Earlier this month as the City Council met to take action on the Kroll Report Councilmember Toni Atkins expressed concern that the burden of personal responsibility for the accuracy of the city’s financial documents would put the job of City Council member out of reach for the average San Diegan who wants to serve their community.

Is electing the educated elite in finance and law a solution to the city’s limping governance? I think not. It’s already been demonstrated that a mayor and councilmembers with MBAs and/or law degrees didn’t prevent the city from taking actions that the educated elite at Kroll described as simply “negligent.”

The answer to negligence is vigilance. When contemplating the virtues of future mayoral and City Council candidates, job No. 1 needs to be to elected folks who have demonstrated that they are willing and able to read all the city manager’s reports and city attorney memos down to the fine print and apply what my friends who teach high school call “Critical Thinking Skills.”

A less elegant description of these skills would be: Can you read between the lines? Do you have a good B.S. detector? Do you have the chutzpah to ask questions in the City Council Chambers with television cameras rolling and reporters with pencils poised that probe for the sticky details even when your colleagues are anxious to move on?

Since the advent of district elections, the job of City Council member is being perceived by both candidates and voters as primarily a kind of super ombudsman for making sure that in their turf the trash gets picked up, the grass in the parks is watered, the water is drinkable, the toilets flush, potholes are filled, and books are in the branch library. All of these things are important tasks and provide voters with convenient and easily understood measurements for a councilmember’s performance, but they add up to only half the job. The other half of the job is the heavy lifting of making multi-million dollar decisions that determine whether the City of San Diego is viewed as “Enron-by-the-Bay” or “America’s Finest City.” Candidates and council members who only want to do half the job should step aside or voters should give them the boot.


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