Determination: Barely True
Analysis: The city of San Diego’s bureaucratic morass slows down road and other infrastructure repairs.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher says he’ll be the one who can change all that. Using soaring rhetoric at a mayoral forum in Clairemont last week, Fletcher recalled that the United States put a man on the moon eight years after President John F. Kennedy boldly promised it. Fletcher then contrasted that feat with a public project in San Diego:
If you go down to the Children’s Pool there’s a lifeguard tower that eight years ago was condemned. They’ve been trying to rebuild it. For eight years, the city has more or less been trying to get a permit from itself. That’s a city that’s not moving forward. We can do better.
Fletcher’s overall point has an element of truth. The lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool has needed repairs for years. Bureaucratic problems have been to blame. And the city has yet to permit the project.
But Fletcher left out critical context about the city’s failure to rebuild the tower. He overstated the time the facility had been condemned by more than half. More important: his statement ignores the fact that a lack of funding and significant community involvement have impeded the project as much as any permitting or red tape.
A look at the lifeguard tower’s history reveals a process beset by delays.
Nine years ago, the City Council borrowed $25 million to repair aging fire and lifeguard facilities, including partial funding for the Children’s Pool lifeguard tower. Construction originally was supposed to start in fall 2003. That same year, city staff first presented the project to various La Jolla community groups.
But the city quickly fell behind schedule and diverted money from the tower to pay for others deemed more pressing. The city didn’t first apply for the two city permits it needed to rebuild the tower until 2007.
La Jolla community groups took an intense interest, too. Some La Jollans, according to a 2008 story in the Union-Tribune, were concerned the tower would spoil their ocean views. By that point, the U-T story said, more than 20 versions of the tower’s floor plan had been drafted to address the concerns of La Jollans and lifeguards.
In 2008, the city closed the tower, citing severe cracks in its concrete foundation. But it couldn’t build a new one until it had money, community approval and permits. The city lacked all of them, but blamed money most of all.
“The issue has been primarily funding,” said Perri Storey, a spokeswoman for the city’s public works department, in an email.
Even if that’s true, a lack of money can’t explain the last two and a half years.
In March 2009, the city borrowed $100 million to pay for needed road, building and storm drain repairs, including full funding for the lifeguard tower. As we’ve reported, the city has been slow to spend that money primarily due to bureaucratic problems.
The same bureaucratic hurdles got in the way of this project. Staffers still needed City Council to reallocate money for the tower and draw up contract documents, Storey said. Also, the city hasn’t permitted the tower or received community approval to build the tower during summer months.
Current plans call for the city to hire a contractor this year and finish the new tower in 2015.
These delays have led to a less-than-ideal situation at the Children’s Pool. Since the tower’s closure three years ago, the city has been using a ramshackle portable structure surrounded by a fence. Lifeguards have dubbed it the “Awful Tower,” union head Ed Harris said, and they’re frustrated with the pace of repairs.
“The city is basically tripping over itself to get this done,” Harris said.
To review, Fletcher’s overall point rings true. The lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool has needed repairs for years. Bureaucratic problems have been to blame. And the city has yet to permit the project.
But his details don’t hold up.
The city closed the tower three and a half years ago, not eight. More important: the tower hasn’t been fixed for many reasons, notably funding and community involvement, two problems that added to bureaucratic difficulties.
We struggled to rate Fletcher’s statement. We believe it falls on the line between Barely True and Misleading. A Barely True statement, per our definition, takes an element of truth, but leaves out critical context that may significantly alter the impression the statement leaves. A Misleading statement takes an element of truth and exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.
We decided to go with Barely True. As Fletcher said, city bureaucratic woes have contributed to the failure to replace the lifeguard tower. But he misidentified the timeframe and overemphasized the city’s red tape. We believe these problems show his statement lacks critical context, rather than deceives a listener.
Tom Shepard, Fletcher’s campaign consultant, stood by the assemblyman’s assertion that permitting problems were the primary source of the city’s failure to build the tower. Fletcher’s statement, Shepard said, was part of a broad critique of San Diego’s public works bureaucracy.
“Any fair-minded person is going to say that the spirit of that criticism is true,” Shepard said.
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Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects.
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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