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Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 | Both voiceofsandiego.org and The San Diego Union-Tribune have reported at some length on the ongoing dispute between the San Diego City Council and the mayor regarding control of the budget and how service cuts are to be made. In last Friday’s U-T, Council President Scott Peters explained that the council wants to make sure the city will provide the same services after making efficient cuts.

Reading Peters’ comment reminded me of Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent jaw-dropping interview last week with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer regarding Iraq wherein the Cheney said that the administration has achieved all its objectives and that while there are problems in Iraq it is not a terrible situation. While the issues are different, the scope of denial and isolation reflected by both Peters and Cheney is all too comparable. The common conclusion is of course is that they still don’t get it.

For Peters to suggest that we can have the same municipal services by making “efficient cuts” without having to raise taxes or fees is, shall we say, disingenuous at best. In both cases, this is nothing less than management by fiat, not the car but as in the Latin for “let it be done,” an exhortation empty of value but brimming with both arrogance and ignorance.

Alas, this management style is all too common and can be seen daily in both the public and private sectors. Combined with the spread of 1984-like newspeak (I’m waiting for the first councilmember to use the word “redeploy” to describe the looming municipal service cuts), it is a dangerous thing.

In practice, management by fiat has more in common with “Alice in Wonderland” than a Harvard MBA and in San Diego the consequences can be seen everywhere, including Jeff Jordon’s excellent “Reality Check — Parts I and II” appearing in the voiceofsandiego.org‘s Café San Diego recently. Of course, the consequences are not limited to San Diego’s police department, but can be found just about anywhere. Additional examples range from outdated computers and management software, to dilapidated and out-of-code office space. One can also easily find service and maintenance programs so poorly funded as to basically be completely ineffectual, but given just enough money to allow the City Council to tell their constituents, unwilling to euthanize such sick entities, that the programs are indeed in place.

What gives rise to such behavior? Well, hubris of course. Isolation is another contributor, when leaders look only inward to themselves, their own special advisors and “loyal worthies” for input and advice. It is also wrapped up in cowardice, the sheer desire to avoid making tough, unpopular decisions, the absence of the backbone to say “no” both to funding lower priority programs and to those constituents looking for something for nothing, or courage missing to even acknowledge the facts or the ideas of others that don’t fit one’s predisposed view of things.

I’ve seen this done countless times, ranging from direction to do something that just didn’t make sense, to literally “just do it!” even when presented with the data proving there were insufficient funds and resources to achieve the stated goals.

In a sad collusion between elected officials and senior management (“The People Who Can’t Say No and their Co-Dependents” — the name of my next rock band), there was typically no push back in these instances, only a “yes,” usually delivered enthusiastically, and woe be to any mid or lower level staffer who dared to object.

It never works of course, this management by royal decree, which is why we have Shakespeare’s plays, the HBO series “Rome” and the comic strip “Dilbert” — we really don’t learn from history, we just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.

And so, we now have the San Diego City Council apparently still believing that we can have it all without raising taxes. Raise taxes? Why no, we just have to be more efficient, don’t you see?

Believe it or not, it wasn’t all that long ago, say through the end of the ’70s or thereabouts, that San Diego’s local government was widely regarded as one of the most economically and efficiently run cities in the U.S. Even Howard Jarvis remarked that Proposition 13 wouldn’t have been necessary if all governments were run like San Diego’s. How terribly far we’ve come.

This historic efficiency meant that San Diego’s local government had relatively little in the way of surplus resources to cut and still make things work. Not unlike the skinny sailor in the lifeboat that’s going to be the first to expire because he doesn’t have any fat, San Diego increasingly found itself at a disadvantage as Proposition 13 and the no-tax attitude of the local media and their readers worked their inexorable assault on the fiscal and resource capabilities of our local government.

Today, one would think that San Diego’s ongoing public embarrassment regarding its failed leadership style and its near brush with the calamity and shame that is bankruptcy would be so unnerving that our civic leaders would forever swear off whatever evil demons possessed past mayors and city councils and thereupon embark on a serious effort to not only make San Diego the best-run city again, but the most fiscally prudent, most transparently managed city in all the land. (Hint to elected officials: that would be a resume builder!)

But not yet. As laid out in Officer Jordon’s articles, great damage has been done and we’ve placed much that is very important at grave risk. Members of the City Council need to put their political career aspirations aside and have a candid conversation with their constituents about the cost of doing the public’s business. (The analogies to the mayor and the City Council and a dysfunctional family are apt almost beyond belief. There will be much gnashing of teeth and screaming, but The Talk needs to happen.)

The local news media can be invaluable facilitators in this long overdue discussion. That means less uninformed opinion and more fact digging; less ideology driving what gets published and more striving to find realistic, practical solutions; less finger pointing and blame laying and more assignment by name of who’s accountable for what and by when.

The media have been simultaneously too flippant and too cynical about our local governance issues. I had an e-mail exchange a few months ago with a member of our own local news media asking that more facts be published about where San Diego stood relative to other cities in terms of local taxes per $100,000 of assessed valuation, the number of employees per 1,000 people and so forth. He said no and further, that he wanted to see just how far things could go in service and tax cuts.

That’s pretty amazing feedback. It does no harm when little Johnny runs his toy train around the curve too fast to see what will happen, it’s another thing all together when applied to a city. Your community, San Diego, as test tube: Let’s run things into the ground — police, fire, parks, whatever — and see what happens.

This, from someone who’s not elected, accountable to no one, and as far as I can tell, has never run anything in his life even remotely related to the crucial activities of a typical municipality.

So, here we are. The media, which frankly have missed some of the most important local political leadership developments beginning in the ’70s and discussion of which could now illuminate our current crisis, can decide to serve as constructive facilitators. If they choose to ignore this role and continue with hysterical headlines and slanted blaming, I fear nothing positive can happen. The City Council can decide to renounce the civic corporate culture of denial and decide to report to work and implement the necessary fixes or they can sit back and let history judge their lost opportunity.

Jon Dunchack worked for the city of San Diego for 35 years. Send a letter to the editor.

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