Plan before power
by Carolyn Chase
n a hailstorm of half-truths, Escondido City Council rejected Mayor Lori Holt-Pfeiler's maneuvering for their endorsement of establishing a new form of regional government without a vote of the people. They rightly noted the importance of putting a workable plan in place prior to asking for the power to override local land authority and increase taxes to pay for it.
Bills are being pursued in the State legislature by Senator Steve Peace (SB1703), and Assembly member Christine Kehoe (AB2095) to give more land-use power to the San Diego Association of Governments by establishing it as the official, state-mandated regional government.
As Escondido's representative to SANDAG currently a voluntary, joint powers authority Pfeiler had evidently gone along with plans for a new regional power without consulting her council colleagues, much less the citizens of Escondido. Politicians seldom seem to want to take the trouble to ask voters what they think about giving new powers to themselves and in this case, SANDAG.
This example also reveals a key major flaw with SANDAG that they are not currently proposing to reform: the fact that neither SANDAG staff or the representatives on the Board are required to vet issues before the locally-elected city councils prior to moving forward on major regional issues. This tends to disenfranchise important issues countywide, and even derail proposals with merit because of the poor process.
SANDAG was formed without state action explicitly because it is a Joint Powers Agreement between existing agencies. Because of that, it is said to have no teeth. This appears to be an attempt to size a set of dentures without a vote of the people. But, given the discussions at Escondido City Council, it is doubtful that insider politicos are going to be able to sneak regional government in under the guise of reform. What reform? What solutions? What's going to get the bite from these teeth?
The real significant power of these bills is to allow any jurisdiction to be overruled for any regionally significant transportation project if the regional agency determines that the agency's action is inconsistent with the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).
There is no proposed definition of a regionally significant transportation project. Certainly, a major road or freeway. But also, it could be an airport. It would become what the SANDAG Board decides it to be.
The real issue behind the power-politics is: as the region is planning how it's going to grow, what new regionally significant transportation projects are being proposed? How are they going to be paid for?
Council member June Rady shared a map showing a multi-billion dollar freeway proposed by Supervisor Bill Horn as part of a plan to put a new civilian airport at Miramar. The freeway would cut through Escondido and run east and parallel to I-15 through rugged and environmentally sensitive open space. This freeway has been recently modeled by SANDAG. It is disingenuous for any elected official to ignore the proposed project on the technicality that it's not yet in the RTP. It is being proposed, and this governance change would facilitate it's potential. It might not go in, but there are power brokers who believe that it should. Pfeiler should go on the record as to whether she supports this solution or not. If not, that would go a long way toward convincing the conservation community that these proposals weren't just another way to continue to subsidize traffic-inducing sprawl development patterns.
The proposed regional government increases the potential to push bad projects the same old sprawl ideas as the proposed Horn freeway that have us stuck in rising traffic, rising taxes, and a design for pollution and environmental degradation. Insiders are proposing a process to grant more power without addressing critical project and policy issues about how the region's going to grow.
SANDAG should continue its important efforts for a coordinated Regional Plan. If it truly is the best plan, enough forces will rally around to achieve it; at that point, seek to grant the powers needed to achieve it.
And let's not forget about funding it. At some point voters will have to be asked to raise their taxes to fund any Regional Plan. So it makes sense to put the voters in the loop early when it comes to both the plan and the granting of powers to implement it.
Supervisor Horn has been quoted saying, If you fail to plan, you plan for failure. But if you plan for failure you also get failure.
Most importantly, the new proposed system would not do anything to improve public participation or accountability. It would grant broad new powers without any clear debate about the real projects involved.
Also worth considering are lessons from history. Technically, if put in place ten years ago, these proposed new powers would have allowed SANDAG to push SR680 through Encinitas. Technically, these new powers would give this agency the power to do so in the future. While it appears politically unlikely, citizens should look at the real powers being granted, and demand that the plan come before a vote on any change in the power.
Carolyn Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times, Chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board, a member of SANDAG's Citizen's Advisory Committee on Transportation and the Regional Transportation Plan 2030 Working Group, the San Diego Sierra Club's spokesperson on regional governance, and a member of the San Diego Planning Commission. Email her at