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Every year, San Diego’s mayor has spoken at the Downtown Partnership’s annual leadership installation dinner. Whoever is the city’s leader stands up and gives a tongue-in-cheek speech filled with jokes about local politics (we’ve been on the butt-end of many of them).

This year, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer delivered what, by all accounts, was his best. I couldn’t get a recording unfortunately.

I did hear about one of his jabs at some other government officials. He invoked President Trump’s allegations about fake news and Trump’s reliance on “alternative facts” and said that we don’t have that problem in San Diego.

Except with SANDAG.

It was a solid punch to the gut of the regional transportation agency’s beleaguered leadership. But it also took some chutzpah.  We’re now in an intense debate about new legislation to overhaul SANDAG governance and oversight. All spurred, of course, by a historic failure of oversight.

Faulconer sits on the board of SANDAG. He’s one of many elected officials on the board but unlike almost all his colleagues, he has a large staff capable of assisting him in overseeing the agency’s direction. Faulconer manages the vast majority of the employees of the city of San Diego, a few of whom might have been able to help him provide oversight of SANDAG, as is his role.

But Faulconer did not ask any questions about SANDAG’s tax forecasts – the ones that now appear to be billions off due to a simple error. He did not ask any questions about why SANDAG’s staff was not more forthcoming about the error or why they misled voters about a new tax increase they hoped to pass. He also did not ask why SANDAG took more than a year to incorporate an $8 billion increase to the costs of its projects, by the agency’s own estimates, concealing the financial trouble facing its existing tax program.

He didn’t ask any questions of SANDAG leadership because he does not go to SANDAG meetings. KPBS last year found he’s missed 84 percent of SANDAG meetings since he became mayor.

It’s cheeky to the extreme to make fun of an organization for its poor oversight when part of your job is to provide that oversight and you don’t attend.

Faulconer opposed SANDAG’s Measure A last year. That was the half-cent sales tax increase the agency put on the ballot to build transit, highways and preserve open space. We now know the taxes would have probably been needed to backfill previous promises made by the organization for the 2004 tax increase.

But Faulconer didn’t know that when he opposed Measure A. He just didn’t like Measure A. It’s not clear what part of it he didn’t like. He had avoided the negotiations leading up to it completely. San Diego’s other representative on SANDAG, former City Councilman Todd Gloria, participated deeply in the negotiations and later took a lot of hits for supporting it.

We got some insight from Faulconer about his views on the measure when he participated in a panel in Sacramento.

The discussion was about how Measure A got a majority of support but did not pass because it needed two-thirds support. The moderator asked Faulconer: Should the state change that threshold?

“It’s about being upfront on where exactly you are going to spend those dollars and what you’re going to do with that,” Faulconer said.

He went on.

“We actually just found out, in San Diego, on that proposed measure, they said it would include about $18 billion in projects and it was just revealed literally this week that oh, oops, that was a mistake. It would have only done about $14 billion. So having the faith and credibility is very important,” he said.

Oops, indeed.

The mayor is now readying two proposals for a special election in 2017. One of them, like Measure A last year, is a tax increase. It would increase the hotel room tax to varying levels across the city. Like Measure A, it will pay for construction of major infrastructure needs – in this case, the Convention Center expansion, the most expensive single construction project the city of San Diego has ever undertaken at $650 million.

And like Measure A, this ballot initiative will need support from two-thirds of voters.

That tax increase, the mayor says, will also fund needed street repair and homeless services.

Faulconer may have said that it’s crucial for tax increases seeking a two-thirds vote to be upfront about where the money is going to go –  but he’s not actually taking his own advice. His measure is not being clear about where he is going to spend those dollars for the homeless, because he wants to have flexibility.

That’s by design.

Faulconer’s tax increase is likely to share the ballot with another measure: SoccerCity, the project to completely remake the land at Qualcomm Stadium into housing, an entertainment district, a large, riverfront park and, of course, a new soccer stadium that SDSU might share.

Perhaps the most controversial part of that measure is how exactly the mayor will ensure that San Diego gets fair market value for that property. The measure puts that job squarely in the mayor’s hands. It is another opportunity for Faulconer to provide oversight for the public.

Both of these ballot decisions – the plan for Mission Valley and the Convention Center expansion — would remake San Diego’s landscape and impact the economy for decades to come.

If approved, they will be the mayor’s legacy. How they turn out regardless will define his career as mayor. The biggest obstacle to both will be, as he said, establishing trust with voters about his ability to oversee major public expenditures and fulfill promises about where money will go.

He had a great opportunity to demonstrate his ability to do that by providing strong oversight of SANDAG.

Instead, he offered only jokes.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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