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Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008 | Neither Mayor Jerry Sanders nor challenger Steve Francis is a traditional environmentalist. Both Republicans are opponents of the city of San Diego’s plan to recycle sewage into a drinking water source. Both support SDG&E’s plan to build a power line through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

But as he looks for ways to distinguish his campaign, Francis has turned to the environment — particularly with positions and proposals for fighting climate change. He promises to adopt green building standards, add hybrids to the city fleet and work to make the city carbon neutral. It is a subject on which Sanders has done little. While the incumbent mayor has signed a pledge to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, he hasn’t implemented any plan to do so.

San Diego’s environment has been debated through generations of mayoral elections since the 1910s, when the city’s leaders famously argued whether the region’s future belonged to smokestacks or geraniums — industry or controlled growth. By the 1980s, the debate had a different slogan: Prevent Los Angelization Now. But increasingly, the debate is moving away from a question that has defined decades of Southern California politics: Where should we build homes?

Today, the debate is shifting toward more complex issues such as the precariousness of the city’s water supply, climate change and water quality.

“It used to be very easy to have this debate at a superficial level, because it all boiled down to development,” said long-time political consultant Tom Shepard, who is running Sanders’ campaign. “The world has changed in the last five years. There aren’t many parcels about which we can have a debate. So you get down to these more complex issues, so you have to talk about whether one person’s solution is better than another’s.”

Francis’ environmental agenda follows the nation’s growing awareness about climate change and highlights a debate that has defined the country’s stuttering movement to slow global warming. Many still argue about what should be done, how much action is needed — and who is responsible for implementing those changes. While cities across the country such as Seattle, Portland and New York City have taken steps to alleviate global warming, others have waited for the reluctant federal government to act.

Sanders has fallen into the latter category. He said in an interview that he believes any local steps taken to combat climate change should be done voluntarily — not mandated by city government. Francis has offered specific steps the city could implement to reduce residents’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Francis promises to require the city to buy hybrids or other alternative-fuel consuming vehicles when replacements are needed in the city fleet. While less aggressive than a New York City plan that set a deadline for converting the entire metropolitan taxi fleet to hybrids by 2012, Francis’ proposal promises to require the Metropolitan Transit System to replace taxis with hybrids when cars go out of service.

His proposals extend to green building. While he offers no plan to pay for it, he said he will seek to upgrade all city-owned buildings to meet U.S. Green Building Council standards. And he has committed to establishing an expedited building permit process for developers who seek gold certification under the council’s LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Francis said he will measure his success by whether Grist, an online environmental newspaper, eventually lists San Diego as one of the world’s 15 greenest cities.

“It could take 15 years to become carbon neutral,” Francis said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But we have to set goals, and we have to set policies to achieve those goals.”

Sanders has taken few steps to combat climate change during his two years in office. He points to the city’s new mandatory recycling policy, which he initially opposed and eventually offered as a way to prolong the life of the city-owned Miramar Landfill. He also cites a methane-capture system at the landfill, which was installed before he was in office.

Under Sanders, the city has added a megawatt of solar panels at its Alvarado Water Filtration Plant. And the mayor joined more than 600 mayors across the country in signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which called for the city to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto Protocol. But Sanders has not implemented any local plan to achieve the reductions for which he advocated.

Sanders said he believes reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are best achieved voluntarily. Asked whether he would offer any initiatives related to climate change in a second term, Sanders said he didn’t know what he would suggest.

“I haven’t said I’d go forward with some broad, new agenda on that,” Sanders said. “What we’ll continue to do is encourage voluntary compliance, show people why it makes sense, and encourage the city to become more competent in terms of the electrical needs and other needs.”

Sanders has been hailed by environmentalists for other actions. They have praised the water and sewer rate increases he offered in 2007 to pay for upgrades to the city’s aging infrastructure. Sanders also 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.

Francis criticizes Sanders for the rate increases, a position that highlights the nuances of his environmentalism. While Francis said he wants to see reductions in sewer spills and water main breaks, he said the mayor should have instituted fiscal reforms before raising rates.

To be sure, the city’s financial crisis is still a major political issue and likely to steal the campaign spotlight once again — though perhaps not dominate as it did in 2005 when Sanders and Francis faced off in the primary election. Francis, who ran as a business conservative, will have to win people over to a retooled, oftentimes populist, image.

While he hardly mentioned it three years ago, Francis now says the environment is one of his three key platforms. (He said reducing the influence of “special interests” at City Hall and the city’s financial trouble as the other two.) Observers say Francis is attempting to overcome the hurdles he faces in running against an incumbent mayor and fellow Republican.

Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State’s School of Public Affairs, said Francis’ environmental focus appears to be part of a strategy to play to both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.

“Francis has to be extremely aggressive, and he has to come up with issues,” Sparrow said. “That’s what he’s trying to do, and the environment’s always good.”

Some wonder whether those issues will stick and be hotly debated in a city that is still trying to recover from its financial troubles.

“I don’t get the sense that either one of [the candidates] — if you had to erect a monument to the environment in San Diego — would be on top of that pedestal,” said political consultant John Kern. “I have a hard time seeing that this campaign is going to be decided on who’s greener.”

Political consultants say that as an incumbent, Sanders can point to his a track record on the environment. Francis cannot, they say, and therefore has the burden of proof. Political consultant Larry Remer put it this way: “Francis? What the hell has he done for the environment?”

Because the country’s awareness of climate change has increased in the last two years, Remer said both candidates could pick up votes by offering plans to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

“Anyone who does that is going to strike a chord that will resonate across the city,” Remer said. “If the mayor were smart, he’d go out and do that.”

Kern and Remer said they expected the mayoral race, which will be decided in a June election, to center on the city’s fiscal issues. But they cautioned that the issues are still being decided. “We’re at the stage of parry and thrust,” Remer said, “testing themes out and see what support we can line up.”

Some environmentalists say they expect the topic to play some role in coming election, but not be the dominant issue.

“It’s partly just the candidates,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group. The organization does not endorse political candidates. “Sanders has paid lip service to the environment, and at least has a few accomplishments. Francis, he’s not Donna Frye or even Scott Peters with an environmental record. I don’t know that there’s enough distinguishing them to have a huge impact.”

(Clarification: The original version of this story failed to make it clear that New York City hasn’t yet fully converted its taxi fleet to hybrids, but plans to do so by 2012.)

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

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