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Thursday, April 28, 2005 | As a native San Diegan and 30-year city employee, I am proud of our city and have great respect for the local government we used to have. Elected officials and employees served in the spirit of the inscription above the entrance to the County Administration Building; “The Noblest Motive is the Public Good.” City and county officials were almost drafted by citizens to run for office because of civic contributions they made as volunteers. Most were somewhat financially secure and were able to serve in the elected offices that paid very little.
It was almost natural that this created a political environment that was heavily influenced by “the establishment.” But the establishment represented a fairly broad cross-section of public interests. Citizen interest and involvement waned. Citizens and the establishment yielded to the more narrow interests of the “development industry.” This occurred concurrently with the advent of the professional politicians and their deference to special interests. Public policy became what the elected officials perceived to be in their best interests at the next election.
The politicians’ interests became more narrowly focused when the charter was changed to both nominate and elect council members by district. The broader public good became a lesser priority to the council member who must please and appease the voters in his/her district. Despite Mayor Pete Wilson’s efforts to combat this phenomenon via the council committee structure, council members did not spend much time or attention to affairs outside their districts. Power thrusts from special interests like the Chargers, the Padres, Corky McMillan and the unions, became easy excursions. Uninteresting and complex matters like budgets, long-range planning and the pension system got little attention from the lawmakers. Elected officials deferred to staff on these issues almost to the point of delegation.
All this was being studied carefully by the employee unions who stepped into the void with strong leaders and effective political strategies and became the dominant force in local decision-making. They remain the dominant forces to this day. Salaries and benefits soared. The pension system exploded. The vehicle for creating this was the state-mandated “Meet and Confer” process for labor negotiations. This mechanism was perverted to have management negotiating with labor … and for themselves!
Management salaries and benefits increased along with the employees. The mayor and council benefited to a lesser extent … but they got labor’s votes and support. A strong “union form of government” emerged. Electors are awakening to the fact that almost 80 percent of the city’s operating budget is consumed by salaries and benefits. Community services are being reduced; potholes aren’t being repaired. But we can repair our government.
Cover-ups, name-calling and cheap political trickery must cease. Citizens must demand that City Hall opens its mind (and its books), acknowledges problems and sets courses for cooperative corrective action. And, citizens have a responsibility. All this mischief occurred on our watch. Citizens must pay attention and be involved.
Jim Gleason is a graduate of San Diego State University and has worked in a variety of capacities with the City, including: Police Officer, Employee Services Administrator, Assistant to the City Manager, Coordinator of County Emergency Medical Services, and Director of Environmental Quality. He served for 12 years on the city’s pension board and was a lead plaintiff in the recent, successful class action suit against the city for underfunding the pension system.