In the last three months, the San Diego County government opened a shuttered courthouse to asylum-seekers, dipped for a second time into its hefty reserve fund to bankroll affordable housing projects and took steps to move forward with a plan to create or join a government-run energy program.
For a governing body that has for decades been defined by its conservatism – financially, politically and when it comes to its willingness to address the region’s foremost challenges head-on – that’s a major shift.
County supervisors, bureaucrats and longtime insiders say the flurry of activity reflects the new faces on the board, the region’s shifting politics and crises such as a devastating hepatitis A outbreak that exposed county government’s sluggish response to the region’s escalating problems.
Politicos of all political stripes have buzzed about the impact of Democratic Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who campaigned on the need for change.
Yet the calls for a reboot aren’t just coming from Fletcher.
In her State of the County speech earlier this year, board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob laid out a long list of priorities she wants to tackle before she is termed out next year – from reforming the county’s behavioral health system to pursuing the community choice energy program.
It was a call to action from a supervisor who’s been on the board since 1992.
“We owe it to our residents to take on the big challenges and we intend to do that this year,” Jacob said in February. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for San Diego County, and I ask you to join me in the fight.”
When Jacob and other long-sitting board members joined the Board of Supervisors in the 1990s, the county was financially strapped.
The five Republican supervisors responded by setting policies to improve the county’s fiscal health and amassed a large savings account. Then they held on for two decades despite years of pushback from county workers and activists who argued they should invest more in county services and employees.
And they did: In 2018, Fletcher and former San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond replaced two long-sitting supervisors. By 2020, Jacob and fellow Republican Greg Cox will also be termed out, setting the stage for more turnover in county leadership.
Progressives saw Fletcher’s election last November as the first in a series of opportunities to transform county government.
Democrats will have a shot at three other seats, including the North County coastal seat held by Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, next year. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Gaspar’s district and Cox’s South Bay district.
Democrats and labor groups poured cash into Fletcher’s 2018 bid with the hope that he’d push for reform and increased county staffing. He began his campaign during a deadly hepatitis A outbreak the county had been slow to combat and criticized what he described as the county’s failure to lead on the region’s homelessness crisis, climate change and escalating mental health needs.
As the campaign played out, sitting supervisors defended their records and their responses to those challenges.
Fletcher won decisively, pulling in more than two-thirds of the vote in his district that spans much of the city of San Diego.
Fletcher and Desmond, a Republican, both came into office promising to challenge the status quo.
“I believe we are here to push boundaries and I believe we are here to challenge the status quo,” Desmond said during his swearing-in speech.
Change has come more quickly than many expected.
Fletcher, a former state assemblyman who often cut deals at the state Capitol, has taken the same approach at the county. He’s zeroed in on areas where he aligns with fellow supervisors and collaborated with them to get initiatives on the board’s agenda.
First, Fletcher teamed with Cox on an effort to direct county officials to seek out properties that could temporarily house asylum-seekers. Later that month, the board voted to allow nonprofits to shelter migrant families in a former family courthouse.
A couple weeks later, at Jacob’s urging, the board voted to sue the Trump administration over its decision to end its so-called “safe-release” program for asylum-seekers – just a year after backing the Trump administration’s lawsuit that challenged California’s sanctuary laws.
In late February, Fletcher partnered with Jacob to push the community choice energy option she has long championed. Jacob had tried and failed to move it forward before.
“When I brought this up two years ago – just to do a study on it – I didn’t even get a second to my motion,” Jacob said this week.
This time, the proposal got unanimous support from supervisors.
Then, in March, Fletcher and Desmond successfully proposed an evening budget hearing that the board had rejected just a year earlier. At the time, then-Supervisor Bill Horn, who Desmond replaced this year, had said he didn’t “want to sit here at night.”
Desmond has called the evening hearing “a no-brainer.”
Later that month, Fletcher’s push to turn a dilapidated seven-acre site in Hillcrest into a regional behavioral health center won praise from board colleagues who said they’d like to explore the concept elsewhere in the county. Taken aback, Fletcher thanked his colleagues for “pushing us to go even further.”
Even some of the Democrats and labor groups who rallied behind Fletcher say they underestimated his ability to get things done as the sole Democrat on the board.
“(Fletcher) has certainly surpassed our expectations in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish so far and he’s leading with values, but he also is taking on the opposition’s arguments in a way that is prevailing and getting some results that were unexpected,” said Dave Lagstein, political director of the county’s largest labor union.
Other county insiders and influencers say the timing of Fletcher’s arrival has eased his path.
Former Alzheimer’s San Diego CEO Mary Ball, who once served as Jacob’s chief of staff, said Jacob heard from constituents about the region’s skyrocketing housing costs, inadequate mental health system and growing power bills. Her appointment as board chair bolstered her ability to respond.
“She’s trying to set a new tone at the county, and the focus should be how are we serving people and improving the county of San Diego versus creating a savings account,” Ball said.
Indeed, Jacob for years hailed the county’s triple-A credit rating and the large $2 billion reserve fund that helped bolster it. Now she says she remains proud of the county’s fiscal approach but realizes residents have grown tired of hearing about the credit rating.
