Last Wednesday, after hearing yet another call for the county to do more to address homelessness, County Supervisor Ron Roberts decided he’d had enough.
“Can I respond to that? I’m just about ready to jump out of my seat cause that is pure baloney,” Roberts said at a board meeting.
The latest critic was John Brady of the Voices of Our City Choir, a group of homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans. Brady once lived on the street himself. Now he was standing before Roberts and other supervisors to comment on a county report on improving housing affordability.
When Brady mentioned the county’s response to homelessness, it hit Roberts’ last nerve.
Critical feedback from residents is not unusual at supervisors meetings — but Roberts’ reaction was. He repeatedly waved his index finger at Brady and raised his voice when Brady cut in or tried to apologize. Finally, after Roberts lectured Brady for more than a minute, board Chair Kristin Gaspar felt compelled to step in – she urged Roberts to allow Brady to sit down.
Roberts’ blowup likely wasn’t just about Brady. In the hours before the meeting, Mayor Kevin Faulconer had urged the county to redouble its mental-health efforts. And for months, political candidates and Democrats have more harshly denounced the county’s response to mental-health and homelessness.
After the meeting, Roberts had another pointed response to Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who had noted the county’s unspent mental health money in an exchange on Twitter.
Roberts’ reaction explains the politics surrounding the heated battle to replace him. Roberts has represented the district that covers much of the city of San Diego for nearly 25 years.
Here’s the video:
Here’s a transcript of the heated Brady exchange:
Brady: “I encourage you to take on more responsibility for our current homeless population. To date, the majority of responsibility for sheltering our homeless has been delegated to the city of San Diego and the surrounding cities. You are the keeper of the largest budget in the region. I suggest you should be focusing even more resources in the area of temporary housing and leading innovations such as safe camps and safe parks on county-controlled land throughout the region until the housing crisis has been addressed. It is unfair to shoulder the responsibility so heavily on the city of San Diego and its Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Thank you for your time.” (Brady starts to walk away.)
Roberts: “Can I respond to that? I’m just about ready to jump out of my seat cause that is pure baloney. This board has, first of all, we are spending not tens of millions, over $100 million on this issue. We have set aside 11 properties now, all of which we’re getting push back on….that they don’t want ‘em in the city of San Diego, OK? We’re taking that burden. We didn’t ask for any help. We’ve increased our homeless PERT teams that are out there, our emergency response teams, Psychological Emergency Response…”
Brady: “And I appreciate that, I’m not … ”
Roberts: “But listen to me … ”
Brady: “I’m sorry … ”
Roberts: “Cause you made a statement that’s just … I’m listening to the tweets that are coming out of some of the mayors that have no idea what this board is doing. I’m tired of hearing it. OK? We’re doing these things. We have across the board made significant investments. We have Project One for All. Do you know what Project One for All is?”
Brady: “Yes, I do. I’m very aware of it … ”
Roberts: “Do you know the success of Project One for All?”
Brady: “I am aware of some … ”
Roberts: “Do you know how much money the city has in that?”
Brady: “I do not know but I do know the city does not have any significant budget availability either.”
Roberts: “OK … Well, they don’t have a budget because of the way they spend their money, OK?”
Brady: “And I did not come here to, to criticize your efforts and I apologize … ”
Roberts: “No, but you did … you did … ”
Brady: “I apologize … ”
Chair Kristin Gaspar: “Supervisor, supervisor … ”
Roberts: “And I just, I can’t … Can I just make a … I can’t … ”
Gaspar (to Brady): “Sir, it probably would be more productive, if he makes a statement, if you have a seat. Thank you so much. We appreciate your comments.”
Brady: “I apologize.” (Brady leaves the podium.)
Gaspar: “You can continue to make those comments, supervisor, but let’s let him have a seat first.”
Roberts: “I’m tired of hearing the tweets and the idiocy that’s coming out of certain quarters, from government officials that ought to know better.”
To understand Roberts’ reaction, you have to understand the avalanche of criticism the county’s taken the past couple years.
Democrats like Nathan Fletcher, who hopes to replace Roberts on the Board of Supervisors, are essentially running against the county. They are calling for massive overhaul to the county’s long-held approach and essentially, a referendum on policies set by Republicans who have led the county for decades.
“We have a county that hasn’t gotten it done,” Fletcher said at an East Village debate I moderated last week. “There’s been virtually no turnover there for the past two to three decades, and it’s created a culture and a mindset that isn’t holding itself accountable, that isn’t investing the resources, it isn’t driving solutions, it isn’t demanding action and it isn’t taking care of our neighborhoods.”
Democrats, labor leaders and advocates have for years criticized the county for building up its reserve accounts and for not spending enough on social services, particularly efforts to combat homelessness. The homelessness and hepatitis A crises that hit the county the past couple years only fueled more intense criticism.
County officials like Roberts have said they are doing more than ever to try to address those concerns. The county’s mental health budget jumped nearly a quarter this year. Supervisors have also unveiled new programs to aid homeless San Diegans, including the effort Roberts mentioned in his outburst, Project One for All, an effort to house 1,250 homeless San Diegans with serious mental illnesses, though the ambitious initiative has hit some snags along the way.
“I think that (Roberts’) response reflected the frustration of all the focus that he’s put on [homelessness], all the money the county has put in, the true dedication of these staff people who are thinking about this 24/7 and who are out there on the streets,” said Tim McClain, a spokesman for Roberts.
The recent criticism hasn’t just come from Democrats. Republicans like Faulconer and former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who hopes to beat Fletcher in November, are trying to thread a needle: They don’t think they can directly criticize a county long led by their own party. But they also seem to have concluded that the county must change.
Faulconer, in a string of tweets last week, said “the County MUST take a different approach with mental health” – after praising the county for budgeting hundreds of millions of dollars for mental-health.
And at VOSD’s Politifest earlier this month, the mayor recently said he’d like to see the county help deliver more mental health beds, housing and services.
He joked that the supervisors are “fine” when asked whether Republicans were to blame for not delivering ample mental-health services.
Dumanis has been a little bolder on the campaign trail. She has said reforms are needed and wants to pull $100 million from the county’s ample reserve account each of the next four years to provide loans for low- and middle-income housing projects.
“I want to be the change agent because I’ve been a change agent,” Dumanis said at the debate last week.
But when I asked Dumanis to grade the county’s response to homelessness, she refused.
She’s gone out of her way to avoid directly criticizing county leaders for months.
She told me in May that she thinks she has the knowledge and relationships to successfully push for changes.
“I’ve dealt with the county budgeting over the last 15 years, so I know how to talk to them about it and how to do these programs that some of them had never heard before. I think I can talk to them,” Dumanis said in May. “It’s an old-fashioned idea, but … talking to people in person is really the best approach. They trust me. I think they trust me and they listen to me and we have mutual respect.”