Management Breakdown at SANDAG

by Carolyn Chase


Debate rages over instituting a new form of regional government in San Diego. Why? If a recent San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) Board hearing is any indication, our current version of regional government simply isn't up to the complex task of deliberating and resolving the critical issues concerning growth management.

    Consider one of the more colorful SANDAG Board hearings ever, which occurred last week. The hearing concerned a just-released SANDAG study entitled "Evaluation of Growth Slowing Policies of the San Diego Region." Not exactly a light-weight topic of little interest to the public. But before it was all done, one of SANDAG's hired experts swore during public testimony and another advocated "colonies on the moon" as the long term solution to population growth that "stinks."

    The staff presentation went overtime. Predictably, although public groups were yet to testify, the noon hour approached and board members began slipping out. The pattern of disdaining any real debate on slowing regional growth continued in earnest with the Chair asking for the scheduled organized presentation by Friends of San Diego to be cut from 20 to 15 minutes. Given the lunch hour, there was little interest in substantive discussion of the issues for the dozen or so others who had taken the time to attend the hearing. Given the Board's obvious lack of zeal at this point, several left without giving their planned testimony.

    Color commentary was provided when not more than two minutes into the Friends presentation, Stephen Levy, of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, one of SANDAG's Panel of Experts, interrupted Tom Mullaney's introductory remarks by the Friends with abusive remarks including the shouting the profane version of horse manure before the Board and the public.

    Whether or not the Mr. Mullaney's specific remarks prior to that were or were not legitimately assessable in the manure category, it was disturbing to interrupt what was absolutely legitimate public comment - especially after Dr. Levy's remarks were listened to politely.

    Ironically, earlier in the meeting. the SANDAG Board discussed how to "outreach" to the public and sell and market the SANDAG name so that they get more credit for the good works they are doing. I would suggest that public outreach should begin in their Board Chamber with providing both the time and the decorum that is warranted before such a body. At this meeting, SANDAG provided neither.

    After Mr. Levy was gaveled down and the public comment allowed to continue, Mullaney was followed by local expert Dr. Richard Carson, Professor of Economics at UCSD who presented his analysis based upon census data demonstrating that the study was fatally flawed and presenting conclusions that were unsupportable. These remarks were not rebutted.

    The colonies on the moon remark was made by Dowell Myers, Professor, School of Policy, Planning, and Development from USC. Encinitas City Council member Dennis Holz had asked, "isn't the implication of saying that perpetual growth is inevitable that we must eventually come to look like Manhattan? What's the implication of what you are suggesting a hundred years from now?"

    "We will have new colonies on the moon in the hundred years," stated Myers. One can hope he was merely trying to add levity to the latest growth policy study coming out of SANDAG.

    Suffice it to say that if this is the best SANDAG can do to reassure the public about the professionalism and judgement of their growth management capabilities, we should all be alarmed.

    Their conclusion that we have to manage growth is sound - but "DUH". The question really should be - is SANDAG up to the job?

    Meyers provided a welcome breath of fresh air to the proceeding with his "Population growth stinks!" declaration. "It's a big problem. It's a global problem and a problem in this country." He summed up San Diego's regional problem with his observation, "Who wouldn't want to live here?"

    Did we really need to hire outside experts to tell us that?

    Dennis Moser, a member of the land development community, offered this advice for free as a potential way to slow growth: "San Diego: Lots of sun, but so near the San Andreas fault."

    Perhaps the most serious point and with potentially the most far-reaching implications was presented by Carson: SANDAG's population forecasts were high by 61% for the last decade. Just consider: all the major planning decisions in the region are based upon a model that generated a population forecast that's 61% higher than what the census shows actually live here. Consider that all their models for traffic and project funding are linked to that.

    Consider if those additional people had been here with their cars with the existing system planned for that! The flaws to the assumptions in the modeling must be analyzed immediately to understand the implications for the entire planning and funding system.

    Finally, their basic conclusion - that perpetual population growth is inevitable - is unsustainable ecologically. There are certainly fantastical technical inventions in our future. And perhaps there will indeed be colonies on the moon. But the consumption of the human species is currently within shooting distance of the entire photosynthetic output of planetary biological and climatic systems.

    Those colonies on the moon with have to get air and water and energy from somewhere! In nature - and the economy is in reality a subset of the ecology - there is no free lunch. But we would certainly never know this from this "study."

    The whole conversation is so absurd that the public should take seriously all proposals for reform of SANDAG that would include mechanisms for increased accountability and intellectual neutrality.

    The shame here is that SANDAG has so far missed an opportunity for important substantive debate to make progress on these difficult and complex issues. This was pointed out by both the Citizen Review Panel and the experts who urged them to run alternative scenarios and address controversial issues. But SANDAG was evidently more intent on pushing out and defending their work product.

    Public policy decisions should not be based upon unfounded conclusions from incomplete and biased studies. The views of the public and independent experts deserve as much attention and reasoned debate as those of the SANDAG staff and their preferred experts. And I suspect the SANDAG Board will want to dedicate the additional time that these issues merit.

    You simply cannot resolve or reconcile issues if there isn't a fair process and the time dedicated to it. Otherwise it is absolutely predictable that the public will seek solutions at the ballot - because they are not able to get their issues fairly heard and resolved in the SANDAG Board room.

    This was also an observation of a "Smart Growth White" Paper" released recently by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. They note, "unfortunately, rather then solving this problem with Smart Growth, the more likely current scenario will be the resurfacing of an anti-growth movement that will tap into the frustration of residents caused by the failures of the past decade, in particular, emerging gridlock on our freeways, streets and roads. They will embrace "ballot box" zoning and, to stop growth of all kinds, oppose and potentially defeat measures that would fund infrastructure deficiencies."

    We saw the seeds to catalyze that process at this meeting. Hopefully, this unfortunate hearing can be an alert that SANDAG needs to change some of the ways they do business.