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Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007 | During his state of the county speech Tuesday night, county Supervisor Ron Roberts promised to lobby to get Congress to outlaw the use of food stamps to buy candy.

Roberts, who will spend 2007 in the ceremonial chairman’s seat of the five-member Board of Supervisors, spent two-and-a-half minutes talking both about the ban and his desire to fight childhood obesity.

Roberts, though, has no authority over the federal food stamp program.

Such claims and goals are common during the annual speeches, which date back 59 years. Supervisors frequently outline policy goals that are beyond their control.

In his 2006 state of the county address, Supervisor Bill Horn called for an end to the “chaos” along the border. Illegal immigration, he said, would be one of his top priorities as board chairman. It is a federal policy issue.

A year earlier, Supervisor Pam Slater-Price called for traffic relief, setting it as a personal goal during her year-long stint as board chairwoman. Traffic is primarily the responsibility of the San Diego Association of Governments, not county government. Her spokesman did not return a call for comment.

While some claims are out of direct reach, supervisors say the speeches — and state and federal lobbying efforts — are an opportunity to use their office’s power to effect changes that impact constituents.

“Even though we don’t have direct authority, we do have — and have made — significant changes in the decisions of other agencies who do have direct authority,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. “That’s why that bully pulpit is so important. Our voices are heard.”

Jacob points to her opposition during the crafting of the TransNet road-building proposal, which she said helped drive the changes in the final product that went to voters. Tweaks in the ballot proposal allowed the county to leverage more money for its roads than it originally would have, she said.

When state or federal programs aren’t functioning properly or are financially shortchanging the county, which acts as arm of the state, Jacob said supervisors must be vocal.

“We have a responsibility to call it out, to say a program is not working,” Jacob said. “I take very seriously that responsibility — to advocate for our people.”

County speeches have a different tone than their counterparts delivered at the city of San Diego. In January, Mayor Jerry Sanders outlined a host of proposed City Hall reforms and specific proposals. But unlike Sanders, the chairman of the county supervisors doesn’t have executive authority. County staff can’t work more than eight hours on a proposal without having the full board approve the policy. While Sanders as a strong mayor can direct staff to implement his policy, supervisors can’t do so without a majority vote.

While some county promises target subjects out of supervisors’ direct control, many focus specifically on county programs and initiatives. Supervisors promise — and deliver — funding for libraries, ball fields and other public projects.

For example: A 2003 promise from Supervisor Greg Cox to make an “ambitious effort to keep future health care costs down by making sure that all children are immunized.” Immunization rates for preschool children have increased 3 percent since then, with 88 percent of San Diego County children receiving full vaccinations in 2005. The county oversees the region’s health and welfare programs.

During his Tuesday speech, Roberts touted significant improvements in the county’s ozone pollution, another subject in which the county government has a direct role. The county runs the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, which regulates the county businesses that emit air pollution.

Highlighting personal priorities is necessary to target areas for improvement amid the county’s dozens of varied functions, some say.

“It’s really what a policymaker wants to highlight during his or her chairmanship, where they’d like to see the focus,” said Pam O’Neil, Cox’s chief of staff. “They’re not the top administrator, they’re one of five policymakers. But they are the one who rightfully gets to highlight the focus of policymaking for that year.”

But supervisors also highlight issues they can only hope to influence, not control. In 2002, Roberts targeted affordable housing, lamenting the region’s housing shortage. The county needed a way, he said, to stimulate creative and innovative urban housing. He proposed establishing a New Urban Vision Award to recognize creative ideas and give them grant funding.

“We can help jumpstart the kind of housing that we need as a community,” he said.

Though supervisors approved $150,000 in grant funding four months later, it was never used. Supervisors unanimously rescinded the decision in 2004 and used the money for other purposes — none related to affordable housing. The money was instead directed to such things as preserving Apollo 9 in a diorama at the San Diego Aerospace Museum, costs associated with the USS Ronald Reagan dedication gala and sponsoring a solar-energy conference. Roberts’ spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Traffic is frequently attacked during state of the county addresses. Horn listed it as a top priority in 2006. Slater-Price did the same a year earlier, pointing to the county’s $110 million investment in road improvements along Interstates 5 and 15 as evidence the county was doing its part.

The county’s role in making road improvements is small in comparison to other agencies. It directly administers road funding in unincorporated areas of the county. SANDAG, a regional planning agency, administers most road funding. The county is one of 19 representatives comprising the agency’s board.

“If the county kicked in $110 million, that’s great,” said Gary Bonelli, a SANDAG spokesman. “But we’re looking at $2.7 billion (in ongoing improvements) on I-5 and $1.7 billion on I-15.”

Horn came down hard on illegal immigration during his 2006 speech. “The border has become a war zone,” he said, calling on President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to secure the border.

Though he alluded to county parkland that could be used for a border fence and promised a lobbying effort, he offered no other specifics about how the county government would play a role in immigration policy, which is set by Congress.

Horn’s office declined comment for this story, instead pointing to a February letter to the editor Horn wrote to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“I’m not willing to accept the financial costs of an out-of-control border and its impact on the citizens of our region,” he wrote. “The county of San Diego, along with local governments, schools and health care providers, continues to be socked with millions of dollars in unreimbursed costs because we must either provide services to illegal aliens and expand criminal justice resources to catch, jail or adjudicate undocumented immigrants who break state laws.”

Horn, who was campaigning for reelection last year, later commissioned a study of those costs. Immigration economics experts called it flawed, because it didn’t consider the possible economic benefits — in both labor and payroll taxes — undocumented immigrants bring to the county.

The study was never completed. Horn’s office did not respond to questions about the study.

Horn offered one other ambitious proposal in his 2006 that has not come to fruition. He called for the county to purchase three firefighting helicopters, but did not say how they would be paid for.

No new helicopters were purchased.

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

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