By Doug Porter
Five days a week, fifty weeks out of the year I write about the news. Mostly I write about local stories. And what I’m always trying to do, in addition to sharing information, is to make sense of all these events from a progressive point of view.
For the rest of this week I’ll discuss stories deserving to be part of our understanding of how things actually work in San Diego. The fast breaking nature of news and information these days, I think, discourages taking the long view.
I propose a New Year’s Eve toast to the concept of having a local historical memory longer than that of a goldfish. May we someday get to the point where our public servants learn from past mistakes.
Balboa Park Celebration
What happened: In the first few months of 2014, the nonprofit organization tasked by the city government with organizing a celebration of the centennial of the 1915 Panama Exposition in Balboa Park self destructed. The plan was to create a nationally recognized event, mostly because the consensus at City Hall was that they (thought) could, so why not? Millions of dollars were spent on consultants with little more than a few videos and a website to show for it.
Why it happened: This episode illustrates the ridiculous notion of civic pride as a commodity. There was no discernible benefit for the corporate entities being asked to fund an abstract event of a short term nature. When it was over, they’d be forgotten, along with the unpaid volunteers asked to serve as window dressing. Local cultural institutions (and the public supporting them), many of whom have an ongoing relationship with the actual location, were treated much like a movie studio might treat extras.
Follow the money: This was a idea designed to pad the pockets of the big boys in the hotel industry. They put up front money expecting that out of towners were gullible enough to put up the rest while they stood to gain the most. As usual these designs were cloaked in rhetoric about how the benefits would trickle down to the public. This logic always worked in the past with locals and 2015 seemed like a good idea to take it big time.
Where we stand now: Nobody was culpable for this disaster, because–according to the official inquiry into the matter–the rules of the game were set up so every action, no matter how ridiculous, was acceptable. That’s the beauty of the public-private enterprise model at that passes for government services these days.
The city government will now be sponsoring a very toned down celebration in 2015. Private efforts to create volunteer based and locally focused events are still hoping to stage events, if the city bureaucracy will allow it.
SeaWorld is Tanking
What happened: 2014 was the year that SeaWorld business model began to collapse. The company now says it expects revenues to decline by as much as 7% for the year. Its stock price has dropped by as much as 33%. The CEO was pushed overboard, the company has announced layoffs and visitors are regularly greeted by animal rights pickets.
Why it happened: The Blackfish documentary can certainly take credit for spurring a negative public perception of the animal entertainment industry as represented by SeaWorld. A relatively small number of activists have kept the issue alive, using social media and persistent protests. And I think the notion of what constitutes a sentient being is changing along with a growing awareness of humanity’s negative impacts on the planet.
Follow the money: The City of San Diego is landlord for the SeaWorld facility on Mission Bay. Tourism plays a big role in the local economy. And the changes likely to come in the leisure sector from changes in demand driven by a shifting what’s considered an acceptable business practice will have a big impact on the future.
Where we stand now: The city government along with many in the hospitality industry are still in denial. The thinking is that a few tweaks and the passage of time will make these “troubles” go away. SeaWorld, while they haven’t given up on their (still profitable) domestic investments yet, is rapidly expanding in overseas markets. Shamu could well be in Singapore in the not so distant future.
The San Diego Police Department
What happened: 2014 was the year where changes were promised with the SDPD. New management, smiley faces at (lots of) public relations events and promises of future pay increases topped the list of things being done to address past injustices and institutional neglect. The city settled a lawsuit by one of a dozen plus victims of sexual misconduct that threatened to reveal the inner workings of the SDPD. And a contractor hired in response to an SDPD request of the Justice Department began conducting a voluntary audit of police practices.
Why it happened: Years of negligent management combined with the insular nature of law enforcement culture added to up a growing public perception of local gendarmes as an institution out of control. The institution of government itself has been disparaged by ideologues arguing that market based solutions to public services were necessary for cost effectiveness and better results. While other city agencies were deliberately gutted during the past decade, the police department was largely neglected as politically expedient way of reducing its footprint without incurring public wrath.
Where we stand now: The Justice Department funded report by Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) of practices and programs within the SDPD will be released early in 2015. (So I’m told) It will say: bad things happened, but it’s all better now. The public will be told the list of recommendations has either been put into place or will be soon. The connection between the police chiefs allegedly responsible for those bad things that happened and their service on the board of directors of PERF won’t be discussed.
The police department is also a creature of the local legal establishment. The City and County Attorney’s establish standards and enforcement priorities in a defacto manner by way of what cases they choose to emphasize. At present both these institutions stand as bulwarks for defending the status quo in the local economy and political establishment. Change must come within these agencies as part of any reforms in law enforcement practices.
Studies and body cams won’t change the underlying reality for the SDPD; they are too often grunts on the front line of a failed war on drugs. The ‘us against the world’ mentality will continue to exist as the concept of government employees in general and police in particular as serving the public good has no place in the current political reality.
The bottom line here is the procedural tweaks and public relations efforts surrounding law enforcement are not designed to fix much more than the public perception.
Tomorrow: The great economic divide in San Diego and #Icantbreathe.
On This Day:1929 – Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians played “Auld Lang Syne” as a New Year’s Eve song for the first time. 1967 – The Green Bay Packers won the National Football League championship game by defeating the Dallas Cowboys 21-17. The game is known as the Ice Bowl since it was played in a wind chill of 40 degrees below zero. 1987 – OSHA adopts a grain handling facilities standard to protect 155,000 workers at nearly 24,000 grain elevators from the risk of fire and explosion from highly combustible grain dust. (Eliminating OSHA is an article of faith among many contemporary conservatives)
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