As the Padres get over the jet lag from their trip to China and the endless accounts of how awkward the Chinese fans observed this most American of sports in person recede, another local is still in China on a 20-day trip around the Far East.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, of course, probably did everything he could to avoid the Padres while he was hustling around China. He was pretty busy drumming up opportunities for San Diego businesses.

Roberts’ trips to China have been a subject of some controversy here. The San Diego World Trade Center pays for the trips, but Roberts has given the World Trade Center hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years through the slush accounts over which he and the other supervisors have individual discretion.

It would be illegal for the center to give such a valuable trip as a gift directly to Roberts, but state law, at least for now, allows the center to give the trip to the county government. The Board of Supervisors gets to decide who to send on the trip.

Ron Roberts

It’s usually so suspenseful about who they choose that Roberts only goes so far as to book his trip before they decide.

Anyway, Roberts hasn’t responded to reporter Rob Davis‘ inquiries about the trips for some time now. But a friend pointed me to an interesting interview deep in the bowels of the Union-Tribune‘s new online radio thingy. Roberts was on air and had to answer the questions that came. They got pretty good after a bit.

Gloria Penner, who usually broadcasts on KPBS, was hosting a show along with Union-Tribune reporter Dean Calbreath, who covers business for the paper.

Most of their conversation concerned the October wildfires and preparations to avoid similar catastrophes in the future. But then, Calbreath took the conversation to Roberts’ China trip. (I’m cutting out some of the duller phases in the following transcript, you can listen to the whole thing here and double check my transcript.)

Dean Calbreath: I was wondering if you could tell what you’re envisioning this relationship between San Diego and China to turn out to be.

Ron Roberts: Well Dean, It’s more than just China. As you know, I’ve been to Singapore and Vietnam and Japan and I’ve tried to understand the things that are happening in Asia. If you look flobally the game is in Asia right now and China is a very very big part of that. I personally think San Diego has incredible opportunities. What’s typical is for most elected officials to say we’re going to be this major player on the Pacific Rim and then sit as though something is going to wash up on our shore and that people are going to miraculously show up here and businesses are going to flourish because they have business cards that say San Diego. You know it doesn’t work that way. You have to create relationships you have to welcome people here.

Stop there for a second. Just to be clear, he’s trashing his fellow elected officials for not showing the same passion for this effort as he apparently has. Hear that you lazy elected officials? Get out there and give some government money to someone who can send you on a trip for heaven’s sake.

OK, continue.

Ron Roberts (continued): The good news is our Convention and Visitors Bureau now has money thanks to their special business district that they’ve created to promote San Diego and they’re planning on doing some type of program over there I think in April of this year. So there are some people who understand this — that you can’t wait for things to happen. And we’ve got to, to the best of our abilities, assist our companies, establish the educational and cultural connections that help to really to further business opportunities in the fullest sense.

Stop again. For background, he’s talking about the hotelier’s new kitty, which you can read about here.

Now Penner chimes in with a great follow up:

Gloria Penner: How does that fit into your portfolio as a member of the board of supervisors?

RR: You know, Gloria, there’s a, your job description is how you define it. OK?

GP: Ah! I wish that were true in my case.

RR: Well, you don’t have to report to half a million people come Election Day.

GP: That’s true.

RR: OK? And I don’t mean to be, you know, flippant about this. (Me again: Oh but you do, Ron!) I think what my — I’ve been fortunate now that the people that have elected me have looked to me to do a lot of things. I work on a lot of programs locally. Nobody’ s doing more on this fire-related stuff I will say that to begin with, I will say that. Certainly Mayor Jerry Sanders is having a big role in that too. But, you know, for the no-risk kids and other things, so I define my job more broadly and that is — to me the ideal is to create opportunity for the people who live in San Diego. That means educational opportunities; that means health. That’s solid that’s why we did the fluoride treatment project that others had been trying to figure out how to do for years. There are things I’m very proud of but I’m also proud — I’m hopeful we can provide the ground work but we have a bunch of youngsters here growing up with global opportunities. We have an offer right now that a Chinese foundation will send us language teachers free of charge. I’m trying to place those within the public schools. In some schools they want and see that the language of the future is going to be Mandarin.

GP: Sounds like a good-will ambassador. You know, sort of an ambassador without the brief case. (Me: Gloria, softens it up for a second … but wait!)

RR: Yeah, I don’t have a brief case. I don’t. (laughs all around)

GP: There has been some controversy over you going — the funding of you going.

RR: Yeah.

GP: The controversy has to do with the fact that out of your $2.6 million in discretionary funds, you give a significant amount to the Asia Desk at the World Trade Center and then the Asia Desk funds your trips.

RR: They, uh, you’re right. I’m guilty. OK? So?

GP: Everybody hear that?

RR: Yeah.

GP: So this is true?

RR: It’s not a crime. I don’t know what you — they, the Asia Desk offers to the county of San Diego to send a supervisor on these things. You know, there’s not a long list of elected officials that are willing to put the time in to establish the relationships and other things that need to be done.

Again, those lazy elected officials. You guys need to buck up. Get some frequent flier miles or something, cheapskates!

GP: What I’m suggesting is —

RR: I don’t know what you’re suggesting.

GP: I’m about to make the suggestion.

RR: Go ahead.

GP: How would it be if the $2.6 million — and each of the supervisors has this, adds up to $13 million — went for —

RR: Gloria, it’s $2 million, adds up to $10 million.

GP: It’s not $2.6 million anymore?

RR: It’s never been $2.6 million

Hold on here, what’s going on? Is Roberts right? Not exactly. Every year, the county budgets a little more than $2 million for each supervisor to give out as part of the Community Projects Fund. They don’t always end up spending this though and a lot of times the county spends less than the $10 million this adds up (they come pretty close). Also, though, each supervisor, every year, gets about $600,000 to dole out from the Community Enhancement Fund. So, that’s where the $2.6 million annual number comes from.

Now, how much have they actually spent?

Over the last five years, the supes have spent an average of $11,156,200 each year from these two funds, which breaks down to $2.2 million per supervisor per year.

GP: Alright, I’m going to check my —

RR: You know, you are occasionally wrong Gloria and I’ll try to politely correct you.

GP: I’m going to forget that. Alright, $2 million times five: $10 million went to put the seed money into the fire equipment and fire personnel that we need for the underserved parts of the county.

RR: First of all, you’ve got to understand, those are not sustaining dollars. The Board of Supervisors, if there is savings, real savings. You know there’s a reason why our credit rating is good and the state’s isn’t and other local governments’ isn’t because we actually have a real structurally balanced budget. If we have savings in the year, then the Board of Supervisors has the ability to invest in organizations and other things in San Diego County. That’s the dollars you’re talking about. We don’t know next year whether that money is going to be there. It might not be there. So you can’t start to hire fire personnel that you don’t know that you’re going to have the money to fund in the future. It’s called one-time dollars, Gloria.

Yes, they are one-time dollars that always seem to be available to the World Trade Center, which has received more than $850,000 over the years.

Roberts gets back March 30. The trip cost $12,600.


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