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Roundtable: Proposition 8 ruling, teachers' union vs. SDUSD, food trucks and health standards.

February 10, 2012 2:01 p.m.

Roundtable: The Ninth Circuit rules on Proposition 8; the teachers union rules on San Diego Unified's budget plans, and we find out if there are rules for food trucks in San Diego County.

Related Story: Roundtable: Prop 8 Ruling, SDUSD Vs. Teachers Union, Food Trucks & Health


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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PENNER: With me at the Roundtable are John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice and Viewpoint. Welcome, good to see you.

WARREN: Thank you, Gloria. Good to be here.

PENNER: And Will Carless, reporter for of the welcome to the Roundtable.

CARLESS: Nice to see you, Gloria.

PENNER: And Lori Weisberg. Business reporter for UT San Diego. Welcome to you too.

WEISBERG: Thanks, Gloria.

PENNER: And we're going to be taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Well, this week, California's ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by a federal appeals court. Eight years ago, San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Many marriage it is were performed until 2008 when 52% of California voters approved proposition 8, which made marriage legal only between a man and a woman. And since that time, same-sex marriage has become legal in several other states, most recently Washington state, and a majority of the American public, according to the polls, has come to accept it as well. So what is your reaction to the Court ruling? Was prop 8 unconstitutional? Or was the Court wrong to ignore the will of the voters when they voted for proposition 8? Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727. John Warren, media and legal analysts say the panel's ruling against prop 8 was narrow. On what basis did the Court rule against prop 8?

WARREN: Well, are the Court found that prop 8 was a violation of the equal protection provisions of the state constitution. But I think in order for the people to really appreciate the issues, you have to go back further than just prop 8. This issue starts in 1997 when we had the federal defense of marriage act, which California as a state decided to implement its version of that. So we then had a proposition 22 passed. Proposition 22 made it very clear that marriages acknowledged in other states could not be acknowledged in the State of California. So we were in effect embracing the defense of family act in the federal act. Then we had the domestic partner act in California. And that is the foundation for some of the problems that we have today. Because in this act, relationships were acknowledged in terms of giving protection to partners, insurance, all of the institutions of marriage were extended in many ways to domestic partners. And after the extension of those rights, under statutory law, they then became a part of the state constitution. We then had in 2003 and 2004 this situation of the multiple marriages taking place in San Francisco which triggered a reaction in the state, and then we moved toward proposition 8. And the movement toward prop 8 raised a question as to whether or not now the people could amend the constitution and change the law when in effect same-sex marriages and all the components of it, except for the title of marriage, had already been extended to same-sex partners.

PENNER: I think that's where the narrowness comes in.


PENNER: It really just deals with whether marriage between a man and woman is a requirement, and whether a class of people is being ignored or avoided.

WARREN: Well, are the more you extend it, the elements of marriage to the defense of marriage act, the thinner the line became between the issue of marriage between man. And so then we have this situation today. And I think it's significant what the Court did. We had three judges make this decision, instead of the full panel. And two of the three judges agreed, and they preserved the right for the appeal to go forward in terms of requesting that the full ninth circuit hear the case.

PENNER: I think that's rather interesting because there are many more judges on the appellate court than just three, will, aren't there? And this was a two to one decision by a panel of just three. Could this say this is just the end of the line? Or because there were so few judges ruling on it --

CARLESS: I'm a bit confused about that too. I read in one of the stories that they might be coming back to a full 9-member panel of the judges, then everybody is talking about the Supreme Court and does this ultimately go up there? I'm interested in this narrowness thing. The one quote I've seen in all of the stories is the one says proposition 8 has no effect other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gay and lesbian in California and officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those opposite sex couples. That's pretty striking to me. The narrowness seems to be in the broadness of the legal interpretation it did, only applies to California, etc.

PENNER: But does that mean that the panel was not saying there is a fundamental right for gays and lesbians to marry?

CARLESS: It seems to be saying that to me. And I haven't read the whole judgment. But when I read a statement as strong and categorical as that, it seems to me that's pretty clear.

WARREN: Well, if I could just help clear it up. I read the 128 page opinion.

PENNER: Thank you, John!

CARLESS: Thanks for that.

