Remember those long road trips you used to take as a kid with your family? Remember eagerly sitting in the backseat and asking every five minutes “Are we there yet?” 

Since the city of San Diego’s financial crisis was brought to public light, I’ve seen our community on something like its own road trip. And no, we’re definitely not there yet.

In the past year, the city of San Diego has seen several areas of progress on its road trip of reform, but it is still a very bumpy ride. 

A successful road trip has to have the following elements:

  • A shared, positive end-point — someplace everyone wants to get to and will be happy when they get there.
  • A map and set of directions — in other words a solid game plan on how to get from point A to point B in the most expeditious manner.
  • A driver you can trust — because after all, everyone’s life is in this person’s hands and we have to trust they are acting in good faith and responsibly.
  • Good company along the way — folks who get along, maybe sparring a bit now and then, but who are generally decent people.

The good news is the public seems very clear about the shared, positive end-point it wants. The public wants an open, transparent and accountable city government. The public expects City Hall to balance its budget and pay off its debt. The public feels the city has enough of their money to get the job done — as demonstrated by their repeated rejection of tax increases. Finally, the public expects quality city services — properly-maintained roads, adequate police and fire protection, and some level of park, recreation and library programs to contribute to our quality of life. If other cities can arrive at this destination, so can San Diego.

I believe Mayor Sanders shares in the public’s destination for our city government.  Unfortunately, a majority of the City Council and the gaggle of special interests around City Hall do not share in the public’s desired destination. Until we have a City Council that shares in the public’s defined end point, we won’t get far on our little road trip.

As for a clear map and set of directions, the jury is still out. Certainly Mayor Sanders’ Five Year Financial Plan is a great starting point — providing a comprehensive picture of the city’s problems in decades. But that is like seeing a sign on the road saying “Financial Recovery: 150 Miles.” We know how far we have to go, but none of the details on how to get there. What positions will be cut? What programs will be suspended? What will the new pension system look like? How do we reduce existing pension liabilities? Will there be a rest stop and will a city employee keep it properly cleaned? And the list goes on and on. 

For the complete directions, I’m looking forward to the mayor’s budget for FY 2008, as well as his “best and final offer” to the labor unions. 

Let’s talk about the driver — or in this case, drivers! Obviously as the Strong Mayor, Jerry Sanders has the biggest steering wheel and accelerator at City Hall. Unfortunately, the City Council has found the parking break and is fiddling with the stick shift. Remember, these are the same folks who — when they were in the driver’s seat — ran our little car off the edge of a cliff and got pulled over by federal investigators for the equivalent of drunken driving. 

Until we get a reform-minded City Council majority, expect more grinding of the gears at City Hall.

And that leads me to the final element: good company along the way. No, I’m not talking about the politicians and bureaucrats at City Hall. With the notable exception of the “new guard,” the “old-guard” officials act in the most uncivil and disrespectful manner. Put simply, their behavior as our elected leaders reflects poorly on our community.

No, the good company I’m talking about is that of the people. No matter what current and former elected officials do to divide us, our community is pretty united in what to do.

Go to any coffee shop or pub and you’ll find folks determined to take back control of their city government. While they are angry and feel completely betrayed by their elected leaders past and present, there is even a sense of humor. Despite our city’s problems, the public has kept that San Diego optimism that we can get through this together. 

I’d like your input … how is San Diego progressing on its road trip of reform? 

PS: Add Rachel Laing’s casting suggestions from her blogs in Café San Diego yesterday, and I think we might just pull off our own version of “Little Miss Sunshine.”  If we could only make reforming government so interesting.

CARL DeMAIO

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