Tuesday, May 1, 2007 | Smokey Bear looked happy to see Mayor Jerry Sanders on Saturday at an Arbor Day tree-planting ceremony at Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park in Pacific Beach.
There San Diego’s mayor was, shaking hands with the fuzzy fire safety icon. Sanders grinned for cameras as he pushed a Jacaranda tree into a freshly dug hole. He posed with San Diego Gas & Electric’s neon-yellow lightning bug mascot. He urged the gathered crowd to plant trees to help bolster San Diego’s urban tree cover.
He looked like the perfect image of an environmentalist. But Sanders’ environmental record is complex. While he has taken some green steps, he has split with environmentalists on major issues.
Since taking office in December 2005, the Republican mayor has pushed several environmental issues to the forefront. He has increased the city’s wastewater rates — in part to fund the annual replacement of dilapidated sewage piping, a requirement of an environmental lawsuit filed before Sanders assumed office.
On the surface, Sanders has sold himself as a classic Republican: a business booster opposed to tax increases, focused on getting the most for the taxpayer buck. But he has taken a more moderate approach on some environmental issues, bolstering his early image as more of a coastal Republican. Environmentalists say the mayor took a political risk with his water and wastewater rate increase.
He has taken other less costly steps. In April, Sanders launched an initiative to attract businesses specializing in clean technology. And he introduced an environmentally friendly purchasing policy that requires city departments to consider environmental criteria when buying products.
But during his tenure, he has opposed environmentalists on other issues, including a controversial plan to boost reservoirs with treated wastewater. While he joined more than 300 other U.S. mayors in a global-warming pact that called for cutting city residents’ greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent, he has not presented a plan to achieve those reductions.
And he has not supported the city’s efforts to adopt a mandatory recycling ordinance that would provide blue-bin pickup to nearly 100,000 apartments and offices that lack it, saying the city cannot afford such a plan. Most regional municipalities adopted mandatory recycling in the early 1990s.
As the United States begins to understand the enormity of the challenge it faces from global climate change, environmentalism has become more popular than it has been in more than a decade. Some Republican politicians — with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the way — are seizing on its resurgent popularity.
Schwarzenegger has “made it safe,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus in San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs. “Now, you can hop on that bandwagon, without feeling like you’re the mayor of San Francisco. When you look around, you see your other moderate friends up there.”
Sanders’ history and background “doesn’t give any indication of a green person,” Sparrow said. “But the nice part is that people can change.”
Sanders said he believes the city has to become more involved in the environmental movement, following the examples of pioneering cities such as Seattle. The mayor said he doesn’t believe the renewed interest in the environment is a fad.
“A lot of people are realizing we don’t have any choice,” he said. “As we accept the science involved with climate change, there’s a lot we have to do.”
But just as Schwarzenegger still keeps a stable of Humvees in his garage, some ask whether Sanders is fully committed to the environment or whether he is solely trying to craft a green image.
“I don’t think Sanders is willing to put himself in the crosshairs in the way Schwarzenegger has on global warming,” said Marco Gonzalez, an environmental law attorney who has represented San Diego Coastkeeper and City Councilwoman Donna Frye. “I see it more as public perception, and it’s no secret that what happens on the 11th floor (of City Hall) is driven by public relations and not straightforward policy considerations. A lot of it is just for show.”
Several environmentalists gave Sanders a mixed review. They praised him for increasing water and wastewater rates to improve the city’s aging infrastructure. But they knocked him for passing on mandatory recycling and more controversial topics such as indirect potable reuse — the wastewater recycling program criticized as “toilet-to-tap.”
Sanders has acknowledged that the concept has sound science, but sided with opponents who object on public health grounds. Other area governments have advanced the program, however. Orange County has pushed forward an almost $500 million program to recycle its wastewater.
“We live in a desert, in arid climate where we have too many people for our water supply,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “I think [Sanders] jumped out unnecessarily on an issue like that.”
In an interview, Sanders appeared to back off his earlier opposition, saying that he “never said” he was opposed to indirect potable reuse but believed the public needs more information about it first.
That runs contrary to his stance on the wastewater recycling plan last summer, when he threatened to veto any program the San Diego City Council approved. At the time, his spokesman said: “He is simply stating that he does not support this. He believes that the public has spoken.”
Other major environmental issues still loom for the city, and Reznik and others said Sanders would ultimately be judged on how he handles them. The city is faced with upgrading its main sewage treatment plant at Point Loma, which treats sewage below the federally required standard before pumping it into the Pacific Ocean. The city currently has a waiver for that requirement but must reapply for it within the next year. An upgrade has been estimated to cost at least $1 billion.
“To some extent, the jury’s still out,” Reznik said. “Like anything, there’s been good and bad. But a lot of the projects the city’s going to be engaged in are coming to the forefront in the next six months.”
As those issues emerge, environmentalists almost universally praise Sanders and his staff for being willing to listen to their perspectives.
“We don’t agree on everything, but we have access,” said Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League. “I’ve got access to make the case and that’s very important.”
Sanders said he would continue to listen to the environmental community’s opinion.
“They’ve got a point of view, and they’ve been right on a lot of things,” he said. “I’m not going to agree with them on every issue. But I’m going to listen to them.”