WARREN: And what happened here, first of all, the decision is restricted to California, so it does not include the other states that are included in the ninth circuit. No. 1. No. 2, it is not uncommon to have a 3-judge panel hear a matter. When it goes beyond that, it's appealed to what they call an en banc, the 11 judges that sit on the circuit would hear the case, and if the decision is made to go forward to ask for that, they might just bypass that and go to the Supreme Court.

WEISBERG: There seems -- since the ruling came out, there seems to be a lot of opinions issued and articles written about the strategizing of the supporters, the -- the foes of gay marriage. So there's a question, will they try to go for a full panel opinion? Will they go to the Supreme Court? We're counting votes now on the US Supreme Court. Do you get a sense of whether the Supreme Court will even take this up because it is a narrow issue, and they wouldn't be able to apply it to a national standard?

PENNER: I did want to just raise, based on what Lori just said, John, is this a civil rights issue? Is that what it is? Are we saying that somebody is being denied their civil rights?

CARLESS: It's absolutely a civil rights issue. There's no doubt about that, is there? It's kind of one of the last civil rights issues in our society. I think that's why so many people get upset and interested in it, is because they absolutely see it as one of the last sort of bastions of discrimination.

PENNER: Let me ask our audience the same question. Will what is your opinion on what the 3-judge panel of the appellate court did? Ruling that proposition 8 is unconstitutional. And do you see this as a civil rights issue? You can answer both or one or neither but I'd like to hear from you. 1-888-895-5727. Will, what were you saying?

CARLESS: Well, I was just saying that as far as I see this as an ideological battle, it's a battle of opinion, it's a battle of what people hold to be fair and true and just. And in that case, that to me mirrors the civil rights issue in every way. You can call it a legal battle, a battle of semantics. The to me, this is very important. It strikes to the heart of people's fundamental beliefs about things, and to me, that's what makes it a civil rights issue.

PENNER: Let's move on a little bit. There certainly is the question of if the ruling is accepted for review by the Supreme Court, what do you think its chances are, John?

WARREN: Well, that's a very interesting question because it has been suggested that we might have a split at this point. The Court has changed somewhat in terms of we're looking at possibly 4-4, and there's a feeling that the way this opinion was written, it was written to really reach to judge Kennedy, because if we go back, judge Kennedy has history in terms of some issues. And the whole idea is maybe we can sway him. But I think I must point out that --

PENNER: In what direction does he have history in these issues? Would he tend to uphold the appellate court or not?

WARREN: Well, some of his past -- and there's a particular case that -- it'll come to me in a moment, where his ruling was considered in favor of the same-sex community. So if his ruling in a case where they found some similarity was such, it was hopeful he might be the swing vote if it becomes a 4-4 scenario here. And cause the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex as opposed to against it.

PENNER: I see. Well, whatever the Supreme Court says, that becomes the law of the land. Would it then apply to other states? Would if become the federal law of the land since that's the US Supreme Court?

WARREN: Well, it would if it's written that way. But we have to understand something about opinions. There are decisions and inferences within opinions themselves. I do not subscribe to the idea that this is already a civil rights issue. There are efforts to make it a civil rights issue. There have been efforts to make it come under the 14th amendment in terms of equal protection. But so far we just have discussion in that direction. And as long as this decision and any decision like it can be appealed where the state equal protection provisions come up, it's not a civil rights issue. And there are some elements missing here that keep it from becoming a civil rights issue.

PENNER: Let's hear from Art in Chula Vista who wants to be part of the discussion. Welcome to the Midday Edition Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for having this issue on today.

PENNER: You're welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: I think Will is right, it really is one of the last civil rights issues in the west. If you take away the issue about same-sex or not, they are the same arguments that we made about interracial marriages, 50, 60 years ago, and we've come a long way in this society, and it really is unbelievable still that in 2012 we have this issue about whether or not two people who want to be married, that they shouldn't be able to have the exact same legal protections that are offered to other people simply because of their gender.

PENNER: Art, I notice that you don't live in San Diego, you live in Chula Vista. But it's interesting that two of the four candidates for mayor of San Diego have same-sex partners. And so what does that say to you?

