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Prop B: Do San Diego Supervisors Need Term Limits?

Audio

Aired 5/12/10

San Diego voters will decide next month whether it’s time to impose term limits on the top elected officials at the County. San Diego’s five county supervisors earn more than state legislators. Unlike state legislators, they are not limited to two or three terms in office.

San Diego voters will decide next month whether it’s time to impose term limits on the top elected officials at the County. San Diego’s five county supervisors earn more than state legislators. Unlike state legislators, they are not limited to two or three terms in office.

Special Feature Who's Supervising San Diego?

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors controls a $5 billion budget and makes decisions affecting your health and safety. They oversee services that range from prosecuting criminals to feeding the poor. Learn about your supervisor’s priorities and how the group spends your money.

In fact, when the clerk of the board calls the roll at the beginning of the meeting, the names are exactly the same as they have been for the past 15 years. The last new face was Greg Cox, who was appointed in 1995. Supervisors Pam Slater Price and Dianne Jacob are the longest serving. They were elected in 1992, 18 years ago.

This year the labor movement in San Diego mobilized. At a recent rally, Lorena Gonzales of San Diego’s Labor Council called on the crowd to march to the County Administration building.

“We’re going to remind the County Board of Supervisors that it’s time for term limits,” she told them.

Gonzalez has made this one of the most important issues on the June ballot for her constituents: working families. She points out demographics have changed since the current board was elected. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in two of the five districts, but there are no Democrats on the county board.

Lani Lutar of the San Diego Taxpayers Association is not in favor of term limits for the supervisors. She says if people don’t like the incumbents, there’s already a way to replace them.

“If they don’t support the incumbency,” Lutar says, “then they have to work to identify a qualified candidate and support that candidate.”

Challengers have an uphill battle financially to raise enough money to compete with the supervisors’ accumulated war chests of more than $100,000 each. They also have $2 million a year to distribute to whomever they want, prompting allegations the money is used as a slush fund to curry favor with supporters. The board recently decided to reduce that sum to $1 million a year with the option of reinstating it once the economy improves.

A look at the average number of years county supervisors spend in office in California's 10 most populous counties.

Above: A look at the average number of years county supervisors spend in office in California's 10 most populous counties.

Richard Rider of San Diego Tax Fighters has been calling for term limits for San Diego County Supervisors for years. He labels himself an Independent. He says the interesting thing is that the Democratic Party, which is historically opposed to term limits, is now in favor of them, whereas the Republican Party, which has adamantly supported term limits, is suddenly opposed to them.

“The one common denominator you see between the two parties,” Rider says, “is absolute lack of principal. When they see a chance to get rid of people from the other party they support it, when it protects their own party, they’re agin’ it.”

Michael Rosen, Secretary of the San Diego Republican Party, admits his party’s support of term limits for state legislators did not result in better government.

“I guess I’m saying I’m agnostic about term limits,” Rosen says. “In some circumstances perhaps they could help bring about competitiveness in elections, but I think in this case of San Diego County, I think they’re overrated.”

Margeret Johnson, a long time county employee, is a registered Republican. But she’s also a union member and was one of the first to go out to collect signatures for the term limit initiative.

She says she watched her father vote election after election for the incumbent county supervisor. “And I wondered how many other people are there out there who don’t know what labor knows, but they still vote for the incumbent regardless of their track record.”

Johnson wonders how many people even understand how the County affects their lives.

She points out San Diego supervisors spend a fraction of what other counties spend on fire protection, and the County is at the bottom of the list of counties statewide in terms of its Food Stamp program.

Johnson says people whose health and welfare services have been cut are often too busy trying to survive to vote, and service providers tend not to speak out in public to criticize the board that funds their programs. She says it was difficult enough for her to support the initiative. She says she was scared to take on the board.

The Term Limits Initiative avoids confronting the supervisors currently in office. Even if it passes, it allows two additional four year terms. That would mean Ron Roberts and Bill Horn, who are running for their fifth terms this year, could still run for a sixth and seventh term.

Richard Rider says he believes changing demographics will change the makeup of the board eventually with or without term limits, but not until the incumbents decide they’re ready to quit.

“What has happened, “ Rider says,“is the demographics have changed, but because of the advantages of incumbency, we can’t get rid of the old school that is there, much to the delight of the Republicans, much to the chagrin of the Democrats.”

It turns out San Diego is not unusual. Supervisors in more than a third of California counties have served between 15 and 20 years. So far, only eight of California’s 58 counties have term limits.

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