Should County Supervisors Have Term Limits?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The office of San Diego County Supervisor is not a high turnover position. The newest of the five supervisors started on the board 15 years ago. Supporters of Proposition B on the June ballot believe that's just too long. The initiative would change the San Diego County Charter to limit the terms of supervisors. They would only be allowed to serve two four-year terms, a total of eight years in office. Those against the term limit proposal say San Diegans already have a way to remove county supervisors if they've served too long: Vote them out of office. If you think you've heard the term limit argument before, you probably have. But, many of the traditional supporters and opponents of term limits have flipped sides for this ballot measure. We’ll be discussing Proposition B with my guests. Supporting Yes on B, Lorena Gonzalez is Secretary-Treasurer/CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. Lorena, welcome.
LORENA GONZALEZ (Secretary-Treasurer/CEO, San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And supporting No on B is John Dadian of Dadian & Associates, a full service governmental, lobbying and public relations firm. Good morning, John. Thanks for being here.
JOHN DADIAN (Founder, Dadian & Associates): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Lorena, the Labor Council worked to get this measure on the ballot, is urging people to vote for it in June. So why should term limits be imposed on the county supervisors?
GONZALEZ: Well, it’s pretty simple. We think if term limits are good enough for our president then they’re definitely good enough for Bill Horn. You know, we have a county board of supervisors that have been so entrenched and so unaccountable to the constituency for so long, you know, they’ve – I think about in real terms. My daughter’s about to start high school. This same county board of supervisors was in place the day she was born. And so – And, quite honestly, a lot of people in the county don’t know what they do. They don’t know the actions that are being taken. And we wanted to do something that really highlighted the county board, made people look, made them more accountable, and make sure that we’re never in this situation again.
CAVANAUGH: Lorena, what do you – what kind of problems do you think would be removed or, let me put it this way, how would county government improve if Proposition B were passed?
GONZALEZ: Well, I think we can see even with it being on the ballot things have changed a little. We have five Republican supervisors for years who voted in lockstep, five to zero votes every time at the county board. They’ve spent $100 million on slush funds, their own personal dollar delivery into their constituency, that ensure that they’re reelected, on things like the Ugly Dog Parade in Ocean Beach. I love dogs but I don’t think the county government should be funding that when we have hundreds of thousands of people who really need county services. And so I think what you’ve seen in the last few months since the term limits initiative has been announced is a parting of ways. You’re seeing the county supervisors distinguish themselves from one another. They’re actually addressing the issue of the slush fund for the first time. I think that they’re starting to talk about food stamps and about delivery services and we’re starting to see the differences between them, so I think it already has had a positive effect and I think once it’s voted in that we will continue to see that it’s no longer that aristocracy on the hill and that the county can and should serve the constituents in San Diego County.
CAVANAUGH: So, John, with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors entrenched in their positions for quite so long, why are you opposed to the idea of creating term limits for them?
DADIAN: Well, I normally in politics – politics is a complicated method and I don’t like to use the word simple but I think the Union-Tribune got it right when they said there’s a simple, fundamental reason to oppose term limits: They are anti-democratic. What an election is, is it’s – you gather all your fellow citizens and you decide out of all you who’s best to lead you. What this will do is it will say let’s say these are the five people who want to run for county supervisor, let’s say you think one person is the best, you’re going to say no, he’s not going to be able to run because he’s already run before. That is not democracy. That is government at its worst. Lorena and I both started out our public careers in the public sector working for elected officials. We got in that because we believe in good government. Union-Tribune editorials throughout the region have said this is bad government.
CAVANAUGH: What else besides not allowing someone who is good at it to run for a third term, what other problems do you see created by term limits?
DADIAN: Well, this – What I tell people, whether or not you philosophically believe for or against term limits, this is Proposition B. What you need to look at is this particular proposition. I urge everybody to read this particular initiative. This is a bad initiative. It has several misleading statements in both the language and in the ballot arguments. It has contradictory language. It just goes on and on. This is a very self-funded, very small group, that’s trying to put this on the ballot. I use the famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln, I paraphrase, when he said, you try to fool all the people all the time. What they’re – the proponents are trying to do is they’re trying to fool some of the people on election day. It’s just bad government.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us, John, some of the language in this ballot measure that you have a problem with?