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, I think the fact that that is not an issue in the campaign shows us where our society really is. This issue, it seems almost silly to still be having this argument that in this day and judge, we're still judging people or telling people they're not equal or can't have something that two other people who are not of the same gender can have. And you're absolutely, we have two major candidates for mayor. And the issue of their sexual orientation or domestic partnership or marriage isn't an issue. I think that shows how insignificant this issue should be.

PENNER: Thank you for your opinion.

WEISBERG: I understand what everybody is saying and that this -- maybe it does come down to a civil rights issue. But we have to keep coming back to the fact that the opinion was written in a certain way, it was written narrowly, the question is whether the Supreme Court will even consider this because of the way in which the opinion was written. So I think the hopes that somehow the Supreme Court will take this, it'll set a new national standard, I'm not so sure that's going to upon ha.

PENNER: Let's hear what Claire in Carlsbad has to say. I'm glad you're joining us.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for taking my call.

PENNER: Go ahead, please.

NEW SPEAKER: I wanted to call to address the question of to what extent would this apply beyond California having also poured over the ruling myself and tried to read through it and read some of the cases it's based upon. One of the major arguments in the opinion is that it's very relevant to judge Reinhardt and to the majority decision that it was not just preventing same-sex couples from marrying, it was withdrawing their right to marriage. That the California Supreme Court had decided that within the State of California, same-sex couples had a state constitutional right to get married, and then proposition 8 was removing that right. And I don't think there's a single other state in the union that would be in that situation.

PENNER: So John, do you see it the same way that Claire sees it?

WARREN: No, there's a distinction between the domestic partners act and the idea of there being a constitutional right for same-sex marriage. The idea here is under domestic partners, the benefits are extended, but at no point did that say it authorized in effect marriage.

PENNER: Cindy, you're on with the Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. My question relates not to the moral issues but to the financial issues of the State of California. Because I understand that proposition 8 was paid for primarily by out of state religious organizations. And because of the fact that we now have this ban on same-sex marriage, California is losing a lot of revenue because we are not having the marriages in our state. So do you think it would be fair if it's repealed for California to go back to those other states and demand financial restitution?

PENNER: Interesting point. Will.

CARLESS: That is an interesting point. Yeah, it's a funny one. One of the things that I found really interesting in the wake of this decision is that the opponents of gay marriage point to this and say this is judges sort of taking away from the will of the people. Of it's them overturning a popular vote. That's true. But as Cindy points out, look at where the vote came from. Look at the supporters for it. Look at where the money that poured in from all over the country for it am I'm not sure if I have an exact answer to Cindy's question, but I mean there was an interesting piece of analysis in the LA Times that said that this decision has put us right in the center of this issue once again. California kind of was in the center of the issue in 2004. It sort of went away. We're right slap bang back in the spotlight right now for this issue as far as the country is concerned.

PENNER: We're going to keep this going for a long. So the question is now, how will this affect let's say the presidential race? Because it's an important moment in history, generally. Where do you think this is going to come down on both the Republicans and President Obama?

WARREN: Well, we know where the Republicans are going to stand on it. It's a conservative issue. It's a church issue. It's a moral quote unquote issue from their standpoint. So that's pretty clear in terms of where they will be. And the candidates have already taken positions to such issues as abortion. So that's not going to be a surprise. I must take an observation though that when the first caller talked about revenue, there is not sufficient revenue being lost based on the number. Marriages that were projected if same-sex marriages had occurred to impact the economy of the State of California. So I don't think that's an issue.


WEISBERG: I was getting back to your question on the presidential race. Obviously with Santorum's recent victories, and the conservative wing of the Republican party, I'm sure that could be of issue. But bottom line, we know that the race is still going to come down to the economy. So I don't think it's going to be that big a factor in the race.

PENNER: So you think the economy will outweigh same-sex marriage?


CARLESS: I concur with that.

PENNER: Finally, have we seen any high-profile candidates disagree with the ruling? Is
anybody other than the Republican candidates, let's say?

