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Playing Politics With Downtown Library

Audio

Aired 10/30/09

Should San Diego officials be focused on rebuilding the downtown library when the city is facing a $200 million budget deficit? The editors give you the pros and cons of rebuilding the aging main library, and talk about the battle among city councilmembers over the plan.

— GLORIA PENNER (Host): Let’s move on. On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council voted six to two to pay out half a million dollars to keep the downtown library project alive. Half a million dollars seems a lot these days with the city expecting a $179 million shortfall to plague us in just eight short months. But maybe it’s an important investment. Scott, the mayor and the council are facing this $179 million shortfall with all the cutbacks and the layoffs required. What do you believe is the reason that they’re so invested in this project?

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): Well, I think for four reasons they want to build this project. One is to provide an architectural marvel for San Diego.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Yeah.

LEWIS: Two is to provide a public space so that people can gather and have a nice place to be, like in other great cities. Three is to connect people to information. And four is to have a central artery, a system to deliver books around the county. Now, I can attack each one of those because I think if each one of those were to be pursued, there would be better avenues to pursue it. But on Monday or whenever, when they made this vote, you know, Donna Frye, who’s been skeptical of the library in the past, she actually supported this, and her point was that she wanted to put this out to bid to, once and for all, see how much this library would cost. What’s interesting about that is I don’t think there’s a chance in inferno east valley that you could get a bid that’s not going to be what the budget it. The fact is, is that they’re – In order to get this approved, of course they’re going to bid exactly what they expect people to do. And I think that San Diego has this happen all the time, it’s called the foot in the door theory, that I’ve labeled it, that you get something started, you get a construction bid like this approved, you get it started, and then, you know, a quarter of the way done it’s like, well, it’s going to be about $20 million more we’re going to have to step it up. That’s the way things are. So you want to find out how much this is, you’re not going to do that by spending $500,000. Now, I have an alternative vision of what we need to do for this – for providing those four things but the fact is, is that this city is broke, we’re cutting everything else. We can’t fund trash cans in public parks. We can’t even build parks that are paid for already. And yet we’re going to construct this thing that the finances for which are undetermined.

PENNER: Okay. I’m cutting the comments short because we really don’t have much time. But let me just ask our listeners about this. So Scott’s contention is that the budget now is $184 million, is that it?

LEWIS: Well, that was a 2005 estimate.

PENNER: Right. And no matter what the bids are, they’re all going to come in under budget because they want to get this thing started. Sounds a little cynical but the point is, this is what – the way it’s worked in the past and he expects it’s going to work this time. Of course, the question then is when they’re – when and if it does cost more than what is budgeted, who’s going to pay for it? JW.

AUGUST: Well, it’s not coming directly out of the general fund so the argument by Mr. Sanders and the people that support this is they’re pulling the money from different sources.

PENNER: I mean if it’s – if it comes in at more than the bid.

AUGUST: Oh, I agree with Scott. Nothing stays the same. And even if it came in at $185 million, they’d find to do – what they call change orders and, oh, you know, you want carpeting on the floor? Oh, you want flooring? They’d find ways to do that. But the point of the matter is though, that library downtown is ugly. I mean, it’s not on the Gray Line bus tour for people to see, it’s not right after the Cabrillo Monument. It’s an embarrassment to our city. Maybe that’s our egos talking and we still feel like small town San Diego but it’s an embarrassment. Is it the solution? I don’t happen to agree that we’re going to get all our information from the internet and you do need a library that you could be proud of. We’re America’s Finest City.

PENNER: Let me ask Leslie about this. What do you think? I mean, that sounds a little bit like council president Ben Hueso’s logic…

AUGUST: Don’t…

PENNER: …that the city’s financial situ – Come back to me, gentlemen. That the city’s financial situation in an uncertain future shouldn’t be an excuse for not supporting this project.

LESLIE WOLF BRANSCOMB (Editor, San Diego Uptown News): Well, I happen to be on the opposite side of that fence. I don’t think, with the economy the way it is, I don’t think now is any time to be pushing forward expensive libraries, city hall, courthouse projects, it just sends the wrong message to the public. Now we all know the actual bill will come much later for this, and probably the economy will turn around at some point. But right now, this is just – it seems – it smacks of city hall saying to the people, we don’t care what you think, we’re going to spend extraordinary amounts of money on something that would be a grand idea but we don’t really need it. We don’t need the library as much as we need, say, fire protection or additional water. We don’t really need that right now. And I’m sorry to be a naysayer on that.

PENNER: Well, let’s hear what Ian in Solana Beach has to say about that. Ian, you’re on with the editors.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Good morning, Gloria. You’ve addressed this topic several times with the editors. I want to – My comment is that I think some of these editors are a little bit technically challenged. The internet needs a server. Your computer needs a hard drive. You need a C drive. You need a central repository for your information. That is what your central library is. Without a central library, you cannot gather information obviously at the surrounding area and the vital books in one place, and the internet will not function without servers.

PENNER: Okay. Thank you, Ian. JW.

