Imagine, if you will…
A place in California where a single official believes he has the power to turn back the clock on same-sex marriage… A place where investigations into the deaths of people in jail are dismissed… A place where elected officials get to pick their successors…
…A place where a politician can pick up the phone and order police retaliation on people whose views he doesn’t share… A place where hundreds of millions of dollars sit undisturbed while homelessness spreads unabated, while a single elected official can pledge $150 million for a sports stadium.
Welcome to San Diego County, a place where the basic functions of government have morphed into fiefdoms of neglect and a culture of corruption prevents transparency.
The opportunity to begin changing County government into an entity serving the needs of all the people is coming our way in the coming year. While I recognize the importance organizing to keep DC politicians honest, we also have some work to do in our own backyard.
If you, like many voters, believe the County is somebody else’s problem because you live in a city, think again. Your community’s health, the administration of justice, and –most importantly– our economic environment are all at stake.
California’s Constitution calls for elections to select key county officials charged with record-keeping, law enforcement, and the administration of justice.
All these offices, currently inhabited by protectors of the status quo, are up for grabs in 2018. The incumbents are Assessor Ernest J. Dronenberg, Sheriff Bill Gore, and District Attorney Summer Stephan.
There are highly qualified and politically progressive candidates in 2018 worthy of your support ready to step in with a vision of good government and a desire to do better.
Specifically, these people are Matt Strabone, running for the assessor/recorder/county clerk; Dave Myers, running for County Sheriff; and Geneviéve Jones-Wright, running for District Attorney.
As things stand at present all these offices will be decided in the June 5 primary.
In the coming week (or so) I’ll profile each of these candidates, explain why their candidacies are important, and shine some light into the darker corners of County government’s current operations.
A few basic facts are in order to help understand the challenges San Diego voters face.
The county is HUGE–larger than the combined states of Rhode Island and Delaware. And while it’s the fifth most populated area in the United States, the eastern two-thirds of the county is primarily undeveloped backcountry.
The California Constitution gives the county responsibility for countywide services such as elections and voter registration, law enforcement (in unincorporated areas and some cities), jails, vital records, property records, tax collection, public health, and social services.
The five members of the elected San Diego County Board of Supervisors get to draw their own district boundaries. The only requirement is they be roughly equal in population. Someday we need to have the conversation about just five people having all that power; it’s not on the ballot this year.
Unlike other governmental entities, the board operates as a one-stop-shop, handling legislative, executive, and some judicial matters.
As a legislative authority, it creates ordinances for unincorporated areas (ordinances that affect the whole county, like posting of restaurant ratings, must be ratified by the individual city). Functioning as an executive body, the Board tells the county departments what to do, where to spend the $5.3 billion budget and how to do it. As a quasi-judicial body, it is the final venue of appeal in the local planning process.
While the Board of Supervisors has been almost exclusively Republican in recent decades, the county’s population has become increasingly Democratic or decline-to-state. An initiative passed by voters in 2010 imposed term limits on the Board, and the first two seats (Districts 4 & 5) to change hands under this law are on the 2018 ballot.
It is within the realm of possibility by 2020 for Democrats to have a majority on the Board.
The Board of Supervisors –and the County government itself– is an entity few people in San Diego understand.
The County of San Diego’s mass-communication outfit, CountyNewsCenter.com has a multimillion-dollar annual budget and employs more people than most independent news organizations in the region. They fill a void created as legacy media operations have shrunk in size and reduced content, publicizing the daily run-of-the-mill public announcements of a governmental behemoth.
It’s my mission in coming months to boost understanding of the whys and wherefores of county politics.
I had nothing but sympathy for newly appointed San Diego City Beat editor Seth Combs as he began to grasp the enormity of the County in examining the Supes awarding themselves a hefty pay raise earlier this year:
…the question remains, what does the BOS do exactly, and what are they doing to be paid nearly $200,000 a year along with pensions once they’ve retired? Well, the truth is that they are in charge of a lot. They have executive, legislative and judicial powers. They are ostensibly in charge of the nearly 50 county department offices, everything from the registrar of voters and the parks department to the sheriff’s office and the fire authority.
“Their job is to oversee the needs of the county,” ACCE member Lileana Robles told me after the meeting.
I couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself, but it’s worth pointing out that such a job is a lot of responsibility. So is it possible that the BOS do deserve a raise? Sure, it’s possible, but as one woman at the meeting from the Service Employees International Union put it, they “damn well better come with it.” That is, they better earn it.
