Friday, July 08, 2005 | Editor’s Note (July 20, 2005): Jim Bell withdrew from the mayor’s race last weekend and is supporting Donna Frye.
He may not look the part – judging from his easygoing demeanor, scruffy beard and relaxed digs in the heart of San Diego’s laid-back Ocean Beach neighborhood – but mayoral candidate Jim Bell’s line of work is efficiency, a quality he thinks is sorely lacking in San Diego.
Bell, 62, makes efficient use of his mural-splashed, one-story space on Voltaire Street, where he eats, sleeps and works. He promotes his book, “Creating a Sustainable Economy and Future on Our Planet,” through the free media afforded to him because of his candidacy, and he saves money by growing and making almost all of the food he eats.
He believes San Diegans are pining for a long-term plan in addition to the city’s immediate fiscal woes when they elect their next mayor. Bell contends that his plan to make the region self-sustaining, while not the urgent matter on the minds of city voters, will help the local economy over the long haul.
“The first question on these candidate questionnaires the different groups send out is ‘why should the residents of San Diego vote for you?’” said Bell, who has run for mayor three times prior, most notably in last spring’s primary, when he won 6.7 percent of the vote. “And the answer is ‘peak oil.’”
The environmentalist Bell believes the economic effect of peak oil – the point in time where oil production will be at its absolute highest, only to decline thereafter – should be enough of an indicator for people to embrace the benefits of energy efficiency and sustainability. Crude oil prices are currently hovering around $60 per barrel, up from about $40 a year ago, and price increases are normally seen as a negative economic indicator.
Bell said that the region has an opportunity to boost its economic and environmental health, pointing to a San Diego Association of Governments report estimating that county consumers spend $20 billion outside of the region annually to pay for more than 90 percent of the area’s energy, water and food.
Improving the efficiency of the region’s existing utility infrastructure and integrating renewable energy sources, such as wind and sunlight into everyday use, would allow the region to scale back its reliance on imported resources, he said.
Alan Gin, an economist at the University of San Diego who compiles the monthly Index of Economic Indicators for the county, helped Bell with his energy sustainability project a few years ago. Gin said he was impressed with the thought put into the study, although the economist found a flaw in how individuals’ energy savings would help fund the construction of the new infrastructure.
“His numbers are interesting,” Gin said. “The big problem I had in terms of his analysis is how the savings would be captured, which is a big part of the plan.”
Bell said that by spending less money on importing energy, food and water from out of the area, the area’s economy would flourish over time, leading to a higher employment rate that results in less crime and more sales tax dollars for the city, Bell said.
“For every dollar spent locally, it generates another dollar,” Bell said.
For the short term approach to the city’s fiscal mess – which includes a $1.37 billion-plus pension deficit, federal and local investigations and hundreds of millions in deferred sewer and street maintenance projects while essentially cut off from the bond markets – Bell says the most important attribute is an open mind.
“Stop blaming the unions; if we want to blame anybody it should be our elected leaders being in the pockets of billionaire sports enterprises,” he said. “If all the money and time that went into those negotiations had been used to fund the pension plan, I doubt we’d be in any trouble at all.”
Bell, however, does not think the unions should get a pass on the issue. He has recently embraced fellow candidate Pat Shea’s idea to file for bankruptcy because, he said, it would open up the city’s books, allowing officials to examine the legitimacy of all the agreements, a concept bucked by union officials. He’s also in favor of scrapping the defined-benefit structure of the embattled pension plan and instead basing retirees’ pension checks on the portfolio’s performance.
The city also should recover the cost of services it provides, such as residential trash collection, he said.
If Bell doesn’t win, he’ll still have his unofficial title as Ocean Beach’s mayor, an honorary title bestowed to him by friends in the neighborhood.
“He’s a mainstay. He takes a great interest in developing the community here,” said Nancy Casady, general manager of the OB People’s Food Store, a cooperative Bell is involved with as a board member. He was also the environmental consultant for the store when it constructed a new facility three years ago.
The store was built with energy-saving principles Bell hopes to see used in all new city buildings. Solar-powered, naturally conditioned and largely lit with outside sunlight, the store is 35 percent more efficient than the highest standard under the state’s energy code.
Bell, who has not been seeking campaign donations, admits that his candidacy is a long shot.
“I would have a chance if tomorrow gas prices doubled,” he said. “Then I think that would wake people up and consider me.”
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Tomorrow: A look at mayoral candidate Tom Knapp.