CARLESS: Not that I'm aware of. Certainly not that I'm aware of. I think that on? Political issue, this is going to be an increasingly fine line for even conservative candidates to walk. In the past, I think even three or four years ago, this was clearly a conservative bastion. If you're a Republican candidate, you stand out against gay marriage. Well, look at the polls, a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. So yes, of course that's going to change, depending on your political viewpoint. But I think over the next sort of five, ten years, there's going to be an increasingly tough line for them to draw.
PENNER: Coming up next, San Diego City schools' budget prices, teacher layoffs, and what is the teacher's union doing about both?


The voice of San Diego is running a series of articles about the San Diego City schools crisis. And this week, Will Carless wrote about major changes in the way that the teachers' union, the San Diego education association, that's what it's called, operators. So do you believe the San Diego schools are in crisis? Will, what is the major change that you see is going on with the way that the teachers' union leadership operates?

CARLESS: 2áwords. Basically defiance and isolation, I guess. The teacher's union has increasingly closed itself off from people that disagree with it, whether they be other unions, it's no longer meeting with other unions in joint committees, it's no longer actively engaging with the school district in terms of talking about concessions, and it's also basically shared a number of people from within its organization that disagree with its ideology, and what's an increasingly hard line, we will not budget viewpoint.

PENNER: You answered the question in a way that I posed to our listeners, and that is do you believe that the city schools are in a budget crisis, and you're basically saying the unions are saying no.

CARLESS: The union says no. The union says that every number that comes along is a fantasy, that there is no real crisis. I think it's fair to point out that just about everybody disagrees with them. Whether it's an independent analyst hired by the school district to the California teachers association, which is the big union across California. Of they say we're in a crisis across the state. Teachers say we're in a crisis. Principles say we're in a crisis. Of the superintendent says we're about to go bankrupt. And the union's position is no we're not, we're absolutely fine.

PENNER: 1-888-895-5727. Do you feel that we are in a crisis regarding our San Diego City schools? The largest school district in the entire county. The largest in the state. Lori, do we know whether San Diego unified officials are more competent these days to predict revenue than in the past? Because in the past, we know that they issued a lot of pink slips to teachers, they said the revenue wasn't going to cover it. And now where are we?

WEISBERG: Well, that's -- just from reading will's stories, I kind of was in a position where I don't know who to be madder at because of the district's repeated practice of crying wolf. And I don't know probably like the union is saying don't know when to believe them and when they're being honest. And on the other side, are the intransigence of the union to talk and meet, and even talk to you. But now that Governor Brown is getting more into the act and saying there is a crisis. There must be kernels of truth in what the district is saying, but when you cry wolf that many times, how do you know whether to believe them?

PENNER: John, you have served on so many boards in your short lifetime --

WARREN: Yes, yes.

PENNER: Is this the way boards act? Do they give out misinformation?

WARREN: Well, it's not a question of giving out misinformation. It's the way they're designed. School districts have to give out notices in the spring for the following year, that's part of the contractual relationship.

PENNER: With the State of California.

WARREN: Not only with the State of California, not only with the school district, but the union itself, but it's a practice seen throughout the country. They have to be able to plan ahead in terms of the school year. By law, they must give out the notices. If the notices are giving out, they can be rescinded. But they can't miss the deadline. When we talk about the conflict with the school system between the school system and the board, the state plays a major role. Of the fact that we've moved to a budgeting system that's contingent upon all those unknown, imaginary factors, which prevents the ability of school districts to make just wants. We just saw this last week when 1stáDistrict was about to cancel transportation. And at the last minute they were able to save it. So the union here is doing something. It's trying to show its members that it's acting strongly on their behalf when in reality it has nothing that it can do but react to what's going on with the budget.

CARLESS: And I really take issue with the idea that the district has cried wolf. What the district has done, as John points out, is it's worked within the system. It has to come out with a budget six months before it knows what the budget is going to be. It has to file paperwork, it has to send in a budget to the county board of education, so it has no option other than to work on the projections that it has at the time. Create an imaginary $4ábillion and plug it into the budget. It certainly makes it look like the district is crying wolf. But if you get into the nitty-gritty of the details, I honestly think they made a good faith effort to do the best with the information they have at the time.

PENNER: Well, there you go. Do you agree and think that the district has made the best faith effort that it could under the circumstances? Or is it withholding information from us and perhaps the union? And let's hear now from John in Sherman heights. You're on with the Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: I called in a few minutes ago, so this isn't directly to the topic.

