Clockwise from top left: Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, Terra Lawson-Remer, Nora Vargas and state Sen. Ben Hueso / Photos by Megan Wood, Adriana Heldiz and Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego Democrats have been waiting a long time to take control of the County Board of Supervisors and its roughly $6.4 billion budget. They may finally get their chance this November, depending on how the District 3 race shakes out.

If Republican Supervisor Kristin Gaspar loses her re-election bid and Terra Lawson-Remer wins, Democrats will attain a 3-2 majority on a board that for at least the last generation has been governed by group whose guiding ethos is fiscal conservatism. Both the faces and the ideology remained mostly the same.

Of course, not all Democrats prioritize the same things or even think the same way. But there are plenty of similarities in their platforms that span the South Bay-North County divide.

Generally, they’ve campaigned on a message that county officials are reactive and take their cues from the top bureaucrats rather than the other way around. As an oversight body, they contend, the Board of Supervisors runs on autopilot, and in recent days they’ve offered their visions of what a more progressive county would look like.

“There’d be a big shift toward prioritizing and investing in improving San Diego communities as an active goal of the Board of Supervisors as opposed to the orientation now, which is to just keep as low a profile as possible and try to get out of the way,” Lawson-Remer said.

So what do they intend to prioritize and invest in?

For Starters, Spend More to Grow More

To be clear, this isn’t just a thing Democrats have expressed an interest in. During the 2018 election, there was bipartisan support for spending more money, with Democrats and Republicans pledging to dip into the county’s massive savings account.

In the face of public pressure, officials have only in the last couple years begun chipping away at what they spent decades amassing.

In 2017, for instance, a pair of Republican supervisors announced proposals to redirect $25 million for the creation of an investment pool that would encourage more affordable housing — what then-Supervisor Ron Roberts hailed as a “bold initiative.” Previously, Roberts had suggested the county deploy up to $150 million in reserve funds as a loan to help bankroll a new Chargers stadium.

As Roberts was preparing to step down because of term limits, the candidates vying for his seat made a variety of promises to spend more money on housing and homelessness. On the campaign trail, Fletcher cited much-needed investments in county health staffing, drug treatment and water and air quality monitoring. The county had been slow to respond to a deadly Hepatitis A outbreak.

The following year, with Fletcher on the board, the county dipped a second time into its hefty reserve fund to help bankroll affordable housing projects.

At a Politifest panel last week about the future of the county, Fletcher and Southwestern Community College Trustee Nora Vargas, who’s running for the District 1 seat, argued that the government exists to provide assistance to the people — its job, in other words, is to find the finances for services while continuing to live within its means.

“No one’s going to bankrupt the county,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to make wise fiscal decisions.”

The county began building up its reserves in the 1990s after supervisors, including Roberts, arrived to find little money in the savings account and a slew of problems that needed addressing. They built up the reserve account over the years with an eye toward tackling those challenges and shielding the county from emergencies like the one we’re experiencing now.

The county got $334 million from the federal CARES Act, but it could only be used on public health-related expenses. The reserves, county CEO Helen Robbins-Meyer told the board in April, helped shore up the costs of responding to the pandemic on things like staffing, temporary housing, personal protective equipment and handwashing stations.

Spending more of those reserves can’t happen overnight.

At the end of fiscal year 2019, the county had $2.4 billion in its reserve account, including $712 million that county officials consider their safety net account. The county’s latest financial report also showed more than a third of the $2.4 billion — about $1 billion — was considered committed or assigned based on restrictions and pledges imposed by the county itself. In other words, that money is already spoken for.

The next Board of Supervisors could push to change these policies, thus freeing up more of the county’s cash in the future.

The pandemic has already forced the county to dig more into the portion of its reserve fund that it considers its safety net. After approving its latest budget in August, the county announced that it intends to pull a couple hundred million dollars from the rainy-day account over the next couple fiscal years.

“Historically the county has viewed its role as a bank or hedge fund, and they tout their success based on the size of their reserves and not the size of the positive impact on the community,” Fletcher said.

In the process of making more investments in public health, behavioral health, drug treatment and more, Democrats are promising that the county won’t just dole out money to nonprofits and passively sit back. Instead, they argue, the county now more than ever should be driving the region’s agenda because the region’s biggest challenges, like homelessness, extend across individual cities.

Lawson-Remer, an economist by training, said she’ll prioritize the most vulnerable when weighing any new investments and look for multiplier effects, ways in which a dollar can be worth three or four by extension.

“If done right, that has a ripple effect on improving our economy as a whole — you’re keeping people housed, making sure they get back to work,” she said.

It is a vision of an economy that relies less on the whims of tourism.

When Democrats talk about a political, cultural and economic shift in thinking, they’re also referring to the county’s relationship with the state and federal government. When it comes to California, they’re offering to partner rather than sue (or threaten to sue), and say that’s more likely to happen at the federal level, too, under a Biden rather than a Trump administration.