“They don’t need to hear it anymore,” Jacob told Voice of San Diego.
Jacob said she recognized the new blood on the board presented an opportunity to tackle challenges that have escalated in recent years. The 26-year supervisor acknowledged the county has made mistakes and now has a chance to reassess.
“Moving forward into the future, my intent was to set the table so to speak, and create a new environment, and also send a message to our administration that we need to look for ways to do better,” Jacob said. “Just doing business as usual is not good enough. It’s time to re-evaluate and take a look at how we do business.”
Pam O’Neil, Cox’s former chief of staff, said the board’s new sense of urgency reflects a confluence of events.
The fallout from a deadly hepatitis A outbreak and the county’s sluggish response to it, in particular, set off alarm bells at a crucial moment for the changing county.
O’Neil said county officials have also recognized their large reserve account and new funding streams for behavioral health services and homelessness gave them resources to work with.
“The zeitgeist changed along with their increased resources,” O’Neil said. “The public spoke, (Fletcher) came in with his dynamic new energy and his bold timeline for change, and they all rose to the occasion.”
Term limits have also put more pressure on both new and long-sitting supervisors. There’s not as much time to get things done.
“I’m sitting in a situation where I’ve got 20 months left in office,” Cox said. “My staff will tell you I’ve got a longer and longer list of things to get done in a shorter and shorter period of time.”
For county bureaucrats, the more rapid pace has meant longer hours and less certainty that long-standing county practices will stand.
Helen Robbins-Meyer, who has served as the county’s chief administrative officer since 2012, said many county staffers are energized by the shift.
“The pace is significant but it’s nothing that isn’t doable because everyone is so excited about it,” Robbins-Meyer said. “Are they working harder? Absolutely. Are they working smarter? They have to.”
To accommodate the board’s changing priorities, Robbins-Meyer said she recently laid out a reorganization plan that includes reassigning Community Services General Manager April Heinze to focus on analyzing county surplus properties that could be redeveloped and coordinating community choice energy initiatives.
Robbins-Meyer has also brought on former Board of Supervisors candidate Omar Passons and community leader Elizabeth Bustos to join the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, hires she said reflected her desire to increase the county’s community outreach.
Passons, who is now focused on marrying the county’s homelessness efforts with its other programs, said he has spent lots of time in Clairemont where a county-proposed affordable housing project received an avalanche of pushback. Passons and other county staffers have knocked on doors and had multiple meetings with residents, including a bus tour to visit other housing projects.
Passons, who campaigned on the need for the county to do more to address homelessness, said there’s still much work to be done but that he’s been surprised by the lack of barriers he’s faced trying to ramp up the county’s response to the cause.
“I’m grateful. It’s a pleasant surprise,” said Passons, who is in the process of hiring five staffers to work on homeless initiatives in his department alone.
The new energy has also spurred Robbins-Meyer to take a different approach with this year’s budget, which is set to be released Monday.
County supervisors have historically given the county’s annual budget little scrutiny.
This year, Robbins-Meyer said she asked county staffers to ensure the county has extra cash in multiple areas of the budget so they can respond to feedback from supervisors before the final version is approved this summer.
That’s not something the county’s done before.
Desmond and Fletcher have also taken steps to show they are interested in getting residents’ input on the budget and other community priorities.
Earlier this month, Fletcher hosted a City Heights forum on the county’s budget that was attended by dozens of county staffers. Desmond also persuaded his fellow board members to create new committees in Fallbrook, Valley Center and Borrego Springs to foster discussions about county services in those areas. Desmond also recently launched a podcast.
Kyra Greene of the left-leaning Center on Policy Initiatives, part of a union-affiliated coalition that has pushed for change in county government, said changes to the budget process and increased outreach also reflect an increasing public interest in county operations.
Greene said county supervisors once refused to meet with members of the Invest in San Diego Families coalition, a group of progressive activist groups and union members who have organized to rally for reforms.
She said multiple county officials also once expressed skepticism that night budget hearings would draw much attendance.
“There was a belief that this would not be appealing to folks, not a great use of people’s time,” Greene said.
County residents disproved those predictions in 2017 when they packed the board hearing room and multiple overflow rooms for an evening budget hearing.
Still, Greene and other progressives said, not everything at the county has changed.
They noted county supervisors’ votes this week to oppose the regional transportation agency SANDAG’s new plan to prioritize funding transit projects over freeway projects, and another to oppose state legislation that would change standards for when police can legally use deadly force.
Both reflect the Republican board majority’s perspectives.
Those positions could change in the next election cycle. Fletcher, now the board’s sole Democrat, could lead a progressive majority come 2020.
For now, Fletcher said he expects to take a stand against his colleagues on occasion, as he did earlier this week. But he is also focused on what he can get done with them.
“I’m gonna push for the values that I hold and the positions that I hold,” Fletcher said. “I also understand that you have to build a coalition that is large enough to give you a fighting chance.”
For now, he’s got four Republicans to work with.
Yet Jacob said that she’s an eager partner.
“We can do more as a county,” Jacob said.
Clarification: This post has been updated to more accurately reflect Passon’s comments.