by Carolyn Chase
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) annual retreat is held each January at a resort in the Anza Borrego desert. It is held there, to some degree, to allow for a physical location remote enough to discourage the public from attending so that the Board members can, in theory, speak more freely than in their usual Board setting.
Unfortunately, this is the only occasion during the year when the Board spends any extensive time together - much less with the alternate members who drop in to at Board or Sub-committee meetings in ways that, to the public, seem almost random.
With a Wednesday evening orientation, full day Thursday, and Friday morning sessions, attendees had major discussions seated around a large open circle. The key topics on Thursday were growth, transportation and the need to extend the 1/2 cent sales tax on either the 2002 or 2004 ballot. The main topic on Friday was regionalism and regional government.
SANDAG is our current form of regional government, such as it is, and some were willing to note their limitations - while expressing concerns about the problems with reform.
Dennis Holz, Encinitas City Council member, observed, "The concept of substituting one group of politicians for another to make something happen has no relevancy unless the second group doesn't have to deal with the issues we need to deal with and just wants to impose what they want. To me, SANDAG is the regional place where the dialogue takes place. The paradigm needs to be discussion and cooperation and no imposition. That's where SANDAG helps, but not enough. Yesterday - 2-3 hours is not enough. One problem is we show up for a half-day a month, leave it to staff and then vote it up or down. But if we're really going to get anywhere as a region, we need to get to the point where we're all pulling together in the same way. Creating another regional government that votes things up and down is going backwards from where we need to go as a region."
Holz was referring to the efforts of the incredibly optimistically named Regional Government Efficiency Commission. With the acronym RGEC, it's naturally pronounced by any casual reader (i.e., the general public) as "reject." Sarcastic insiders use this regularly. Proponents - in the usual way that politicians attempt to name one thing and do another - have attempted to repronounce it as "Regis" with campy powerpoint photos of Regis Philbin, the ringmaster of the directly-named TV-game show: "Who wants to be a millionaire?"
The fact that even their initial efforts require educating the public that the very letters of their name are pronounced differently than they appear on the page does not exactly set the tone needed for success based on the merits.
Ron Morrison, National City Councilman, referred to efforts to reform or create regional government as "termed-out politician's employment acts."
As the "child" of State Senator Steve Peace's RITA (Regional Infrastructure Transportation Authority) proposal to consolidate a number of agencies, RGEC had a tough birth from the start. That "Peace train" ran out of steam about the time the "downsides" to Peace's energy deregulation were becoming apparent to the public-at-large. Anyone could legitimately ask: is this the leadership we want rearranging local government the way that energy interests were allowed to rearrange the energy industry?
I would suggest that the "lesson" is about the system itself, rather than the ideas of Senator Peace. His analysis of the many of flaws of the system remains accurate.
Ten of the eleven people now picked to consider "cures" or remedies as Commissioners of RGEC were in attendance at Friday morning discussion of regionalism (all but Greg Cox).
The Chair of RGEC is San Diego City Councilman Bryon Wear. Five members are from agencies that might be consolidated: SANDAG, transit and infrastructure agencies. They are: Ramona Finnila, SANDAG Chair (also Carlsbad City Council member); Leon Williams, Chair, Metropolitan Transit Development Board; Julianne Nygaard, North County Transit District (also Carlsbad City Council member); County Board of Supervisors Greg Cox (representing a border infrastructure authority); and Adm. Paul Speer of the Port District.
The five public members of RGEC, appointed by Governor Davis are: Former Assemblywoman Denise Moreno Ducheny, William Jones of CityLink Investment (City Heights), Mel Katz of Manpower Staffing Service, architect Joe Martinez from Martinez & Cutri, and attorney Paul Peterson.
The new members were asked to speak to the group about their thoughts on the process. They all sought to reassure everyone that they were open minded.
Ducheny noted, "The process is more important than the product. We shouldn't be talking about a product like something's happened. We don't have strongly felt notions of where this needs to go. We have the opportunity to come to something that is genetically - using [State Librarian] Kevin Starr's term - genetically San Diego. It's not about us, but about what San Diego will look like in 30-40 years."
Paul Petersen shared, "I do think people want us to do things better. We have to start somewhere to do things better. Politics is the art of the possible and let's see what we can come forward with to improve the situation. Don't ask me today what that is."
Mel Katz, "I want to come up with a work product that the legislature and people will pass. I don't want to waste our time for the next six month. People are tired of sitting in parking lots having trouble getting to work."
Ah, but there's the rub. The agencies at the table are the same agencies who planned and backed the processes that have us sitting in traffic with few reasonable alternatives, and persist in telling us that shelling out multi-billions more to the same agencies will fix the problem. Few seemed even aware that their Regional Transportation Plan - even after applying those additional billions as recommended by those agencies - will have us still all drowning in traffic with totally insufficient alternatives.
William Jones spoke to the "infrastructure crisis," "We are looking at an infrastructure we can't afford today. Many areas have fairly newer infrastructure, but as time passes that infrastructure will age as well. If you don't figure out how to work together to raise the revenue - we have a crisis in infrastructure - this fast moving truck is heading toward us. It's not one truck - but several trucks coming at you. We don't have the liberty to deal with this in a comfortable way. I don't think it's going to be comfortable, but we have to deal with it to succeed at the ballot box. It has to be carefully crafted as it could be defeated easily. The challenge is to build the coalition to raise the revenues in the billions of dollars that is needed."
I would suggest that the way that coalition will be built is to address accountability in the financial and agency systems so that voters and taxpayers can have some assurance that their billions will actually deliver - or at least stop - the growth-related declines in quality of life that threaten our region today.