Take Environmental Justice Seriously

The county has had a love-hate relationship with its climate action plans. Last month, officials noted that they’d met 98 percent of their 2020 greenhouse gas-reduction goal. But then they turned around and voted unanimously to rescind the entire thing — as a matter of legal necessity.

Democrats agreed with that decision, but argued the county didn’t need to be in this costly situation.

One of the major problems with the plan, a court confirmed, was that it allowed developers to offset the carbon-emissions caused by their projects through the purchase of carbon offsets in international markets, which have little oversight or accountability. Climate advocates warned against this years ago. But the county didn’t listen. And so instead it wound up spending money to salvage the plan in court.

Fletcher said the cheaper thing to do, from the beginning, would have been to write a plan consistent with state law, and both he and Republican Supervisor Dianne Jacob argued against ongoing court battles. The hostility toward environmentalists, he said, speaks to a larger need for ideological diversity on the board and to rethink land use issues in general.

“You get elected to govern and to make your own judgment, not to rubberstamp an internal recommendation that comes forward,” he said. “When you have a whole group of supervisors who think, ‘Well, the Sierra Club is awful,’ when the Sierra Club is telling you, ‘Hey, you’ve got a real problem here,’ maybe you need a few who are going to listen to ‘em and analyze that and push back a little.”

Lawson-Remer said the next Climate Action Plan shouldn’t just be legally enforceable but set a higher standard. She advocated for the creation of a carbon mitigation bank.

“Instead of planting three trees under an overpass, you pay into the bank and then we’ll have the resources to do the things that are much more hard-hitting and can scale,” she said.

She gave a few examples: fund open space preservation, fund the weatherizing and retrofitting of homes and small businesses with solar panels, charge but pay employees for their parking spaces as a non-punitive way of getting more of the workforce out of its cars.

Last week, Fletcher and Vargas also pointed to developments in the backcountry that are at risk of wildfires as an urgent priority. The Board of Supervisors has given some projects over the years special permission not to comply with the board’s own general plan, a blueprint of where long-term housing is zoned.

Given the state’s housing crisis, developers have sold these new projects as essential, arguing in some cases that the homes will help rather than hurt semi-rural areas. When the board approved one project in 2018, the question wasn’t whether the hundreds of new homes would be threatened by wildfire, but whether the first responders would be able to evacuate people before they burned to death.

Insurance companies have been denying coverage or raising prices in some areas.

Fletcher said there are certainly housing opportunities in unincorporated areas, but he criticized the process by which developers buy land for cheap in the areas where the public has already decided it shouldn’t go — then get permission to build homes there anyway.

Lawson-Remer said backcountry development is not only a cause of traffic and destructive to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, but is a fiscally irresponsible thing to do, because the homes are effectively subsidized by taxpayers through a variety of hidden costs.

“We have to pay for more fire services and roads and all the things that make it possible to defend those spaces from wildfire risk,” she said. “It’s a massive wealth transfer from taxpayers to developers.”

Vargas also argued that continuing to build outside of cities worsens air quality.

“We have no business building in areas that are fire zones,” she said.

More on that point … local Democrats have also begun elevating the Air Pollution Control District as part of a longer-term environmental strategy. Last year, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who’s running for San Diego mayor, passed a bill in the state Legislature that changed and expanded the makeup of the district’s leadership to include members of the public. Historically, its oversight body has been the Board of Supervisors.

Activists have long argued that the district needs to get tougher on polluters, pointing, for instance, to risk assessments for shipyards that haven’t been updated in years. The county consistently misses federal air quality standards on harmful ground-level ozone, frequently tied to tailpipe emissions.

A state audit released this summer chastised the district for doing little to curb emissions from mobile sources like cars. It concluded that the district isn’t charging polluters enough to cover the cost of the program that regulates them.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors reassigned two Air Pollution Control District employees to develop a plan to reduce emissions and community exposure around the basis of environmental justice — the concept that environmental benefits and burdens should be distributed equally. The lowest-income areas tend to experience the worst air quality.

Vargas agreed with that decision and said the county ought to take a page from National City, which has included health and environmental justice as part of its general plan.

“The [environmental justice] piece of the Climate Action Plan is necessary,” she said. “I want to make sure that it’s part of it.”

Take the South Bay Seriously

Both Democratic candidates for District 1 — Vargas and state Sen. Ben Hueso — have said the county must ensure an equitable recovery for the region most affected by the coronavirus. People living in South Bay, particularly Latinos, have seen higher infection rates and face some of the highest unemployment rates in the county.

Vargas and Hueso agree that the inequities are deeply rooted in our society, but said the county waited too long to reach out to Latino communities with more information about the seriousness of the virus and how it spread.

