In with the new

by Carolyn Chase

  "asier said than done" seems to sum up 1997 in our part of the Pacific Southwest. It was a year of status quo politics with contempt on all sides for all kinds of deals. Increasing economic activity is stoking the fires for projects of all types, with little sustainable support for infrastructure and environmental controls in sight. Increasing populist democratic activity, in the form of ballot initiatives, is on the horizon as we move into an election year.

Most of the biggest deals were seemingly disconnected from the public-at-large. Even when the terms stunk, as with the stadium, by the time the public found out - usually through belated print media reports - it was too late to assert much change.

Big multi-year projects (Multiple Species Conservation Plan and the Zoning Code Update) passed major milestones. The County's solid waste system was unceremoniously sold off. Some key open space acquisitions were made. Local wetlands protections were gutted. The trolley was extended - but right through an sensitive wetlands and the flood plain. Beach pollution warning signs were finally posted as needed, although little progress was made to decrease the pollution. Often, two steps forward were met with three steps back.

Can we do better next year? Or will it be a knock-down, drag-out circus throughout "off year" elections when voters will get to choose the winners and losers? Many are looking forward to having a chance at the ballot.

The challenges of growth are ahead. As the 90s unwind, we are on the verge of huge commitments to new growth. 1998 will be a turning point. Will we grow up? Or will we continue to grow out and perpetuate our pattern of L.A./Orange County urban sprawl and massive congestion? The County Water Authority will continue its drive to close a deal to import Imperial County water to support another 1 to 1.5 million residents. Updates are in the works for both the City and County General Plans. Where will the next million live? We want their money, but we definitely don't want their traffic.

Several projects opening the City's Future Urbanizing Area to large developments (surrounding the completion of State Route 56) will be on the ballot. Other potentially divisive ballot battles to be resolved include the grass roots "Rural Heritage & Watershed Initiative" and the well-heeled "English for the Children Initiative." RHWI seeks to establish an urban limit line for growth. ECI seeks to limit education to English. These appeals for a direct vote of the people show the diversity of issues shunned by elected officials due to their controversial nature. Who knows - maybe there will even be a vote on the Convention Center.

Why aren't these issues being addressed by our elected representatives instead of private citizens? The use of the initiative to achieve progress is a rational response to corrupted day-to-day government practices. Democracy suffers when too many people stay on the sidelines. With most folks working and busy doing their lives, those who can afford to spend lots of time downtown are there to make money off of deals needing government funding or approval. The few real citizens who show up are labeled blockades to progress by the power elite. The system is definitely out of balance.

The end of the year is a good time to review progress, assess prospects and resolve to do better. End-of-year resolutions usually meets with quick failure. Civic improvement is what's needed, but everything works against the average citizen at City Hall. One thing is certain: San Diegans love to volunteer and make a difference. But most have little patience or time for the kind of conflict and deal cutting required to be a civic volunteer in the political processes that matter. It's easier to ignore it or leave it to the papers, or wait until the next ballot.

All in all, it was a good year for developers. They got most of what they wanted and that should lead to a prosperous new year for some. Now the people will have a chance to see if they can preserve some of the public good at the same time.

My personal wish for the new year: that it be a year for more giving by those who should and less taking by those who can.