AUGUST: Oh, I agree with Ian.

PENNER: You do?

AUGUST: Yeah.

PENNER: All right. So before we have to leave the subject, I want to get your sense, Scott. What’s going to happen?

LEWIS: I think they’ll get a bid back. They’ll start breaking ground. We might finally learn the true extent of the fundraising success of the people that have supposedly – are going to raise up to, you know, $50 to $80 million. They won’t tell us how that money’s been gathered now. And, you know, that’s fine. I think it’s going to – the ground’s going to be broken and then the inertia will begin and then at some point…

PENNER: The inertia will begin once the ground is broken?

LEWIS: Yeah, the point is, is that at that point – They want to get the ground broken. And then when it’s done, then they can – then whatever happens after that, the city’ll be on the hook to finish it, and that’s the goal. And I think that, you know, if you wanted to connect a bunch of San Diegans to the internet or to information, would you really build a big building right now and use it to store 17th century technology? I mean, the point is, is that there are very beautiful things that we could do. We only want to do this because we’re envious of other cities that have been able to put it together.

AUGUST: Yeah.

LEWIS: Why don’t we do something that makes people envious of us? And building a central library like this is – and then stuffing a school inside of it just so that we can get it financed, I don’t think is that. Now this does set a good precedent for people who support charter schools because now we have the school system investing in the – in a facility for a charter school but I just think there are alternative perspectives on this and the mayor’s tact of being contemptuous of those alternative perspectives, even downright snipey and belligerent about them, is just an unfortunate consequence.

PENNER: I’m going to throw in one thing before we leave this subject, is that I wrote a blog last week suggesting that a part of that library, if it is built, be put aside for a real public good cause. Choose some area of it to create a permanent shelter for the homeless.

LEWIS: Well, yeah, so we’ll have a homeless shelter, a library…

PENNER: A library and a…

LEWIS: …and a school.

PENNER: Right.

LEWIS: You know, in order to justify this project’s building, they’re going to have to stuff a fire station in there, too.

AUGUST: How about a 7-Eleven. I like the 7-Eleven idea.

LEWIS: I mean, they…

PENNER: Okay, with that thought, I want to go on to a development I just read about in this morning’s Union-Tribune.

AUGUST: Ah, my favorite newspaper…

PENNER: Yeah. Well, it must be now…

AUGUST: …or second favorite.

PENNER: …because it looks like there’s going to be some kind of collaboration between the San Diego Union-Tribune and the news department of KGTV, of which you are a part, JW. You’re blending news departments. How will this work for the benefit of San Diego?

AUGUST: I think we’ll have more eyes out in the community. We’ll be able to deliver news in multiple platforms, will be able to cover the city and the community and the region in a much better way, a much more efficient way. It – And they’re – I can’t talk about everything but they’re doing things – This is just not a for publicity, they are actually doing things that will help meld the cultures. And for years, traditionally, the TV culture and the broadcast culture did not mix. But they’re doing their level best to make this thing work. I’m excited about working with their investigative people, too.

PENNER: Okay. Very good. What is your comment now as an online journalist who has created something brand new, Scott Lewis, in this community and other people are sort of following your footsteps. Is this a good idea?

LEWIS: Oh, it’s a fantastic idea. I think it’s a great idea for San Diego, too, and I, you know, I praise it. We have a partnership with NBC San Diego, an ambitious and fruitful one. We’ve been, you know, our reporters are on air often. We collaborate on stories and are able to host the videos on our site after they’re done. And, you know, we’re expanding that, too. And I think that the fact is, is that journalists are realizing that sometimes they’re not the best distributors of what they do and so you should separate the distribution into the people who can do it better, and this is yet another example of that. And I think San Diego will benefit from it, I think the U-T’ll benefit and I think Channel 10’ll benefit and, you know, I’ll benefit watching all their beautiful work.

AUGUST: That’s okay…

PENNER: So right now we have – So we have this collaboration now between the San Diego Union-Tribune and Channel 10 and then there’s a collaboration between Voice of San Diego and Channel 7/39.

LEWIS: Yeah.

PENNER: And so that leaves Channel 8 out there. What do you think, Leslie, any chance that San Diego Uptown newspaper’s going to collaborate with Channel 8?

BRANSCOMB: You know, that’s a great idea. And I was telling JW earlier, the Channel 10 and Union-Tribune collaboration almost got off the ground a few years ago and I thought it was great because the Union-Tribune has spent time trying to teach reporters how to go out and shoot video and that’s not really their area of expertise. And in other words, they can benefit from having some of the investigative reporters, so everybody can benefit from each other’s strengths. Now at the Uptown News, we’ve only been around about six months so it remains to be seen where we’re going to take it but I think that a future branching out into all different kinds of dissemination of information would be absolutely the best way to go.

PENNER: Well, thank you all very much. I want to thank Leslie Wolf Branscomb and Scott Lewis and JW August, and thank our listeners and our callers. You can post your comments if you’d like on KPBS.org, Editors Roundtable page. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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