Hueso told us this summer that, going forward, the county needs more staff for this outreach and suggested officials take advantage of Spanish-language media outlets and nonprofits to create education and awareness campaigns.

Vargas, meanwhile, has argued that the county needs to stop leaving money on the table, pointing to CalFresh and CalWorks, federal programs that saw a drop in enrollment earlier this year. She also said the county should provide more cash assistance for families to spend on things like food.

Vargas has also highlighted the physical distance of the County Administrative Building, which is located at Waterfront Park in downtown San Diego, as another challenge for South Bay residents that limits their access to government. She said the county needs to find ways to meet the people where they are and has offered to hold community office hours.

Fletcher said shifting from a mindset of reserves to services will also mean prioritizing documents in the primary languages of residents. That would benefit not just residents of the South Bay.

“We don’t care what language you speak when you pay your taxes. We’ll take your money. It’s only when it comes to your ability to access that same government you paid that we put up these barriers,” he said.

Pressure the Sheriff

In the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, some cities have begun taking a harder look at what the sheriff charges them for their law enforcement needs. Imperial Beach, for instance, is considering alternative policing models, but the city doesn’t have a great deal of leverage.

The Board of Supervisors does. Sheriff Bill Gore is elected, so he maintains a lot of independence while running the department, but county officials sign off on the budget every year.

Gore’s department has racked up millions of dollars in legal claims and settlements stemming from wrongful death and medical negligence allegations. Several months ago, he proposed outsourcing more or even all of the county’s inmate health care services, a move that could result in job losses in jails.

Immigrants at the Otay Mesa Detention Center recently told the Union-Tribune that the quality of their care was made worse when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement stopped providing it directly and switched to a private contractor.

The union representing the nurses, social workers and others predicted that the quality of care at county jails would get worse if the work was put out to competitive bid. One major provider of jail health care nationally has acknowledged in a financial disclosure to investors that reduced sentences, decriminalization and fewer arrests are among its business risks. Private companies have different financial incentives.

“Historically, when you look at other jurisdictions,” Lawson-Remer said, “a lot of problems often result from outsourcing contracts because the best way to make a profit is to cut costs, not increase costs, when you’re doing social service programs.”

Fletcher has tried to prevent Gore from privatizing more of those services by joining with activists and labor leaders in a public show of opposition. Gore, in response, reminded the Board of Supervisors that they have “no direct authority” over jails. He cited the county’s financial strain because of COVID-19 and noted that almost a quarter of the inmate medical and mental health care costs are already contracted out.

Fletcher said the county needs to reconsider the role of its own employees and its habit of contracting out work in search of cheaper, faster service. The sheriff is right about his authority, but “the frustrating thing is the county government bears the responsibility for the failures of that system,” he said.

Ideally, Lawson-Remer said, mental health services in jails should fall within the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. “There are some things the sheriff will never do better and shouldn’t be in his responsibility,” she said.

This summer, the county created a mobile crisis response unit so that clinicians can respond to nonviolent behavioral health incidents rather than law enforcement. That effort should be scaled up, Lawson-Remer said. She pointed to Eugene, Ore., where social workers have a larger role to play in emergency response.

Make Peace With the Devil’s Weed

Fletcher introduced a proposal in August to allow recreational cannabis products to be sold in commercial and industrial unincorporated areas, but he couldn’t get another supervisor  to second his motion. It was a real buzzkill.

Pot’s not only legal in California. It’s essential. Yet the county still prohibits the sale of cannabis, meaning deputies are constantly engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with illegal shops. There are a handful of legal medical dispensaries in unincorporated areas, but the board ordered them to shut down by 2022 — one of several anti-cannabis efforts it’s taken in recent years. In 2008, the board petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state’s medical marijuana law.

In a statement after his proposal failed, Fletcher said his colleagues had opened the flood gates to “more criminal activity and substantial losses in tax revenue to our county.” In an interview, he said the fact he couldn’t get another supervisor to support a safe and regulated cannabis system in 2020 was “mind-boggling.”

He plans to reintroduce the proposal after the next board is seated.

Hueso was noncommittal. He said he would evaluate the proposal on its merits when it came up. His campaign said he was unavailable for an interview.

Vargas supports the plan so long, she said, as the county also offers an education program to combat the misinformation around cannabis and Fletcher’s proposal maintains a social justice component, meaning it prioritizes permits for the people who’ve been harmed by the war on drugs.

“We need to make sure the money is being reinvested in our communities to generate economic prosperity,” she said.

Lawson-Remer is also supportive of a safe and regulated system of commercial cannabis, she said, both as a means of consumer protection and a way to grow the tax base, diverting funds to programs that don’t have a negative effect on local communities.

“There’s no question it’s been a terrible use of public safety resources,” she said.

Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this report.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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