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Monday, Jan. 29, 2007 | In presentations to her constituents, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob says she frequently asks the same question: Who can tell me what a county supervisor does?
“One gal raised her hand,” Jacob recalled, “and said, ‘You talk on the Roger Hedgecock show.’”
Jacob laughs about the anecdote. But she is quick to note that county government has a broad range of responsibilities — from restaurant inspections to the monitoring of water quality at beaches to policing and criminal prosecution.
And yet Jacob and many other county officials acknowledge that their constituents don’t know what the county government or its elected leaders actually do.
One local political consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, said polls consistently show that 60 percent of countywide voters don’t know what the county Board of Supervisors does.
“The county’s an enigma to 99 percent of people,” said Pam O’Neill, chief of staff to Supervisor Greg Cox. “Nobody knows what the county does.”
This might not be remarkable, except that the county has a $4.3 billion budget, 18,000 employees and a 3-million person constituency. And those 3 million people are directly impacted by county government. Not only do they benefit from county services, they also pay the county nearly $500 million annually in property taxes.
Some say supervisors remain anonymous because they’re not controversial. People don’t know what supervisors do, they argue, because the county is run efficiently.
“We’ve been a pretty stable government the last 10 years,” said Walt Ekard, the county’s chief administrative officer. “We haven’t done a lot of stupid things. You don’t have the Board of Supervisors pointing their fingers at their staffs like you have in other places. You don’t have the kind of controversy you have in other places.”
Others say the county deserves the media’s attention, but just hasn’t received it. They say the lack of scrutiny has allowed the county’s elected officials to keep a low profile and cruise to reelection. Fewer reporters cover county government than do San Diego City Hall.
“They have an enormous impact on people’s lives, and there’s little public scrutiny or media scrutiny,” said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor. “The lack of media coverage basically gives them a blank check. And what they wind up doing is feathering their own nests.”
County supervisors hold powerful positions, despite any anonymity they may have. They each control $2.6 million in grant funds they’re free to distribute to nonprofits and other groups throughout their sprawling districts, which cover the county’s 4,261 square miles. The five Republicans are virtually impossible to unseat in elections. But they are just the tip of the county’s iceberg — a massive body that many residents rely on for welfare, health services and land-use decisions outside of cities.
While they may not be well known, county officials say they generate plenty of news. Jacob pointed to 12 press releases sent out this month. They are, however, tame in comparison to similar releases sent to San Diego City Hall reporters.
A Friday county release noted that the county had sponsored a University of San Diego economic roundtable discussion. A Jan. 22 release said influenza was responsible for a string of illnesses in the Ramona School District. Another Jan. 22 release touted the county’s opening of a nature trail for the disabled. None were front-page news stories.
Consider the city’s press releases in the same time. City Attorney Mike Aguirre called for a criminal investigation into the Sunroad construction project. Mayor Jerry Sanders warned San Diego City Council not to “impose its dysfunctional management practices on the Mayor as if I were their hand-picked bureaucrat.” Both were major stories.
But at its heart, the county is an agent of the state government, said Donald Steuer, the county’s chief financial officer. About 75 percent of its $4.3 billion budget comes from the state and funds major state-imposed mandates such as health and welfare programs.
So while the county operates as a local government, particularly for the 400,000 residents who live in unincorporated areas, for others it is primarily an arm of the state, Steuer said. And 2.6 million of the county’s 3 million residents live in incorporated cities, meaning they hold their local city councils and mayors responsible for land-use decisions and municipal services.
The city of San Diego, for example, has high-profile programs that impact everyday facets of its residents’ lives. The city provides beach lifeguards, free trash pickup, sewer and water service, libraries, a fire department and police. It owns Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park.
“The effort over a long period of time has been to have urban development in cities, so counties do less local services,” said Fred Silva, a local government expert and fiscal adviser to the New California Network, a nonpartisan government reform advocate. “The population in the unincorporated area may not have the same connection (to county government) because there are any number of entities that provide services to them.”
The county has no fire department, no free trash pickup and no beach lifeguards. But it does have two high-profile programs: Criminal justice (the sheriff’s department and district attorney) and social services. The county sheriff’s office provides law enforcement throughout the 3,200-square mile unincorporated county and in several cities that contract for its services. The county district attorney prosecutes all state crimes, except misdemeanors inside the city of San Diego. But a majority of county programs are state mandates, which is why the counties were formed — to administer local programs on the state’s behalf.
Cities typically have a richer history than counties, said Paul Lewis, an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group. Cities shaped the character of the community. Communities seeking prosperity incorporated as cities, Lewis said. County boundaries were drawn arbitrarily, Lewis said, because the state decided it would be easier to deliver its services that way.
“That sense of community wasn’t there,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t an inherent decision of a local community to form a government. It was something imposed from above. So there isn’t that same history there of pursuing a community’s interest in competition with other communities.”