PENNER: That's okay. Because we're interested in you. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: My understanding of how schools are funded is a very localized system based on property taxes, on a relatively small local scale. And I think that creates disparity between different areas that were only 5ámiles from each other. A student in national city or a student in La Jolla or a student in Mission Hills. I think you can't get to a fair system if your basis is unfair to begin with.

PENNER: Is that the way you understand it, John, that the very school systems are funded on the property taxes that come in from within that district?

WARREN: No, we go back to proposition 13 years ago. It had a great impact on this. All school districts are in trouble at this point. Across the board. So it's not a question of how they're being funded locally. They're all impacted by the state, and whether or not the state withholds money that should be forwarded. We got it to the California lottery because we were promising all the money would go to the school districts, and it has not. So that is where the issue comes, the withholding of dollars.

PENNER: Well, are let's talk about dollars from time to time. That's really where it comes down to. What is the district dragging its heels on?

CARLESS: It came to the district in 2010. Which is the last time they renegotiated their contract. It involved teachers taking for two years, five unpaid days off. That saved the school districts some money. In return, the district said we will give you a succession of pay raises starting in 2012.

PENNER: How big?

CARLESS: I think it amounts to about 7%. You get a 2%, a 3%, and another 3% raise is how it works. What's at issue here is that the idea in 2010 was well, the economy is going to turn around by 2012, and we should be able -- we should be getting more money from the state. That hasn't happened. The economy if anything has gotten worse. Of the union, fair enough, is saying we're owed these pay raises. The district is saying we simply can't afford them. We can afford them, but the trade-off for that is that we have to lay off 1,100 people. So that's what's at issue here. The School Board is trying to get the union to renegotiate that deal to carry on taking these unpaid days off and to not get its pay raises.

PENNER: Well, that's pretty clear. It's a trade-off then. We fire teachers or we give you pay raises. And isn't that really --

CARLESS: Or everything changes and the state ends up giving us more money in four months time.

WARREN: And it's more significant than that because the unions are funded by check-offs. For every person that's removed from a payroll, that represents removed revenue from the
union's income.

PENNER: Aren't the raises coming up now?

CARLESS: The raises come in June, I think the first one.

PENNER: So we just have a few months. Are they going to hit the deadline?

CARLESS: That's the question. The union has no obligation whatsoever to open its contract. It's a closed contract until 2013. The school district says unless you open this contract, we're in really, really big trouble, and the union's so far position has been no, at least until we know what's happening in the summer with the state's budget, we're not even going to talk about it.

PENNER: We're talking about a lot of things, certainly the kids that we know, and grand kids that go to school. But we're also talking about preparing San Diego with a proper work force. So there are many issues involved. And apparently, Lori, from what I've been reading, are the governor is somewhat sympathetic to all this, and is trying to raise money through increased taxes to try to take care of a part of the problem.

WEISBERG: Right. And my understanding though is that the -- and he's banking on that, going through. My understanding, though, correct me if I'm wrong, is that the district doesn't want to base their budgets on the optimistic scenario that that does go through. So they're preparing for a worst case scenario.

CARLESS: They have. They have to -- the problem is that the brown tax initiative, what that does is it would keep funding plat. It would give school psychiatrics the same amount of money they got last year. If it doesn't pas, and it requires a majority vote, that could be a huge hole in the district's budget. So the district says it has to by law account for that worst case.

PENNER: This is not an easy decision to make. If it were a question of laying off 1,100 teachers versus what the contract calls for, which is a 7% increase over the next three years, where would you stand on this? You still have time to tell you where you are on this. 1-888-895-5727. How powerful is the union, John? What percentage, let's say, of teachers belong to the union?

WARREN: I really don't know. And I haven't kept up with their membership locally.

CARLESS: It's about eight thousand members.

PENNER: Out of how many?

CARLESS: I think it's every teacher. Someone can call in and fact check me on that.

WARREN: Every teacher doesn't have to belong, but every teacher does get a benefit.

CARLESS: Right. I know it's about eight thousand.

PENNER: So how powerful is it? When you have everybody not having to belong, but basically belonging, does that make it really powerful or is it power with the leadership rather than the members?

