprawl-based traffic congestion hell as the rest of Southern California.

But that's what politics has become: disconnected. Platforms are not designed to be workable, but to paint a picture for what has become a mere popularity contest based on emotional trigger points. Maybe we should be offering awards for the best political marketing job.

Readers are invited to submit their collisions between rhetoric and reality for contemplation. Please do email or send them in.