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San Diegans are a talented bunch.
But they aren’t, to my knowledge, a population of mind-readers.
Yet they were effectively asked to be several times, and on major issues, by people in power over the last year.
In the process of collecting Voice of the Year ideas, we’re always reminded of the times when political leaders did not use their voice. Times when we would have liked to know where they stood and what they thought.
Though 2016 was an election year – a time specifically designed for politicians to lay bare their positions and priorities – San Diegans got remarkably little candor from the people vying for their votes.
These were some of the most uncomfortable moments of silence that come to mind for me:
Kevin Faulconer on Measure C, Measure A, Proposition 51 and Pre-K for All
For better or worse, the saga of whether to build the Chargers a new stadium dominated San Diego’s civic discussion this year. But when it came to the actual ballot measure that would have decided things had it passed, the mayor was nowhere to be found for months. Scott Lewis described the mayor’s astounding silence just before Faulconer ended up weighing in at the 11th hour:
All this has left Mayor Kevin Faulconer paralyzed. While he’s advocated for other city measures and raised money for a state ballot proposition, he’s been unable or unwilling to share his preference on Measure C, which would have long-term, extraordinary consequences on the city he manages.
When he did embrace Measure C, he did so only a month before the vote. Even then, Faulconer never touted benefits of the project. He just explained why voting for it would help keep the Chargers here — the message was clear, he was comfortable it would not pass but he wanted people to know it was not his fault.
Faulconer was also mostly silent on Measure A, the failed effort to raise the county’s sales tax for transportation and open space projects. The measure was put on the ballot by the San Diego Association of Governments.
Faulconer has a seat on that board but, as KPBS found, skipped 84 percent of the meetings. He declined to negotiate on behalf of the city to make Measure A better or even articulate how it could be better. He did show up to vote against putting the measure on the ballot. As the debate heated up over the fall, he was nonexistent.
What’s even more perplexing than Faulconer’s inability to articulate a position on a major decision was his unwillingness to explain the positions he did take.
First, there was his endorsement of Proposition 51, a statewide school construction bond. Faulconer gave the measure his stamp of approval and the Yes on 51 team sent out a press release touting his support.
But when Ashly McGlone dug into Prop. 51 and discovered there was reason to believe the money would be spent on stadiums, Faulconer was unwilling to discuss the measure:
When I asked the mayor’s office whether Faulconer would support Prop. 51 money being used to build stadiums, his team instead directed me to the Yes on Prop. 51 campaign.
It was a similar story with San Diego Unified’s “Pre-K for All” program.
Faulconer, though he does not oversee city schools or education, showed up at San Diego Unified’s press conference announcing the program.
Faulconer and the city didn’t actually help fund the preschool initiative, called Pre-K for All. Rather, a district spokeswoman said Faulconer simply came to express his support for early education.
“The mayor has been a tireless advocate for economic growth in our city and recognizes that access to Pre-K is an essential issue for many families,” said San Diego Unified spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez.
Faulconer seemed less eager to jump in front of a camera when Mario Koran examined the district’s claims and found that despite the name, Pre-K for All does not, uh, provide preschool for all.
Staking out a position necessarily comes with a risk. But time after time, Faulconer has tried to reap the benefits of taking a side on an issue while avoiding questions about his decision. If you believe in a program or a proposition, you should be able to explain why and assert its value even when potential shortcomings are pointed out – especially when potential shortcomings are pointed out.
Dave Roberts on Measure A
I will say this for outgoing County Supervisor Dave Roberts’ refusal to say whether he supported Measure A: At least he was up front about the cravenness of his silence.
He all but told Maya Srikrishnan that he wouldn’t stake out a position on a huge proposal facing the county because it might cost him votes:
Supervisor Dave Roberts, the incumbent Democrat in the race, has refused to say whether he supports or opposes the measure.
But he’s willing to say the plan is pretty good overall, to challenge opponents to propose something better and to claim one project the plan would pay for in his district is absolutely essential. He just doesn’t want to dive into controversy.
“I think this initiative is a good initiative, but so many people have taken an opposed stance and support stance, so I’ve decided not to take a public position,” Roberts said. “If I don’t feel comfortable taking a pro or con, I won’t.”
Myrtle Cole on Her Priorities
Councilwoman Myrtle Cole managed to win the City Council presidency this month without articulating a single priority or position.
Here’s a portion of the speech she made from the dais just before the vote:
“What I plan to do is work with every single individual on this dais. That’s what I plan to do to move their district forward and to move this city forward. That’s all I wanna do. And I want to move my district forward. I want to continue to make the progress that we’ve been making in my district, and we’re going to do it with everyone. And that’s how you do it – is working with every single individual so that they can also appreciate your issues and your items and help you move their item forward. That’s what we all want to do is move our agenda forward and that’s what I plan to do if elected Council president.”
Though there’s a lot of stuff moving “forward” – it’s not clear what exactly will be on the receiving end of all that propulsion.
Just after she won, KPBS’s Andrew Bowen asked Cole: “What kind of policies are you hoping to pursue as Council president over the next year?”
In her response, she did bring up three issues – but crucially, they’re the three big issues singled out by Faulconer earlier in the day during the city’s swearing-in ceremony, and echoed by citizens and other Council members before the vote. None of them are new issues or priorities coming from Cole herself.
“Well right now I want to make sure that every City Council member has their issues addressed, and that’s what I’m going to do. Every single Council member. And I’m gonna work with them to make sure that it’s homelessness, that it’s affordable housing … environmental issues, we’re going to address everything that my City Council wants to address.”
Certainly collaboration and inclusion are important for any governing body. But for someone just elected to a leadership position, it doesn’t really sound like Cole has any interest in leading.
The SANDAG Board on That Multibillion-Dollar Shortfall
The board of directors for SANDAG, the regional transportation and planning agency, is made up of politicians from different parties and who represent all kinds of different communities. Yet in their duties on the board, they often act in lockstep, their differences falling away.
Indeed, they were a united front in their reaction to the news that SANDAG is on track to collect billions less than it planned from Transnet, a sales tax hike that funds transportation projects. That is, they were united in their silence.
After the shortfall was revealed, the board did not ask for any information or answers from the watchdog group tasked with ensuring taxpayer money is spent efficiently:
The elected officials from around the county on the board didn’t ask a single question about ITOC’s annual review – not on TransNet’s revenue shortfall, or any other topic.
And earlier this month, when SANDAG admitted that the forecast it had used to overestimate how much money Transnet would bring in needed fixing, the board was silent again:
After SANDAG staff presented all this Friday, they asked if any of the board members had any questions. Only San Diego Councilwoman Lorie Zapf chimed in — but then she decided against asking anything, because the meeting was running over time.
The result was that no elected officials said a word about a potential $17.5 billion shortfall and any resulting impact on the communities they represent.
Less money inevitably means fewer projects being built – a reality that will certainly impact people represented by members of the SANDAG board.
That no politician could even feign concern over that fact is shameful.