WARREN: Well, it's a combination because the way we're set up here, this is one school district in a county with many. So each individual school district has an association and they negotiate. If there was a county-wide oneness of mind, it would make a tremendous difference. There's also an association of school administrators, and they're having issues trying to save jobs. When you put these factors together, where laborer would have been one united force, now they are more divided.


WARREN: Because each entity is fighting for its own survival.

PENNER: There is one major complaint that stands out among all complaints that the union has, and that is that the district won't play the budget game. What does that mean?
CARLESS: The union came out on Wednesday and said we want the district to stop playing the game with this state, to stop issuing all these layoff notices that then six months later it finds out it's got more money and it doesn't have to playoff those people. The district's counter argument is if we don't play the game, we can't borrow any money, and we have to keep borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep paying the people in your union. The district would love to not have to issue layoff notices but it has to because it's required to by law. If it stops doing that, be it won't be able to borrow any money and pay teachers.

PENNER: San Diego unified is basically within the within -- within the City of San Diego. It's sort of equivalent to the City of San Diego, Lori, are and at least one candidate for mayor, Bonnie Dumanis, sees more involvement from city leadership and helping to find the schools. And we've seen this happen in it other cities where basically the mayor's office took over. Chicago, I think Las Vegas, New York City.

WARREN: Washington DC.

PENNER: Right. How might this help or hurt the situation? Do you think Bonnie Dumanis is
going to get some backup here?

WEISBERG: I think let's be honest. The city has more than it can deal with on its place. And I just don't see city leaders. I don't see a mayor being able to have that much influence in that area. I don't think it's worked out well in other cities. I think maybe that plays to voters, but I don't see a mayor's intervention either helping or hurting. I don't see it happening.

PENNER: Do you think it's a good idea?

CARLESS: Well, I think frankly it's politics. It's the big issue, and Bonnie is coming in and saying I can fix this. I will say, however, that the School Board is made up of five part-time people who get paid some ridiculously low sum, and I would say that there have been moves in if the past to make that a more professional arrangement, where you've got people who are paid more, who have staff. And there's a lot of people who would increasingly be in favor of moving toward a more professional, full-time system.

PENNER: So you think some centralized system whereby the schools are run out of the mayor's office would be the answer?

WARREN: I'm chuckling because I've just about written books on this over the past 40 years, and I've seen every mutation that you have. School Boards fail because of dollar issues in many instances. The systems are designed to have parents and board members run them and not City Council and mayors and receivership becomes a factor as it did in Oakland. In many instances when things don't quite work, and they end up worse off than they were before. I don't think politicians should grandstand and pretend they can fix schools. When you cut the budget, you increase classroom size, you take dollars away, there is no way you can expect to have a quality education product at the end of three or four or five years when you've done everything to dismantle and then blame the very people handling it.

CARLESS: I think this is going to end up with it really coming to a head this summer. This summer we're going to find out when the state pass its budget, we're going to find out whether the district either has to lay all these people off if the union refuses to make concessions. If it doesn't, it's going to look very silly. It's going to look like it's been crying wolf again. If it does, are the union is going to look silly for not having negotiated any concessions. Either way there's going to be a big winner and a big loser.

PENNER: You're not going to predict which one?

CARLESS: I'm not going to go into that, no.

PENNER: One more call before we end from Karen in San Diego.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was calling about when you were discussing the stalemate with the unions and the School Board that's happening right now. And it seems to me -- I don't know if this has been brought up but perhaps suggesting a slower raise, maybe half as much as would have been promised this year. Something smaller so it would be more manageable, and both sides get a little bit of what they want.

PENNER: So you're talking about negotiation.

CARLESS: Well, that would involve negotiation, that would involve sitting down and talking about it: And the thrust of my story was that the union certainly has just become increasingly unwilling to do that over the last few years. Is it financially possible? Sure. They can come to whatever agreement they want to. But they have to sit down and talk about it.

PENNER: Thank you very much for your suggestion. It was a good thought.


PENNER: Among the changes in San Diego is the proliferation of gourmet food trucks, and they caught the attention of UT staff writer, Lori Weisberg, who did a story in collaboration with 10 News. They discovered that if customers want to know the food safety rating of a food truck before they buy something to eat, well, good luck! Lori, before we get into your story, just define for us, what is a gourmet food truck?

