Monday, Oct. 13, 2008 | Mayor Jerry Sanders and county Supervisor Greg Cox stood in the middle of a parched patch of city parkland Thursday afternoon and made brief pitches for Proposition A, a ballot measure that would impose a parcel tax on county residents to pay for increased fire protection.
The quick pledges of support for the proposition, both of which were tacked onto the end of speeches about general fire preparedness, seemed like afterthoughts and are largely indicative of an ongoing malaise that appears to have enveloped the ballot measure. Considering that the proposition has the potential to revolutionize fire protection in a county ravaged recently by wildfire, its promotion has been notably lackluster in the two months since it was approved for the ballot.
The absence of a bells-and-whistles effort to promote the proposition is especially puzzling considering that even its staunchest proponents admit it’s facing a steep uphill battle. Proposition A needs a two-thirds vote to succeed, a tough call at the best of times, but in the midst of a plummeting economy, with a ballot already stuffed with tax-raising proposals, the measure needs all the cheerleaders it can get.
While the campaign for Proposition A, such as it is, strives to portray the measure as having the broad base of support it needs to succeed, interviews with a half-dozen high-ranking officials intimately involved in its creation revealed a different reality about the ballot measure’s popularity and its chances of success.
Those officials said Proposition A is significantly unpopular behind closed doors and is almost certainly destined for failure because it was ill-conceived and rushed to completion at a treacherous time for new tax measures.
They said the reluctance by officials to embrace the proposition is also intrinsically tied to the unpopularity of the man widely considered its creator: County Supervisor Ron Roberts. Roberts has alienated his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, who only reluctantly approved putting the proposition on the ballot, the officials said, and his stewardship of the proposition, and other fire-related issues, has irked many within the local firefighting community.
The result is what Bill Metcalf, fire chief for the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, called a “deafening silence” from local elected officials and fire agencies on Proposition A. With three weeks to go to the election, apart from the brief statements from Sanders and Cox, there have been no public events organized to push the measure. One of the key proponents of the measure says he’s met with blank stares when he mentions Proposition A to voters, and the campaign just began sending out mailers last week.
That silence contrasts starkly with the bells-and-whistles campaign that successfully boosted the last countywide tax initiative to garner two thirds of the vote: The 2004 TransNet sales tax, which was also called Proposition A.
TransNet was supported enthusiastically by politicians around the county, who used their influence to promote the proposition in public and at press conferences. The campaign distributed mailers, held public events and hired a cadre of political consultants and public relations experts to sell the measure to the public. In the end, despite the impressive campaign, that measure squeaked through with 67 percent of the vote.
At least part of the reason for the lackluster campaign is skepticism about the proposition and Roberts’ leadership, the officials said.
With Sanders, Roberts headed the San Diego Regional Fire Protection Committee, a group set up in the wake of last year’s massive wildfires to assess the region’s fire protection needs and to formulate a plan of action to solve the problem. Via that co-chairmanship, the officials said, Roberts pushed through a short-sighted plan that didn’t take into account the opinions of his critics.
“He had a vision for what he wanted to do and he picked a committee to legitimize it and then he did what he wanted to do,” said one high-ranking official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have to work with Roberts on a regular basis. “That’s why you don’t see much support for it now.”
Roberts’ spokesman, Jim Duffy, said the supervisor was open to suggestions on the proposal and worked tirelessly to see that input was received for the ballot measure from as many interested parties as possible.
“If there’s a feeling that there weren’t changes made, look at the report that left the committee and look at what the Board of Supervisors approved and put on the ballot. There are lots of changes,” Duffy said.
Duffy and Sanders spokesman Darren Pudgil also denied that Proposition A is failing to garner the support it needs to pass.
Pudgil said that a press conference is planned for early this week to announce support for the measure. He said Sanders has been speaking publicly about the proposition for weeks, and has even mentioned it at his regular town hall meetings where he has been discussing water supply issues.
