With Wednesday, June 13, will begin an interesting test of how much power San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio, a candidate for mayor, has accumulated. That day, the City Council’s Rules, Open Government and Intergovernmental Relations Committee will talk about whether or not to put DeMaio’s next policy initiative on the November ballot.
DeMaio’s initiative would require the city to spend any increased tax revenues during the next five years on repairs to streets and other public infrastructure. In other words, if tax revenues increase after June 2013—and they very likely will as the national economy recovers—all of that money must be spent on fixing infrastructure and can’t be spent on public safety, library hours, social programs or anything else.
This is DeMaio’s recipe for governance: Attempt to whip up public interest in a policy matter and use direct democracy to bypass representative democracy. His over-simplistic narrative is that politicians are either too incompetent or too burdened with political baggage to do the right thing, so the people—with his help—have to do it for themselves. All the while, it raises DeMaio’s political profile and contributes to his cult of personality.
In one sense—and this is how opponent Bob Filner should play it—by going straight to the people, DeMaio is signaling that he doesn’t have faith in his ability to be an effective chief executive. DeMaio’s arrogance won’t allow him to entertain the notion that he could lose to Filner in November, so he must be aware that the majority of the City Council’s distaste for him personally will hamper his efforts to get policies enacted through the legislative branch.
In any case, the ball’s in the City Council’s court. Purely from a good-government standpoint, DeMaio’s initiative is a bad idea. It ties the hands of the people whom we select to decide how best to spend our tax dollars and provide services for us. It locks in all increased revenue for one type of service at the expense of all others and doesn’t allow for decisions based on changing conditions or priorities. Sure, San Diego has a backlog of infrastructure- repair needs, but there are other services that could use some beefing up, too. If changing conditions require money to be spent on another type of service, the only way city leaders would be able to do it would be take to money away from something else, even as the economy improves.
It’s just stupid to limit your options that way.
Politically, the City Council risks playing into DeMaio’s hand if it votes against putting the initiative on the ballot—the council would cast itself as the villain in DeMaio’s morality play. On Monday, at a news conference announcing their endorsement of DeMaio for mayor, DeMaio’s fellow Republicans on the council, Kevin Faulconer and Lorie Zapf, were asked if they support his initiative. Faulconer said he’d wait to see the final draft of the language before taking a position; Zapf managed to avoid answering the question. We’ll see whether they line up behind the man who’s become the leader of the local Republican Party or prefer to head in a different sort of leadership direction, with possibly three new Republican council members—Mark Kersey (who’ll replace DeMaio on the council and was noncommittal when CityBeat asked for his opinion on the initiative), Scott Sherman (who’s on the verge of winning an open seat, pending a count of provisional ballots) and Ray Ellis (who’ll run against incumbent Sherri Lightner in November).
It’s likely that DeMaio would prefer being rebuffed by the City Council; that way, he’d have to collect signatures to put the measure on the ballot, giving him another faux-populist uprising to use as a running mate with his quest for the mayor’s chair. On the bright side, at least he’d have to spend a lot of his energy and a ton of his supporters’ money on signature gathering at the expense of tearing Filner apart.
We urge the City Council to reject DeMaio’s latest stunt. We suggest that Filner come out strong against it. And we hope that citizens who are approached for their signatures apply some critical thinking.
Update: On Wednesday, June 13, the Rules Committee voted unanimously against forwarding DeMaio's proposed initiative to the full City Council, with each member remarking that it ties the council's hands when it comes to budgeting. A second vote to ask the council's Independent Budget Analyst to study alternatives, such as earmarking a smaller percentage of new revenues to roads and other infrastructure, failed 3-2, with Kevin Faulconer and Lorie Zapf voting yes and Tony Young, Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria voting no. After the vote, Voice of San Diego's Liam Dillon tweeted this: "DeMaio just confirms that the roads ballot measure is dead for November."
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