WEISBERG: Well, are as people may or may not know, food trucks have been around for a long time. Of the lunch trucks, the catering trucks, the roach coaches as they used to be known. The gourmet food trucks are what it says. They're offering more gourmet food, the kinds of foods you would find in restaurants. Things made with lobster or seared Ahi, a lot of things that you would order in a restaurant. Foie gras?

WEISBERG: Not that gourmet.
WEISBERG: And I'm saying about the 1,100 mobile operations, maybe about 40 of them are the more newer generation gourmet food trucks that you've seen already in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and now they're in LA and coming to San Diego.

PENNER: Why would we have an increase and why would they come here unless they're going to make money?

WEISBERG: I think they do as they become known, and their advertising is simply social media. That's how you come to know them. So -- the costs are the trucks, and some are more creative, and not having to spend a lot of money on their trucks than others, but they do have to pay for commissaries and fuel. But they're profitable, I imagine.

PENNER: Tell us about the problem that you wrote about. We assume that the trucks are inspected.

WEISBERG: Yeah, that's not the problem. They are regularly inspected. That's where they're on an equal footing with restaurants. Where they're not is on getting that kind of rating or letter grade that we're used to seeing, an A letter grade you want to see, or there's B and C too. But you don't have that with the San Diego food trucks. And part of the wane we were alerted to this in 2010 Los Angeles instituted a program where they transition to letter grades for food trucks. San Diego didn't seem to be on a path doing that. Nor can you find the inspection reports. It's very difficult to find the inspection reports of these trucks.

PENNER: Let me check with our listeners and find out. Have you ever eaten in it a food truck? What was your experience? And were you able to figure out whether there were any safety hazards based on a letter grade that was posted? Back to you, Lori. How can patrons find out if a food truck meets food safety standards?

WEISBERG: Well, are they are supposed to have a sticker showing that they were inspected, and you're not going to get that sticker unless you pass inspection. The way you can do it is by requesting of the truck to see their inspection report. When we did a random check, we found that some had the reports in their trucks, and they're supposed to, and others did not and didn't realize or know that they had to. They said oh, well, we have them at the office. So it's hard. We had to do a public records request to get the inspection reports.

PENNER: Now we're really talking about health standards, we're talking about the responsibility of the county. Because the county's responsibility basically is health and human services.

CARLESS: Ah, yes.

PENNER: So where do you come down on this?

CARLESS: What drives me mad, Gloria, and you hit it in your story, Lori, with these wonderful asinine quotes from the late at the county, which is like, well, we're going to watch and see how putting these letters up is working out for LA County. It's, like, come on! This isn't complicated. It's a very simple issue. If a truck is being inspected, if it doesn't come up to grade, it should be made to put this letter up just like a restaurant. We're going to sit back and wait and see what happens? Do something about it. Make a change.

PENNER: Well, John, there have been several county departments that have been criticized for being understaffed and technological inadequate. Recently, it's the department that issues food stamps saying that thousands of phone calls that come in are lost, and they're lost because there aren't enough people there to answer the phone, or else the equipment doesn't hold up.

WARREN: In fairness to the county, it has bold leadership there in terms of the overall operation of health and human services. And there is still an issue of a lot of people with old ideas that don't want to change, like this director in the county's department of environmental health really not too concerned about monitoring these trucks.

PENNER: And you really are -- I'm sorry to interrupt you but you provoked a thought in me. And that is you really are at the mercy of the people who run the departments.

WARREN: Yes, they are. But I think the leadership that's there now with Nick mars I don't know, there's a difference because there's an attitude change taking place throughout the county. I was interested in what supervisor Ron Roberts had to say where he didn't realize this whole situation existed. He was somewhat embarrassed by it. I think there's a business angle to this too. Of the more these trucks multiply, the more they take business away from brick and mortar restaurants. So that's their concern. The people who are buying are not as concerned. So until you raise the sanitation issue for the people buying the food, then they get real concerned. And there have been a lot of sanitation issues raised here in terms of food handlers, education, how food is prepared, proper refrigeration. But the director is not following up on those issues in terms of public notice.