There have been presentations made at other public events as well, according to a consultant for the campaign. Presentations about Proposition A were made at a Wildfire Preparedness Expo in Rancho San Diego and at two local Fire Safe Council meetings. And promoters of the campaign have appeared on local radio and TV shows, according to the consultant.
At Thursday’s press conference, Sanders directly rebuffed the suggestion that he and other local politicians have been slow to pick up cheerleading pom-poms in support of the proposition and he promised more press events to come.
“I don’t think you’ve seen us be quiet about that at all, and you’ll see it ramping up as we get into the election cycle,” Sanders said.
In recent weeks, Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, who has become a sort of de-facto point man for Proposition A, has made an appearance on local talk radio to debate the measure. Media reports have also been slowly trickling into the local newspapers and onto television screens. On Sept. 28, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board endorsed the proposition.
But Ghio said last week that he’s been waiting for local politicians and fire officials to start promoting the measure, which he’s been working hard to tell voters about.
“It’s frustrating when you go out there and you start talking to people and they really haven’t heard much about Prop. A,” Ghio said. “But I understand they’re starting to ramp it up.”
Spurred by last year’s deadly wildfires, which burned 280,000 acres in the county and killed eight people, Proposition A would establish a parcel tax of $52 a year for most properties in the county.
Half the money raised would go towards the establishment and funding of a regional authority — effectively a county fire department — that would manage and oversee the spending of the parcel tax revenue. The other half of the money would be given to regional fire protection agencies like the San Diego Fire Department to spend on their own fire protection efforts.
Some critics of the proposal wanted the Board of Supervisors to wait until 2010 to put a measure on the ballot so that its proponents would have longer to build a coalition to support the measure. Ghio said there has also been little discussion of what the county actually needs for fire protection or how the money that would be raised by Proposition A would eventually be spent. That analysis is crucial, he said, but it hasn’t yet been done.
“It should already be done,” Ghio said. “The problem is that, from the event last October to the time that the county Board of Supervisors put it on the ballot, there wasn’t the time to do that comprehensive study.”
Officials interviewed for this story said the lack of such a comprehensive master plan for spending the Proposition A funds is just one of the downfalls of the ballot measure and the process that created it. There is also serious disagreement behind the scenes about other elements of the proposal, such as the political makeup of the joint authority and the role the county would play in overseeing the body, if any.
Several other elements of the plan remain vague, the officials said, and there is a growing feeling at the county that the measure is more of a political band-aid than a legitimate long-term solution to a highly complex problem, said one high-ranking county official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The Board of Supervisors put this on the ballot, but they had to. How could they say no?” the official said.
This isn’t the first time Roberts has been accused of pushing through a fire protection plan without properly seeking the advice of other elected officials and fire protection experts.
Earlier this year, Roberts held a press conference to announce a proposal to lease three firefighting planes during the fire season. That plan came as a surprise to many local firefighting officials and even to Sanders, Roberts’ co-chairman on the Regional Fire Protection Committee.
Roberts hadn’t discussed the plan at the committee before he unveiled it to the media. Nor had he consulted many of the region’s firefighting experts. That episode has clearly stung some in the local firefighting community, who remain skeptical of any plan with Roberts’ name on it.
Fred Sainz, who was Sanders’ spokesman throughout the time when the mayor was on the Fire Protection Committee with Roberts, said Sanders had to work hard to broker a deal on Proposition A behind the scenes because many of the players in the firefighting and political community “didn’t want to talk to Ron.”
Sainz said Roberts has been fighting since last year’s wildfires to cement his place in San Diego’s history books. He said Roberts clearly wanted to ensure that his tenure as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors was marked with actual accomplishments towards making the county safer from wildfires, rather than just talking about improving fire protection.
But, in that rush for glory, Sainz said, Roberts lost favor with some of the power brokers in San Diego who could have helped him put together a successful and popular proposition. Roberts’ sharp elbows may have therefore punctured some of the support Proposition A now so desperately needs if it’s to gain traction in the last three weeks of the election season.
“Certainly, nobody rushed to be a part of this proposition because of Ron’s involvement,” Sainz said. “In a way, this deal was put into place in spite of Ron Roberts.”