Complaints about the San Diego Association of Governments are common, not surprising for a large government agency composed of other government agencies. Accusations of being too aggressive or too timid are standard, and proposals for restructuring are to be expected.
The latest proposal to reform the region’s transportation agency is, however, a truly insidious one and would surely have the most sweeping effects on the people who live in our region. Written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, Assembly Bill 805 has a few measures designed to address and reform some agreed upon problems. The main effect of the bill, however, is to change the voting rules in a way that would choose just two of the 19 local municipalities to rule over the others and to take away representation of the majority of San Diegans, setting up a classic situation of taxation without representation.
Last week Gonzalez Fletcher defended her bill in its first subcommittee hearing, and on Monday the bill passed the Assembly Transportation Committee, though not without controversy and along party lines. Gonzalez Fletcher made the case that the changes proposed would be to champion the rights of people of color and historically disadvantaged communities. To do this, she was joined by a labor union representative and a person identifying herself as a “social justice warrior.” Speaking to the committee, Gonzalez-Fletcher quickly moved to the real reason for AB 805: to change the voting structure in a way that gives all the power to the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista.
Let me explain the way the voting is done now at SANDAG. Each of the 19 government agencies has two types of votes: the first is the tally vote that gives each agency one equal vote, and the next is a weighted, or proportional vote, based on population. For a measure to win before the SANDAG board, it must be passed by both the weighted and the tally vote; like in the U.S. Legislature.
The new proposal would give power to the two largest cities in SANDAG, San Diego and Chula Vista, and those two cities alone override the tally vote at any time and impose the will of the weighted vote.
Simply, this means that any time San Diego and Chula Vista feel something would be in their best interests, they can override the tally vote, imposing their will on the rest of SANDAG. This would essentially cut out the remainder of the cities, leaving them with no way to stop it. This disenfranchises most of the citizens of the county, leaving them in a position where they would pay taxes but have no meaningful representation when it comes to transportation issues.
The proposal would also mandate that the position of chair alternate between San Diego and Chula Vista. This is problematic in that SANDAG issues are very complicated, and it is often the case that the most qualified person for the job of chairperson might be a board member from another city who has worked his or her way through the various committees, giving them a broader knowledge base. When Bob Filner was the mayor of San Diego, for example, he hated SANDAG and his presence alone was hugely disruptive. Imagine if it were mandated that he were the chairperson.
As the mayor of El Cajon, I know that we also have a large Latino population and many people living in poverty. We also have what is perhaps the largest per capita immigrant population in the county. Do these people of color and these immigrants not need representation? Do the poor of East County not count, while the poor of San Diego do? Are El Cajon Latinos less deserving of a political voice than Chula Vista Latinos? Are the people I represent, at least many of them, not historically disadvantaged? These exactly the groups of people who need to be protected. They of course have a great deal at stake when it comes to public transportation issues. To disenfranchise them – to give them no vote and no representation – is to victimize the very people you say that you want to help. El Cajon is not alone. Also disenfranchised would be La Mesa, Poway, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Escondido, San Marcos, Vista, National City, Santee, Oceanside, Coronado, Imperial Beach, Encinitas, Lemon Grove and San Diego County.
The result of these changes to the voting structure is designed primarily to make it easier to raise taxes. There is much disagreement on how to spend our transportation dollars. Many of the cities benefit very little from the current emphasis on mass transit, bike lanes and mitigation land. Taking away their votes silences opposition. Like the U.S., San Diego County is also divided into partisan regions. Giving an override button to San Diego and Chula Vista ensures left-leaning policy and transportation choices that benefit just one area.
The costs to the people would be dramatic, but perhaps the most devastating to minority communities and those living in poverty. I know that this concerns the board of directors at SANDAG, and I hope that AB 805 will be killed in committee or at least significantly amended so that it will be fair to everyone.
Bill Wells is the mayor of El Cajon.