Today’s exhibit A in the sordid saga of why we need to better understand county government comes by way of Kelly Davis, in a post published at Voice of San Diego.
It seems as though the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board is poised to dismiss 22 investigations involving people who’ve died in county detention facilities or while being taken into custody for reasons that shouldn’t pass anybody’s sniff test.
Since 2013, CLERB has faced a growing backlog of death cases. The board started 2017 with 46 open cases — more than any in its history. That number grew to 59 by the end of last month.
Nick Mitchell, who heads Denver’s Office of Independent Monitor, questioned whether the county is giving CLERB the resources it needs to conduct thorough investigations.
“If the budget of the San Diego CLERB does not permit it to fulfill this essential function, then its budget must be increased to enable that work,” he said.
It’s my belief 2018 electoral contests for County positions represent the best opportunity for progressive change at the local level. I will, of course, cover other contests, but feel these races are the best place to start.
The tentative schedule for county elections stories includes profiles on challengers Strabone (Assessor), Myers (Sheriff), and Jones-Wright (DA) over the next seven days. I’ve got a few additional stories up my sleeve, which will trickle out in the weeks to come.
I’ll spend December researching the candidates for Supervisor (and taking some time off) and begin with candidate profiles in January (After Three Kings Day).
There will be a voter’s guide for the June primaries, published at about the same time as mail-in ballots arrive.
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
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Sharon Kramer says
Doug, Haven’t read your writing in a long time. Then a comment notice popped up in my emails today that reminded me why that is.
I know you don’t like to look at what those pesky, whining disgruntled litigants have to say. But if you are going to bash the Supervisors for their pay raises, you really should understand how they do it.
Ask Richard Fine -ya know, that pesky Beverley Hills attorney who spent 18 months in jail w/o even being charged with a crime — for exposing how the scam works in many CA counties.
Here’s a hint for you from an old UT article regarding whose illegally county-subsidized salaries are increased by the Supervisors, so they can increase their own salaries:
“Superior Court judges are paid a salary of $178,789 per year. That will rise to $181,292. Appellate courts justices salaries will rise to $207,463 from $204,599. The pay increase will also have a cascading effect in San Diego and several other counties, where the pay for members of the county Board of Supervisors is tied to the pay of judges.”
Doug Porter says
Show me where I bashed the Supes pay raises… By putting a quote about understanding their power into the context of an editorial about pay raises written by someone else? I don’t think so.
Thanks for the insults, by the way. It’s really a pleasure not being spammed by your emails anymore.
Great topic to dig into Doug..We need a wholesale change in County government representatives relationship to the people. Too much arrogance and perceived power…. Although my experience with rank and file people that work for the county gov. is nice and competent.
Used to be one – thanks! :-)
Ready and waiting, Doug – bring it! :-)
Assessor Ernest J. Dronenberg attempted to halt same-sex weddings in 2013. He was acting well beyond the duties of his office. I will be happy to vote for Matt Strabone.
If memory serves correctly, Kamala Harris (then CA’s AG) called him out about that. He jumped the proverbial shark, and got caught…never been the same since.
Doug Porter says
Two things to note:
1. Public employees in San Diego County are generally good at what they do. My observations are about leadership.
2. I don’t generally believe in complaining about elected officials'(and public employee) salary and pensions. If they’re doing the work and doing it honestly, it’s a good investment. These kinds of arguments are often a distraction aimed at undermining support for legitimate government functions.
bob dorn says
Sharon Kramer, here’s another hint for you: Superior Courts and their appellate divisions are state, not county courts, so they cannot be “increased by the Supervisors,” as you so confidently put it. If you had read the SDUT article you appended to your so very confident criticism you would have encountered a line about how once-Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar (and probable Kramer superhero) denied a salary increase for the judges after the crash earlier in this century when the state couldn’t afford the increases. Did you leave those inconvenient truths out of your complaint against Porter’s column on purpose, or did you just not read the story?
Bonnie Bekken says
You, like Doug Porter, are right on. My nomination for this year’s UT-driven San Diegan of the Year is The Fifth Estate, headed here by the extraordinary volunteer contributions of Doug Porter. What are the chances the UT will give the nod to legitimate competition? Let’s see…
i’ve seen credits in the U-T to VoSD, but i don’t think they’ve EVER credited SDFP. Mr. Porter does analysis, not investigative reporting.