It takes a region

by Carolyn Chase


Despite attempts by SANDAG to sand bag and delay the work of the Regional Government Efficiency Commission, RGEC doggedly disgorged its recommendations to the State legislature on time.

    The foreseeable problems identified by RGEC - continued declines in quality of life due to sprawl, loss of open space, funding and infrastructure deficits, pollution and traffic - are unlikely to be solved until some accountable regional decision-making body is established to enhance the current limitations and biases of the SANDAG "agency-by-memo" structure.

    The RGEC mission statement was excellent. Their recommendation of an independent, full-time, official, accountable agency for regional transportation planning is right on. But the airport authority should not be separate - it should be included in the new agencies' responsibilities. Delinking airport planning and decision-making from the democratic process is an expediancy to be reviled.

    If a new international airport is such a good and important thing, then an acceptable deal should be able to be brokered within the region to design it, site it, identify financing and to fully mitigate and minimize the impacts.

    Democracy is messy - but it requires reconciliation and compromise combined with voter accountability - not a consolidation of power that decreases accountability. Projects should not have public accountability reduced by using appointees essentially unanswerable to voting, taxpaying citizens.

    Establishing an independent, accountable, regional agency with elected representatives for all matters related to transportation and mobility would call for candidates to run on platforms related to those issues. This would help move the public debate forward enormously, and provide the independent setting, oversight, and the focus required for the complex problems of regional mobility.

    Much of the reason we don't have "smart growth" now is that no elected officials have to run on whether or not we have in place a good transportation plan or the funding to pay for it. At this moment in time, we really have neither. The issues don't really get debated or resolved.

    One of the biggest general raps against the RGEC proposal is that it creates yet another agency. Some are calling to expand the Board of Supervisors to serve as the transportation agency and become some kind of "regional superagency."

    Calls for such an expansion are well-founded, based upon the lack of representation when one politician is currently "representing" 500,000 citizens. But having spent considerable time working in the SANDAG setting and pursuing improvements to the Regional Transportation Plan - and on other planning issues with the County - it is not at all clear that adding transportation planning to their already-full plate would increase the effectiveness or accountability of that planning.

    In theory, state and federal electeds should be accountable for transportation. But with so many other issues - and so much other money - on their agendas, accountability for regional mobility is non-existent.

    Regardless of imperatives for reform, the RGEC process did little to capture the imagination of the voting public and gave no time to examine and establish the benefits or address the flaws of proposed changes. Regional government is, shall we say, a bit dry as a topic - yet billions of tax dollars are pouring through government "processes" (through SANDAG) without outcome-based accountability for the results of their planning decisions.

    Unfortunately, the RGEC structure was endowed with it's own political weaknesses, so there doesn't appear to be enough public momentum behind it to pass a ballot test.

    What voters will want to know - if anything ever does go before them on these issues - is if this will produce better results for our tax dollars. How will this get us out of traffic?

    No "structure" alone can ever answer those questions. Those questions deserve, indeed require, public debate on their merits in a campaign setting, for any fair resolutions to emerge.

    But it's unlikely there will ever be a regional government without clearly identifying a regional plan and the constituency for that plan. Without that, it's always going to be reduced to bickering between the existing jurisdictions and fear over what may be lost - not a debate about what's to be gained.

    While reform is much needed, it's unlikely to "catch fire" without an independent, citizen-based effort demanding it. Starkly missing is a broadly-based leadership team, painting the vision for what's to be gained in the region and seeking to actually address the fears of what might be lost.

    Finally, it will be difficult for environmental groups - or most environmentalists - to support any new structure that isn't preceded by an open process for a real "21st century Regional Plan." Too many of our important plans are based on the concepts and thinking of the 1950s and are sorely in need of updating to match our greatly increased population and knowledge base.

    Having the agency precede the plan - given the state of traffic, pollution and sprawl in the region - would almost require environmental opposition, since this new agency would be granted powers to site bad projects over local opposition. Most often, thoughtful local opposition is the key ingredient to both better solutions and stopping some really bad proposals.

    It would potentially be much more destructive to the environment if a new agency became even more capable of paving over what's left of paradise at an even greater rate.

    Moving with deliberate speed to create a workable regional plan would also give candidates a new vision to run for and against. This would help create accountability through the democratic process. New, creative solutions could be the result.

    The debate so far has been overly focused on the conflicts and fears rather than the potential benefits. It is always easier for opponents of change to deal in fear and kill change. There hasn't been the ability to really bring forth a vision for community leaders to rally around.

    It seems unlikely that voters will see a good proposal on the ballot, though it would be worthwhile to see one there. At a minimum, I urge the members of San Diego's State delegation to support passage of a measure to establish and fund a real regional planning effort. This would provide a useful process that could eventually lead to a successful ballot measure for improved regional government.

Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's environmental advisory board. E-mail her at .