PENNER: We'll start with Connie from San Diego. Oh, I'm sorry, no, it's Michael from Oceanside. Welcome to the Midday Edition Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. You bring up a lot of good points. And really, I followed this device closely in the UT and channel 10, and really, the point I wanted to bring up was I do feel we're getting toward the point where food trucks should be held to the same standard as restaurants. But one of the points I feel that was missed in the stories was that LA and LA County and the jurisdiction of Los Angeles have gone to the lettering grade. But they are the first of any county in the United States of America. So it's not that San Diego is far behind the times. As a matter of fact, the county of San Diego and the environmental health program that does inspect the restaurants, they're one of the most progressive organizations in the United States , and they've actually been sought after because of how progressive they are. Of so I feel there's a little bit of negativity put on them. Well, they aren't moving toward that? But certainly they're not sitting on themselves. They have been given many awards and accolades in it their respective fields. And Los Angeles was ahead of the curve. And San Diego is right behind them.

PENNER: Michael, you raise a quite a number of very interesting issues. We'll let Lori respond.

WEISBERG: He is in part correct. The department has been a forerunner in terms of issuing letter grades for brick and mortar restaurants. LA followed suit many years later. But the point of the story was the trucks not being on an equal footing with the system that the county of San Diego does have. San Francisco does not have a letter grade system, but they do scores, everything and is online for both restaurants and food trucks. In San Diego, the letter grades are online for restaurants but not for food trucks. So the point of the story is that there's not the same standard for the trucks as the restaurants.

CARLESS: I'm so glad that you brought up food stamps. That's an analogous issue. Of the county knows that it has this huge problem with answering phone calls. It pays a consultant $70,000 to tell it to hire more people to answer the phones. And this to me is the same issue. The last caller said give them credit for being not that far behind the ball. It's, like, look, this is obvious. If you're saying that places that serve food to people should have to put a sign up that says that they're clean, why do you even need to think about that? Why do you need to have studies and consultants and everything else? If you're saying that the brick and mortar establishments that sell to people have to put this up, why should food trucks be any different?

PENNER: Some statements that came from the assistant director of the environmental health department, are the environmental health department "our department is not mandated to provide them," and that's referring to letter grades. So personnel you need a mandate in order to --

WEISBERG: Let me correct that. She was talking about -- one of the requirements is that they're supposed to, the trucks are supposed to put signs on the trucks saying that their inspection reports are available upon request, and the department has those signs but they're not giving them out. And that's what she want. They're not mandated to give the signs even though we have them.

CARLESS: So we don't do it.

WARREN: But clearly we have a conflict between the letter of the law, and the spirit. And this director is not operation within the spirit. I guess we need 1ácase of e. Coli, one fatality will change all of that, and all of a sudden, it'll become an emergency.

PENNER: Well, this is the time for us to bring in Jose from San Diego. You are on with the Midday Edition Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, my question would be is how are the budget cuts in the city affecting the agency that should be taking care of this? I just hear people complaining, complaining. Why aren't they out there? If people would pay a little more in taxes, then we'd have a little better services for restaurants and food trucks or whatever.
CARLESS: Well, are first of all, it's the county. But yeah, the county has got financial issues too. Secondly, they're already doing the inspections, they're already doing the hard work. They're already going out there. How much more difficult is it to say you've got an A, put an A in your window. And then when you go out and inspect people, you check whether it's there. Of it's not rocket science, right?

PENNER: What is it that the food truck owners themselves say about displaying letter grades? Or about having signage up, saying that you can find this out?

WEISBERG: At first when I talked to them about the letter grades they all -- many of them said, you know, I really hadn't given it much thought. But then when they said, you know, having a letter A in the window would be good marketing. Come to think of it, that would be a good thing, yeah, I'd like that.

PENNER: I'm just thinking in terms of people are rather sensitive, Lori, about where they eat. And when they go to a restaurant. And I assume a food truck, they've got their eyes open.

WEISBERG: Right. The and I guess I would be a little more concerned about a food truck. Only because of the refrigeration issues. It would be harder in a food truck than in a restaurant.

PENNER: Thank you so much. Great panel.