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Fact Check: The Squeaky Wheel Approach to Pothole Repairs

Lorie Zapf’s District 6 had 6,750 pothole repairs in 2013, about 18 percent of the citywide total, and the most of any district.


True
Statement:
“I had more pothole repairs in my district last year than any other because we report them for you,” Lorie Zapf, a San Diego City Councilwoman, said at a May 1 candidate forum.

Determination: True

Analysis: Potholes are a scourge on San Diego’s continually deteriorating roads, and city leaders talk all the time about how they’re trying to fix them.

City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf made a bold claim about pothole repairs in the neighborhoods she represents at a recent candidate forum.

“I had more pothole repairs in my district last year than any other because we report them for you,” Zapf said.

Zapf currently represents District 6, which includes much of Clairemont and surrounding neighborhoods. But because of redistricting, Zapf is running for election this year in District 2, which includes Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and other coastal neighborhoods.

To verify Zapf’s statement, we checked pothole repairs in District 6 compared with the rest of the city.

Zapf’s right. District 6 had 6,750 pothole repairs in 2013, about 18 percent of the citywide total, and the most of any district. Here’s how that breaks down:

Based on this information, Zapf’s claim that her district had the most pothole repairs of any last year is true.

The second part of her statement – that her district had more pothole repairs because her staff reports them – provides a window into the city’s changing system for fixing potholes. The city used to rely on complaints to make pothole repairs, and Zapf’s statement reflects that. Starting around the beginning of this year, the system changed. If the city’s new approach works, complaints will have a lot less to do with where potholes are repaired.

Let’s take a closer look at the data. The district with the fewest potholes filled last year was District 9, which includes City Heights. City Heights is an old neighborhood, which means it likely had a good share of potholes to fix. Yet, District 6 had six times more pothole repairs than District 9 last year. The key factor here is the likely difference between the number of actual potholes and the number of pothole complaints.

For whatever reason, there were likely a lot fewer pothole complaints in City Heights than Clairemont. Clairemont was probably a squeakier wheel, and it got the city’s grease.

Repairing potholes based on complaints struck city auditors as inefficient and unfair. In a report issued last year, auditors determined that fixing potholes proactively by neighborhood would save time and money, patch more potholes and ensure that communities across the city were treated more equitably.

The city still uses complaints to determine where potholes need to be fixed. But pothole repair crews now also drive to different neighborhoods in the city and fix the ones they see, too. The city publicizes where the pothole repair crews will be every day.

Assuming the city’s new system worked, this year’s data should show fewer disparities among Council districts.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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