Cut to the Chase – From the Editor

Watch our Wallets

Silly me. When I went downtown in March to give public testimony about how the public should be informed and allowed to give input on changes to the City’s budget, I wasn’t aware that the powers-that-be had decided in advance that they wouldn’t hear public testimony. How perfectly ironic! I had planned to explain to them why it was so important to allow public input on budget cuts, even though that can be unpleasant.

But they spent more time bickering over procedure than it would have taken to hear testimony from the eight citizens who’d taken the time to attend. Here’s part of the speech I wanted to deliver, but instead saved for another day. So here, in honor of Earth Day, the most important issue in the City of San Diego is how they are addressing changes to the budget – after it’s been publicly adopted – via what they call the “Appropriations Ordinance.”

(Please see the related article “Protect The Public’s Right To Know” by Council member Donna Frye and email, call or write about the hearing on April 10th.)

Know Your Mottos

My topic today concerns two official mottos of our government and their application to the City’s appropriations ordinance, among other things.

The first, I draw your attention to in these Chambers. “Semper Vigilans” hangs in large letters over your Chambers on the City Seal and it is there to form a context for doing the public’s business.

It means, quite simply, Always Vigilant.

It exemplifies one of the requirements for maintaining an honest democracy.

It asks you to rise above the personalities of the day and reminds us that, no matter who the Mayor or City Council members are, a requirement of honest democracy is to be Always Vigilant about how decisions with public funds are made.

The second motto to which I call your attention is in even greater circulation and that is, “In God We Trust.”

This lays it out pretty simply.

In God We Trust; in others, Trust, but Verify.

Trust, but Verify

When I was a Planning Commissioner, during public hearings I used to ask the staff lots of questions. It wasn’t because I didn’t trust them. It’s because government is a big complex enterprise and in every big, complex enterprise, mistakes are made and they are subject to human foibles. Political enterprises especially are subject to constant pressures to deliver something to someone without checks and balances.

In public systems especially, maintaining a decent, fair, and honest system requires checks and balances in order to accomplish the overall public good – and to prevent the system from being reduced to a delivery method for well-funded special interests.

Even with checks and balances it still happens. So it is folly indeed to reduce checks and balances on our City Government, and especially to invest one political position – the Mayor – with less oversight.

If the argument is that you don’t want to reduce the efficiency of the City’s operations by requiring additional public hearings, I would point out that our City’s precarious financial situation is due, in large part, not to doing too much of the public’s business in public, but to not doing enough of the public’s business in public.

In the end, insider negotiations and decisions made behind-closed-doors have cost this City, the public and this Council more time and money than having more hearings to vet budget changes could ever cause.

If you are correct that the Mayor deserves a higher threshold for making decisions with public funds without any public input, and there’s really no need for public input, then the item will be passed quickly on your consent agenda. I’ve seen that happen every week in these chambers, so I don’t even see that there’s any real argument for it being more efficient versus the risks involved. All it really does do is cut the public out of the loop on an undetermined range of things and allows you to get away with not having to take public input. But maybe, in the end, that is the point.

By reducing public input, the council would achieve some form of streamlining, streamlining defined as making decisions without having to listen or deliberate in public on millions of dollars of cuts negotiated behind the scenes. Is that what “strong Mayor’ is really about? To eliminate public input and review? Historians have often noted that such streamlining in the name of efficiency is not the best tenet for a democracy.

In sum, and especially given the recent history of San Diego’s financial problems, this is not the time to provide less input and oversight; it is time to provide more.

In the end, by not providing even the possibility of public review of a specific (and lower) threshold of fiscal decisions by the Mayor, the Council would not be abiding by the critical democratic values that are required to deliver a fair and transparent process for the public.

Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times, past member of the City of San Diego Planning Commission, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks, host of the EarthFair in Balboa Park.