Last November’s election ushered into the city of San Diego what I termed a “new populist paradigm” that was focused on neighborhoods, good jobs and inclusion. The expected direction was not just superficially driven by a particular project or policy, but a deeper and more meaningful change in the relationship between the city and its constituents.

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The most enduring changes in public policy occur outside of the daily news cycles and sensational headlines. They can weather the test of time through cycles of elected leadership. They present a prism of values that guides every decision made by each individual, from the departmental director to those on the front line of public service. They are manifested in how our elected bodies, and appointed boards and commissions conduct the public’s business.

So in the midst of whirlwind of political turbulence, here are my observations on the slow tectonic shifts occurring in public policy at the city of San Diego.


Many neighborhoods in the city have been neglected in the overlapping areas of investment, infrastructure, planning, health and safety. This secret is out of the bag, and officials are scrambling to do something about it.

1. Investment: With the demise of redevelopment, there is an urgent need to build a citywide pot of funds to support capital projects, affordable housing and catalytic development targeted at underinvested areas. Some institutional investors, banks, and public agencies have stepped forward to offer to partner in this effort. However, multiple competing efforts have blurred the vision, and it is important to put this incipient effort on solid financial footing. There needs to be public accountability, and a policy framework to support neighborhoods, good jobs and community benefits, as a condition to any arrangement for new redevelopment tools.

2. Infrastructure: Capital needs are developed and funded in cycles that do not match a traditional annual budgeting process at the city. Due to funding constraints in most cases funds can rarely be moved ad hoc from one asset type to another. In order to re-orient the city’s “CIP” (Capital Improvement Program) it is important to consider not just the what, but the when, who and where. The what and when can be determined through a multi-year CIP plan to aid in resource allocation, bonding and management of projects years in advance; the who through local workforce training so that public projects create a pathway of construction careers that pay prevailing wages to local residents; and the where through changes in CIP prioritization policy and aggressive grant-seeking for low-income areas. To varying degrees, these efforts have been initiated, but yet to be fully implemented.

It is also important to realize that not all infrastructure is as visible as streets and sidewalks. Our water and wastewater system needs billions of dollars in plants, pumps and pipelines. An advanced water treatment plant and transmission pipeline for reused water needs to be constructed. Our airports, landfill, recycling and cogeneration facilities also need to be evaluated for their long-term capacity to serve San Diegans.

3. Planning: The resurrection of the Planning Department in the city, and recruitment of a nationally-renowned director is a watershed moment that will define the future of San Diego’s growth. Walkable streets, bike paths, public transportation choices, small businesses and optimum density define the quality of life in a neighborhood. Neighborhood-level decision-making empowers residents to be invested in the final form, fosters a pride of place and improves civic governance. About half a dozen community plans are in the works. Barrio Logan’s community plan that residents want needs to be approved. Adequate public facilities, such as parks, libraries and recreation centers, need to be planned, built and staffed. Even more importantly, once adopted, these plans need to be respected, as the collective will of the community.

4. Health and Safety: Climate change is expected to impact the San Diego region not just in sea level rise, but in increased incidence of wildfires and droughts. The largest share of pollutant and green-house gas emissions reductions at a local level comes from transportation choices. The modes of public transport in the future will significantly determine our ability to act towards achieving statewide climate change targets through 2035 and beyond. A new climate action plan that aims to aggressively meet these goals needs to be drafted, adopted and implemented. Some examples of prioritizing transit include double-tracking the Coaster, extending the trolley to University City, continuing to subsidize transit for school children and increasing the frequency on the blue line.

Residents in some neighborhoods, particularly in south and eastern areas of the city, do not receive an equitable level of service from the city in terms of public safety. Police, fire and lifeguard facilities need to be adequately built, equipped and staffed. A five-year plan for police that would put more officers on the street needs to be adopted and implemented. Moreover, CityGate recommendations to address deficiencies in fire protection and emergency medical services, which include building and equipping fire stations on Home Avenue and Paradise Hills, need to be implemented.

Good Jobs

The economic climate has put greater pressure on local municipal governments to address the jobs issue, something that does not typically fall within the core services of the city. However, economic development has emerged at a forefront of city issues with a goal to create 50,000 middle-income jobs in the city of San Diego by 2020. Underlying strategies can be placed into three buckets: green energy and technology, regional assets and mega-regional outlook. Our competitive edge utilizes the educational and research institutions, innovation and entrepreneurial skills, youth training and apprenticeships and our proximity to the border.

1. Green energy and technology: Global demand for energy-related goods and services, as well as high-tech, wireless communications, biotech, biopharma and defense technology, will drive our employment generation. However, the city can convene capital investors, provide development opportunities and fund pilot projects. The city could drive innovation in this area by developing a long-term energy portfolio, broadband access in neighborhoods and public spaces through Wi-Fi, spearheading efforts to make buildings smarter, rooftop solar on city facilities and developing micro-grids such as the one at UC San Diego for energy self-sufficiency.

2. Regional assets: The port, airport and Convention Center are key job-generation engines in the region. They need to explore expansion opportunities, while minimizing the impacts of their environmental footprint. For example, the proposed Convention Center expansion will create 3,000 construction jobs and 7,000 permanent jobs, all which strive to provide quality employment opportunities for San Diego’s workforce. Much work on this project has been done, but a lot more needs to be done to get the project entitled, financed, built and booked.

3. Mega-regional outlook: San Diegans can compete globally if we think and act as a mega-region, in terms of clustering and synergy of complementary businesses, efficient infrastructure such as border-crossings and international airports, a binational consumer base, as well as diverse socio-economic ties of our workforce. Although the city has opened an office in Tijuana, we have barely scratched the surface in emerging as a mega-regional player in the world, and this momentum should continue.

The new populist paradigm demands a rising standard of living for all San Diegans. It is not enough to create jobs that San Diegans cannot afford to live by, but to position the city globally as a leader in workforce standards and career opportunities. Whether it is lab assistants, hotel maids, janitors, freelance writers, artists, taxi-cab drivers, retail clerks, truckers, security guards or fast-food workers, they must be able to work in safety, live with dignity, and take care of their family.


Prior to the populistic upset in San Diego, a small group of influentials had been vetting city appointments, narrowing the issues and setting the narrative that all of us, including the media, have been responding to. Hundreds of thousands of San Diegans that voted last year, through their diversity, indicated a desire for inclusion in a body politic that had traditionally left them behind.

This is the most vulnerable part of the public policy agenda. Although some seeds of change have sprouted, others have been crushed in the political maelstrom over the past few months. These include veterans, homeless and disabled. They also include racial, ethnic and gender diversity in decision-making and advisory bodies of city government.

The public is no longer a silent bystander, and wants to participate in the action at City Hall. Many want to contribute their time and talent. One idea that has received broad support is to incubate ideas for civic projects, such as an urban design studio that helps communities develop their own vision. Another idea is automated transparency and civic involvement that many refer to as Government 2.0. Downtown and other communities are experimenting with short-term public uses of vacant lots. Budget priorities are being vetted through deliberative polling. The ideas juggernaut gathers no dust as it generates parklets, CicloSDias and green bike lanes. I cannot imagine anyone turning back the clock on these advancements in participatory governance. If anything, they should be accelerated.

In conclusion, the long-term policies that make the city more responsive to neighborhoods, good jobs, and inclusion are still in progress.

Baxamusa’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

Murtaza Baxamusa works for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp. and volunteered as a special policy adviser for Bob Filner.

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