Public Education

by Carolyn Chase


"We know what we are doing, but nobody else does."

This was the headline next to "Publicity" in a SANDAG staff report to the 55-member Citizen's Advisory Committee on Transportation (CAC) of which I am a member. The item requested that we support their recommendation to the SANDAG Board to spend up to $250,000 to educate the public about the agency and its good works spending their allocated portion of the local sales tax.

    Staff meant to say something like, "The public is unaware of what we are doing." The results of a poll-instigated identity crisis, SANDAG's role in transportation planning and spending barely registered during focus groups held earlier in the year.

    While some were sympathetic that the headline was an understandable misunderstanding - and others noted it as one heck of a Freudian slip - the CAC voted unanimously that staff improve the proposal before moving it forward.

   The report contained a laundry list of PR choices without any detailed budget. The CAC felt that basing a decision to spend taxpayer monies on that report with a publicity headline like that - without an improved plan that included measurable results - was a bad idea.

   It also revealed a certain inability to see things as the general public is likely to perceive them - a quality that's required to be effective in the public education arena. You can easily waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on media and not attract a single blip on the public radar screen.

   This is going to be especially hard since the key purpose here is to "educate" a public stuck in traffic about how well their local transportation-related taxes have been spent - so they can be asked for a tax increase later, for more of the same. Just look around at the traffic over the past decade and answer for yourself if this group has had a good plan and the wherewithal to carry it out.

   But the CAC's #1 simple message to staff was to rephrase that unfortunate, poorly written headline that could easily be interpreted as arrogance on the part of the agency.

   Much to my surprise and consternation the same report - containing the same odd publicity statement - was distributed two months later to the public along with the SANDAG Transportation Subcommittee agenda. The staff explanation of the CAC action was imponderable.

   One has to wonder what it would take to get these folks' attention? The communication disconnect is astonishing. Though I guess I can vouch for the fact that at least in this column it is resulting in educating the public and giving SANDAG some publicity.

   A call to SANDAG's new Executive Director Gary Gallegos resulted in the ambiguous statement being deleted and an addendum provided to the Transportation Subcommittee. But frankly, this little PR problem seems pretty basic. Having to have a member of the public point it out to the new man-in-charge shows that Gallegos has his work cut out for him.

   Evidently convicted that throwing money at the problem will help, the Subcommittee voted to spend the funding - and without a detailed budget or any discussion of how the effectiveness of the spending will be monitored or measured. When the item came up, no staff presentation was volunteered or asked for.

   Subcommittee member Art Madrid, La Mesa, blasted the CAC - yet has never attended any of their meetings nor asked about their concerns. While the CAC is one of the most diversely constituted committees around - with membership representing all geographic areas, citizens, business, colleges and environmental groups - it's completely clear that the deliberations from the CAC are neither being understood nor being accurately reported by staff.

   The news that the Governor had signed SB 521, giving SANDAG the flexibility to allocate the sales tax for water quality, open space and other "smart growth" needs, was met with a motion by Madrid to recommend that their half-cent sales tax, not expiring until 2006, be extended as soon as possible - with the same political splits as in the past and be limited to transportation projects only. The motion received a quick second.

   "We are a Transportation Committee, so we should only be dealing with transportation," admonished Madrid. "Transportation is not about water or bunnies or anything else."

   This may have been the Transportation Subcommittee, but SANDAG is supposed to be the Regional Growth Management Agency. For too long, SANDAG has simply doled out transportation funding. They have dismissed their responsibility to help raise funding for water pollution, open space and smart growth infrastructure at the regional level.

   They continue to dismiss it.

   Ron Morrison, representing National City, derided "those jurisdictions that have made commitments for habitat plans without anything to back them up, developers who want the public to pay for their mitigation," and accused environmental groups of pursuing "habitat kingdoms."

   Bill Horn, County of San Diego stated, "I would support an initiative for those important issues - but it has to be separate."

   It was only a caution from Mayor Dick Murphy that the motion could possibly violate the Brown Act that caused the group to pause. "I recognize a political train when I see it coming, so I know that I have to get on board or lay down on the tracks," he wryly noted. "Maybe I'm a bit more politically pragmatic than some, but I think it merits additional input and discussion."

   Another thing was pretty basic in listening to the SANDAG Transportation Subcommittee discussions. They are ready to spend as much money as they can get their hands on, and without much awareness of the costs and a lack of understanding of the shortcomings of their past performance and limitations of the current plan. One Board member cited the region's transportation funding deficit at $9 billion, when it is indeed estimated at more than $12 billion - and rising. But what's a few billion between friends?

   Fifty years of lopsided spending on transportation has both failed to deliver reasonable traffic conditions and greatly contributed to the region's environmental degradation especially the fragmentation of open space and water pollution.

   Fifty years of unsustainable transportation thinking has left us with rising taxes chasing rising traffic. They will now spend another quarter-million of those taxpayer dollars attempting to educate us differently in preparation for coming back for more money for more of the same.

   Remember, after all: They know what they are doing, and nobody else does.

   When asked to vote on an ill-conceived tax increase, the public may just educate them.