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Tuesday, July 12, 2005 | Neil Morgan and other members of the Voice of San Diego board of directors convene regular roundtable lunches with diverse leaders in the community.

We look desperately within a troubled city for good news. A glimpse of hope comes with that challenge now from Dan Yankelovich, a La Jolla social scientist who has been a consultant on public opinion and social trends to Harvard, Brown, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of 10 books with an 11th coming this fall.

In a conversation with the Voice of San Diego roundtable, Yankelovich drew on his longtime familiarity with city government across the United States to challenge all San Diegans. His remarks follow:

“This pension issue in San Diego is of national significance because the whole country has the problem. Private industry has the problem, and the public sector has the problem.

“So, all eyes are going to be on San Diego. It is an opportunity for San Diego to redeem its reputation if it were possible to find a way of addressing this problem that is not only helpful to San Diego, but a model for others to deal with it.

“As an outsider, I see it as one of those problems that is a concatenation of leadership mistakes. But the rank and file are going to have to pay the penalty.

“We have a situation in which (pension) give-backs are inevitable, but give-backs with people who have to do the giving-back feel that their benefits are being taken away from them.

“This is the hardest thing in the world to do, and especially if it’s not done fairly. The leadership of San Diego – the new leadership, we assume – has to have a real determination and at the same time to develop a fair approach. When you talk about give-backs, fairness means the perception of everyone sacrificing, a balance of sacrifice.

“So the package has to have that balance of sacrifice. I don’t think many people, including myself, understand what city bankruptcy is. It’s mandatory that the leadership lay it out in detail for the public. Is it a viable option? What will it do to our civic position? How much control are we going to lose over own lives and destiny if we go that route?

“And, if it’s going to be a lot of loss, what do we need to do to prevent loss? You don’t have to be the most charismatic person in the world in city government. But if you have the determination, the strength, and if you have the openness and conceive of that kind of approach, then it would be possible for San Diego not only to deal with its own problem, but to deal in a way that gives others insight and encouragement.

“This country simply can’t afford the pension system and the medical system that we now have. So something’s going to happen. It’s either going to be a rolling disaster, or it’s going to be done with common sense and reason, with strong leadership.

“You know, there has always been a common sense, non-theoretical, pragmatic position in this country. But it has almost disappeared. I mean, I’m mystified by the replacement of that attitude with ideology. The American tradition has always been to face problems in a practical, pragmatic way. That is the will, and we have the resources.

“And may I say a final word, the Voice of SanDiego is aptly named. The public has no voice in San Diego. Coming from the outside as I do, it has startled me, the extent to which there is no public voice. The leadership negotiates among themselves with the public being an afterthought. But if people are not sitting at the table, they are going to be disgusted, as they are now. They’re going to be angry, as they are now. They are going to be negative, not forthcoming. So a piece of the solution is to somehow make a connection between the San Diego public and the political leadership. It seems to me that the aptly named Voice has a real role to play.

“The San Diego public now is very negative, very distrustful. And it’s going to get more so as there’s no real understanding of how serious the problems are, how widespread they are. And no real sense of a program, a plan or an approach to deal with them.

“There’s nothing for people to hold on to. It’s extremely difficult, because even under conditions of trust, this would be a very difficult problem to deal with. But under current conditions of massive mistrust, you really have to know what you’re doing, and feel your way through this morass.

“I happen to be a friend of Mike Aguirre. I think he is part of the solution, and so I think you already have a number of pieces in place. Not having a mayor has been a problem, but that’s not going to go on forever. I don’t think you need extraordinary people. I think you need extraordinary understanding, and extraordinary means to address this issue.”

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