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Politics Report: The Fragile City

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Compared with San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten’s recent State of the District speech, Mayor Todd Gloria’s first State of the City speech [1] (at least his first as the actual mayor) was a master class in how you can be vulnerable about how bad things are without looking weak and without deflating the people you need to rally.

Gloria listed the city’s problems plainly and declared the state of the city as “fragile.” That’s a very interesting word to choose, and I’m sure they spent a lot of time on it. They probably didn’t want to go with “bad” or “a mess” but they also didn’t want to paper over the fact that it is a mess.

Fragile, though, means it can be broken easily.

What would break the city? An earthquake? A riot? What would a break actually look like? Would some kind of void open up down Broadway, with cars and Sushi Deli plummeting in?

Gloria’s probably thinking about money.

It’s a weird world where the state and the school districts are going to have so much more money, maybe, than they ever have. But the city? The city will most definitely not. Republican insistence that none of the new federal stimulus go to help cities in crisis is going to end up putting pressure on cities to defund the police. City leaders here asked the police and fire departments to start by looking for at least 2 percent in cuts.

“The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing city budget problems the last administration did too little to address,” Gloria said during the speech.

He put the number around $150 million. On its own, $150 million represents more than 1,000 jobs. The city is most definitely not going to lay off 1,000 people. But there aren’t a whole lot of easy options, either.

Our Lisa Halverstadt reported this week that Jay Goldstone, the city’s COO, spoke to a group last week and told them he thinks it could get rough [2].

“My understanding is in the last couple of years there’s been over 100 and some positions eliminated out of budget – most of them internal – so some of the low-hanging fruit’s probably not there,” Goldstone said.

Why that’s interesting: The city always uses one-time revenue and this practice of eliminating vacant positions to shore up bad budgets. I remember year after year of trying to understand the difference between a layoff and the elimination of an unfilled position or of a filled position but the person doesn’t lose their job.

But Goldstone is saying here that former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the previous City Council already harvested that low-hanging fruit.

The capacity city leaders have shown to find ways around these kinds of situations is always impressive but to some extent, there are going to have to be real, painful cuts.

Council members seem unaware: Only one member of the City Council responded to Gloria’s speech with concern about the budget. Councilman Chris Cate, who heads the Council’s budget committee, wrote this [3]: “I appreciate the Mayor’s somber tone regarding the state of our city’s finances. We were elected to make difficult, and at times, unpopular decisions while always being transparent with our residents. We are going to be facing significant budget challenges, and it is incumbent upon us to prioritize core city services that have the most direct impact on the quality of life of our residents.”

Every year, each City Council member turns in their list of budget priorities. You can read through the independent budget analyst’s summary of them [4] if you need something to distract yourself from the low-frequency trauma of national politics constantly, slowly scarring your brain.

But here are some highlights.

Seven Council members want employee pay raises: “Cost of Living Adjustments were mentioned by most of these Councilmembers, two of whom proposed 3.05% for all City employees.”

All nine want to invest more in streets.

Eight want to protect and enhance funding to address climate change: They don’t want to see any cuts to the implementation of the climate action plan. Seven want to create a climate equity fund.

Six Council members expressed support for increasing the budget of the Urban Forestry Program, which maintains and develops the city’s tree canopy within the city right-of-way.

They want better libraries: Six Council member budget priority memoranda included requests for new libraries or improvements to existing library facilities.

Taxes and fees on table: Some of the Council members expressed interest in a ballot measure that would allow the city to charge a fee or stop providing trash collection with no special fee at single-family homes or homes with access to public streets. People in apartments already pay fees for trash collection.

One thing to watch: If Council members don’t get more specific about what they want to cut, then they’ll give a lot of power over to Cate, as budget chair, and Gloria to shape the cuts.

Others want to increase the stormwater fee.

Teachers Union Wants the State to Shut Down

Rather than focus on making sure its members get priority and access to the vaccine, the San Diego Education Association, or SDEA, the teachers union for San Diego Unified School District, is gearing up for a fight against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to get schools open by February, if the spread of the virus is contained.

He’s using a kind of carrot instead of stick approach, offering districts hundreds of dollars per student if they can get back open.

SDEA is not into it. This is from a presentation shared with me.

Instead, it is using its political capital to push the governor to shut down the state even more. It wants a “meaningful stay at home order,” which I guess means things have to be as quiet as they were in March. And it’s calling it a “circuit breaker.”

(Related: My circuit is definitely going to break. It probably just did. My brain may be broken right now and malfunctioning. Who can say?)

And here is its webpage on the plan [5]. There’s no reference anywhere to prioritizing vaccines. And it seems like getting widespread vaccination is the best hope to protect educators (along with proper ventilation [6], etc.).

The Attack on the Capitol

I mentioned this last week but for many months, I have been following the QAnon Anonymous podcast. And for a while, I kind of wondered if I was obsessing about something that was not nearly as big as the media was making it to be.

But then last week happened.

One thing great about this job is I can just ask interesting people to come talk, and they often do. Travis View, the co-host of QAnon Anonymous, sat down with me to discuss what he has learned about the conspiracy theory, how it relates to historical ones and why so many people, including from here, felt obligated to follow it into the Capitol.

It’s a special episode of the Voice of San Diego podcast and it should be in your feed if you subscribe to it but you can also find it here [7].

Quote of the Week

“If it wasn’t my job I would have done it for free, it was absolutely my pleasure to crush a White nationalist insurrection.” — D.C. Police Officer Daniel Hodges [8], who was seen in a viral video being smashed between a door and the mob at the Capitol.

It is kind of a crazy time. It’s OK to be tired. Monday is the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I like to think of it as a day to remember that it’s OK to dwell in what is wrong with your community as long as you remind yourself and others that you can fix it. If you have any ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org. Andy Keatts will be back in the near future. But it’s fine for now.