Tuesday, March 4, 2008 | I am known to playfully joke in mixed company that, “I am a native San Diegan, that’s how I got this great tan!” The joke serves as a nice introductory icebreaker, while also conjuring up a commonly shared image of our beautiful beach town that binds us together. Yet, when posed with the challenge of responding to what five things does San Diego need most, my immediate reaction was — more than a tan.

We need to change the mindset that defines us by our weather, limits us to thinking our best asset is our beaches and the notion we should settle for less because we have the sunshine. In the five sections that follow, I will argue that San Diego’s greatness and best hope lies in the diversity of its people and the unlimited potential this diversity can bring in ideas and energy.

Resident Leadership

First and foremost on San Diego’s agenda should be strengthening resident leadership. For sustaining change, a true paradigm shift, the change must be grounded in the ideas of San Diegans and implemented and owned by San Diego’s citizens.

Historically, our city has established a network of community planning groups, recreation councils and other citizen advisory boards. However, the city needs to truly commit to these resident-led bodies with more technical support and training; additional resources to fund the mechanics of organizing and holding meetings; and, through greater access to the information provided to lobbyists and bureaucrats. In short, the same level of staff support and city commitment to the Planning Commission, for example, should be made to our community based advisory groups.

Moreover, the dozens of neighborhood councils (in some areas they are known as town or community councils or associations) throughout San Diego should be formally recognized by the city of San Diego as an integral part of our civic leadership and afforded the same supports discussed above. There is great power in neighbors sitting down with neighbors to identify needs and formulate solutions. The city should harness this power for sustainable change. A few cities throughout the U.S. have created Offices of Neighborhood Services. San Diego would be well served by establishing its own and empowering it to work in a meaningful way with resident leaders on decisions about the future development of our city, our priorities and how we allocate our resources.

Democratic Representation

Undoubtedly, if we moved to more resident leadership our city would be the better for it. Our representative democracy, however, will always need elected officials to help carry out the will of the people. But how, and by whom, those officials are elected is critically important.

The voters of San Diego have wisely voted for a system of district-only elections and term limits for our city council members and in the case of term limits, our mayor also. Unfortunately, too many other governmental bodies that affect the lives of San Diegans do not have these two measures that promote accountability and bring the government closer to its citizens. The poster child for why we need this change is the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. For more than a decade, our diverse county (age, ethnicity and politics) has been represented by five white Republicans who are all over the age of 50 and there is no end in sight. Regardless, of your political affiliation or opinion of the current county leadership, it should be clear that reasonable term limits are needed there.

Following closely behind the Board of Supervisors should be term limits and district-only elections for the various boards that govern our schools. And while more politicians is never popular, expanding the number of elected representatives on each of these bodies, including down at city hall, also has merit when coupled with an empowered citizenry through resident leadership initiatives. Our city leaders have the influence, and in some cases, the authority to make these changes. They should work with San Diego’s citizens to support more democratic representation as soon as possible.

Rebuild Our Core

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a familiar cliché. Our city’s infrastructure is broken in many ways and needs to be fixed. However, it is not broken everywhere. We need to immediately begin addressing infrastructure and redevelopment improvements where they are most needed — our city’s older, more urban neighborhoods. Specifically, an ideal target area would be the neighborhoods within and immediately surrounding our existing trolley lines.

Project priorities within the roughly rectangular swath of the city created by the trolley should be determined through a resident-led planning process in the affected communities. The infrastructure needs will be obvious, but other creative ideas for improving our neighborhoods will be born out of the collective genius of the diverse resident participants. Focusing in, and around, the trolley lines will allow residents to plan “smart communities” that are transit oriented and provide greater access to all that is needed to live, work, play and raise a family.

This ideal will not come easy. It will require political courage from our elected representatives to identify new revenues to support these improvements and to reprioritize existing dollars to begin to meet these needs. It will also require sitting down at the table with developers, environmentalists and labor to gain a collective buy-in to a process that is timely and cost-effective, while also being “green” and respectful of our workers through good wages and benefits. If we commit to local builders, local workers and protecting local resources, rebuilding our core can be an economic boon for San Diego and a win-win-win for us all.

America’s Safest City

I have mentioned our diversity and the benefit it provides to San Diego. Our commonalities and our differences should be widely embraced and celebrated. At the same time, I am a recent convert to the notion that an “identity-based” agenda or politics may not serve us best, even when it is for a noble cause such as “Black and Brown Unity.”

What would serve San Diego better is an “interest-based” agenda that is mutually beneficial and has common appeal whether you are married or single, Gay or straight, young or old, evangelical or unbelieving, rich or poor or … One such notion, that I would put at the top of the list to be embraced by San Diego’s leaders and citizens is a goal of being “America’s Safest City.”

Imagine if we focused our collective energies on activities such as neighborhood watch, creating safe routes to school, cleaning up graffiti, volunteering on a citizen’s patrol, employing an ex-offender or mentoring a youth. Further, imagine if at the same time our elected officials fully funded our public safety needs — police, fire and emergency services. In no time at all, we could be “America’s Safest City,” if we make this commitment and build an agenda around our mutual interest of safe communities for our families and ourselves.

Yes, We Can

The goal of being America’s Safest City may sound daunting; perhaps the other ideas seem equally ambitious. That is why I conclude with the “Yes, We Can” attitude as San Diego’s fifth and final need. Now before I am accused of electioneering (or even plagiarism), let me credit this slogan to Cesar Chavez, which roughly translated into Spanish is the common refrain from the farm workers movement, “Si Se Puede.”

For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be second-class citizens. We have gone along with the idea from the media, from our legislatures and others that California is comprised of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It is time to step out of the shadows and step up to the greatness that is embodied in San Diego’s diverse people and the resulting ideas and energy created that can shine brighter than the San Diego sun. With a “Yes, We Can” attitude we will ask for and receive our fair share from Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; we will meet the challenges of an outdated airport, a crumbling Balboa Park, and an insufficient civic center as we rebuild our core; and, in the process we will be the national model of a great city, truly grounded in the principal, “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Dwayne Crenshaw is a veteran public policy aide at the state and local level who is presently the Executive Director of the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, a non-profit organization committed to supporting neighborhood councils, community based organizations and residents to create, maintain and strengthen vibrant neighborhoods. You can e-mail Dwayne a dcrenshaw1@gmail.com. What are the five things you think San Diego needs? Write your piece and e-mail it here.

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