A couple of weeks ago my colleague Emily Alpert told me she had met a high school student interested in writing about the city’s budget situation through the lens of the City Council’s budget roadshow called “San Diego Speaks.” The student is Roger Li, a junior at La Jolla High. Here are Roger’s thoughts. — LIAM DILLON
When I came to a recent San Diego Speaks meeting, I was looking for an angle. Having never even written for my school newspaper, I tried to imagine what a journalist would want to ascertain from San Diego Speaks. I had decided that I would look for either evidence of political corruption or heartbreaking anecdotes. I found neither, but what I ended up witnessing was something that I never expected I would — an honest appeal for fresh ideas. This San Diego Speaks event was intended for the residents of San Diego to voice their opinion on the direction they believed San Diego should take as it faced a budget deficit of $179 million. “We’ve reduced employee compensation, trimmed pension benefits and streamlined City Council through our program of business process reengineering,” said Councilman Todd Gloria at the meeting. “Now, we need to establish priorities.”
After a preliminary presentation on the budget, 30 speakers each had two minutes at the podium to speak directly to the City Council’s Budget Committee. The first few speakers mainly consisted of impassioned pleas either to keep supporting small businesses or not to cut park service hours. However, one woman was different. Starting with the words “I am not a shy person,” she launched into an embittered diatribe about the corruption of City Council, singling out each of the council members. “You want ideas about how to raise revenue? Well, that’s your job, not ours.” After hearing her rant, I was struck by not only her audacity, but also how counterproductive it was. San Diego Speaks was supposed to be a forum for recommendations, not criticism. With the budget crisis worsening, there is only so much that the eight members of City Council can think of as opposed to the estimated 1.3 million residents of San Diego. As Councilman Tony Young stated, “We are starving for ideas.”
Fortunately, there was no shortage of innovation. One person proposed the elimination of lifeguards from San Diego’s beaches. Another suggested outsourcing street sweepers and a study on the impact of closing parks on youth. Yet another discussed the possibility of localizing city service cuts for each district.
These ideas showed that San Diego residents possess the capability for fresh thinking. When asked how much influence San Diego Speaks has on the policies of City Council, Gloria responded “Quite a lot.” In fact, San Diego Speaks last year prevented a massive round of cuts on public libraries. So why didn’t more people show up? Despite Councilman Kevin Faulconer describing the turnout as “excellent,” many of the seats were disappointingly empty. Where were the 1.3 million residents whose parks and libraries were being put on the line? Where were the 1.3 million minds that could have collectively fixed the budget? Where were the 1.3 million voices of San Diego?
Until we can answer those questions, I’m afraid that San Diego’s budget deficit might never be fixed.
— ROGER LI