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Monday, Oct. 23, 2006 | At first glance, if you’re a local politics junky, this election seems a little short on drama. Sure, on the national level, the intrigue is as high as it can be without a presidential race.

But the local decisions on Nov. 7’s ballot don’t seem to be channeling the collective angst or passion of San Diego.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A couple of years ago, it appeared that we would make some mega-decisions in November 2006.

The Chargers had been eyeing this election as the one in which residents would decide on a new stadium.

That, obviously, didn’t happen. Though the quest for a new stadium appears back on track, it’s not anywhere near becoming a ballot measure yet – if it ever becomes one.

The stadium wasn’t the only big decision imagined for 2006. I was one of those who argued that the airport authority’s anticipated ballot measure – now known, of course, as Proposition A – would engage the public’s imagination and attention even more. I thought, perhaps naively, that the airport vote would be a point of great importance for San Diego. The region’s voters were going to be forced to decide exactly what kind of place San Diego was going to be.

I thought, a long time ago it seems, that a united business community with visions of turning San Diego into one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world would push hard for a new airport. I thought they would find opposition from a group of people who legitimately wanted to leave San Diego how it was – to let it grow or contract however much its convenient little airport allowed.

But I was wrong. As I quickly discovered, the airport authority was unable to find a solution to the problems it says the region will face. Instead, the agency offered up what its officials say now is merely an advisory measure for how the region should proceed in its effort to find a solution. Sure, they say something about what they would like to do with Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. But it’s not quite clear what.

The business community has been anything but united in support of the measure and few residents, it seems, really understand what would happen if they voted to approve it. What I thought would be an amazing time of introspection for this region about its future, really has become little more than an argument between brothers in the back yard while the rest of the community watches football inside the house.

For political junkies like me, an anemic local election season like this offers up two alternatives to get your politics fix: look national, or look behind the scenes. I’ll leave the national stuff to the guys and gals who get paid to talk about it.

Behind the scenes, however, this local election, particularly in the city of San Diego, is quite interesting.

Note San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, whose first two major reform measures voters will either reject or approve on Nov. 7. Proposition B would make it so that voters citywide had to approve any future pension benefit increases for city employees.

Proposition C would allow the mayor to outsource some functions of the city government, forcing city employees to bid, like regular contractors – and against them – to perform city services.

Labor unions – and not just the city’s public employee unions – and the League of Women Voters have come out as the major opposition to Proposition C. They argue, with some compelling points, that the contracts for city work could be so attractive that corruption would inevitably raise its ugly head.

Business groups and local Republicans reject that concern and have taken to supporting this measure as a passionate cause. But it’d be wrong to think of this just as a classic labor vs. business political argument.

The only major television ad produced yet in opposition to Proposition C was one broadcast by the city’s firefighters’ union.

Ask yourself why the firefighters would run this ad at great cost. Although opponents to Proposition C have seized on the fact that it appears to leave the door open for the future privatization of public safety services, there are some things not quite clear to me.

It’s been presented as just a given that we should be revolted at the fact that public safety jobs might be outsourced under the provision. Why? After all, no mayor in his right mind would replace firefighters with a group put together by a corporate contractor. But privatizing some jobs might actually save the city money and help it run better.

Why, for example, does the police department need actual police officers to answer its phones and do administrative work? Perhaps some of those efforts would be better managed by private contractors. There is a wealth of knowledge out there about what does and doesn’t work when you privatize agencies run by public servants – the military has experimented with it and we could learn what has succeeded in that effort.

But back to the question: why would firefighters oppose this by spending valuable funds?

They oppose the initiative, but absent any real threat to their jobs. There’s got to be a political reason beyond simple ideology for spending the money needed to make a costly television commercial.

I think they want to reassert themselves as a political power in San Diego.

The firefighters are arguably still San Diego’s kingmakers. Although neither of the mayoral candidates in last year’s election earned the firefighters endorsement, the successful City Council candidates did. If the firefighters want to influence the mayor as they once did, this could be the way.

If they were able to show the mayor that they can kill his most precious political effort, they will show themselves to still be the force they once more were.

Then look at the other side of the mayor. Steve Francis, the Republican who spent a bundle trying to be mayor and outflank Jerry Sanders on the right, has recently been heard on the radio championing Proposition C.

He could have just given money to the group campaigning for Proposition C, but he has chosen to do it on his own and let his voice be the one in support of the measure.

He wants to be identified as a major help in getting this passed.

If you were looking for local drama in this election season, there’s enough maneuvering behind the scenes to provide it.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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