DADIAN: Sure, and even here in this interview, Lorena’s used the term slush funds. Well, again, that’s a very pejorative, misleading term. It’s called community enhancements and I would like to have you on the show, all of the community groups that get their fund. They think that it’s a good thing because it’s all around all five supervisorial districts. I like the term slush funds because she fails to mention that the – awarding those community enhancement funds are done in public session. Every year, people come to the board of supervisors, they speak in favor and opposition. It is a public fund. It’s for the benefit of the community. It’s absolutely not a slush fund. Other examples are they put in the ballot statement that the supervisors failed at certain things and they don’t mention the good aspects. One of the things they mention that they failed at is creating a county fire fund. Well, that’s absolutely not only not true but, as I said before, it’s completely contradictory. The board of supervisors in no way put on the ballot for the people to decided whether or not to have a county fund and it failed out the ballot. The supervisors said we want to know what the people want and the people decided. So that not only was misleading but what they failed – and a lot of times in campaigns, it’s what you don’t say that’s important. What they don’t say in this initiative is that this county, in the entire country’s considered one of the best run counties under this board of supervisors. Under this board – particular board of supervisors, they were facing bankruptcy when they did take over 15 years ago. They’ve turned that around. They’ve outsourced the IT Department. They sold the county landfills. It is one of – They’ve gotten national awards from NAGO, the National Association of Government (sic) for all these projects they’ve done. Nobody said that. So what we really are saying is these people who are in the entire country – there’s 58 counties just in California alone. In the entire country, this is one of the best well-run counties but let’s put these particular supervisors out.
CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with John Dadian. He is supporting the proposition – I’m sorry, supporting No on Proposition B. And also here with us is Lorena Gonzalez. She is supporting Yes on Proposition B. We’re not taking phone calls during this segment of our show but we’re encouraging you to post your comments online at KPBS.org/thesedays. And, Lorena, would you like to respond to what John was saying about the way that the ballot measure is written?
GONZALEZ: Well, I think the ballot measure itself is very clear. Shall the board of supervisors be prohibited from running for more than two terms, and it’s the same language we have at – for the president, it’s the same aspect that we have for the San Diego City Council, for the mayor. If it’s good enough for those folks, I think it’s good enough for Bill Horn. And just to address the slush fund idea, in 2008 Bill Horn allocated $1500 dollars from this community projects budget to the Oceanside Republican Women Federated to cover a party. If that’s not a slush fund, I don’t know what is. And the bottom line is, these county board of supervisors have each spent $20 million apiece on these types of activities. I guess they’re community enhancement when you’re actually supporting the Republican Women’s Federated group to have a party. However, when you’re laying off 600 people at the county board and not providing services when your charge is to provide services for those who are most in need, you’re laying people off and you’re spending money on the Republican Party, I think something is wrong with the system.
CAVANAUGH: But, Lorena, the argument for and against term limits hinges on the idea that people always can vote out the supervisors when they come up for election, so if they don’t like the way they’re spending these discretionary funds, they can vote them out. What’s wrong with just doing that and not imposing term limits?
GONZALEZ: Well, one of our biggest problems has been, you know, in San Diego we just don’t have a real structured media that has shined a light on what these county board of supervisors have done, and they’re such a power of incumbency. These supervisor districts are so large, they’re as large as a congressional district. And yet in order to compete against an incumbent who has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, an individual challenging them can only raise $500.00 at a time. The rules are stacked up against anybody trying to even get that message out. There’s not a media source who really has done it. Lately, since the term limits have been placed on the ballot, we’re seeing a lot more attention, and that was one of our main focuses in putting this on the ballot, is to make sure people start asking what is a county government supposed to do? And what are they doing? Are they actually fulfilling the role? And it’s interesting because I keep hearing about solvency and how responsible our county is and I would just put it like this, you know, I’m a single mom and if revenues were down and I was making less at work and I had a bank account that was very flush and I had reserves and I had wages to take care of it but I stopped feeding my kids. Somebody would come in and take away my kids. Unfortunately, we can’t do that at the county board so they have close to half a billion dollars in undesignated reserves right now and, meanwhile, they’re cutting the safety net for those people who currently need it more than ever.
CAVANAUGH: John, what about this power of the incumbency? Obviously, it is very powerful because the supervisors have been on the board now, as we’ve been saying, 15, 16, 17, 18 years. And what about that argument that it’s virtually impossible for a challenger to come along and unseat one of the incumbents on the county board of supervisors?
DADIAN: Another fallacious argument and, again, instead of talking hypothetically about the philosophical part of term limits, I will use concrete examples. Look at your current ballot. I keep saying on this, look at the language. Look at the ballot for the county supervisors, since that’s who’s targeted. There are several candidates running. There’s two supervisors up, several candidates running against each supervisor. Specifically, when I say several candidates, several credible candidates, other elected officials, big community leaders, there’s no dearth of challengers that are willing to do this and that think they have a shot and it’s a very, very good possibility that we may be seeing a runoff in these county supervisor races. Lorena mentions the contribution limits. She says that these people—her exact words—only can raise $500.00 per check. The rules are the same for everybody. Supervisors are in the exact same boat. They find it very frustrating but the public thinks that limits on contribution good so they abide by the same rules. Again, misleading when you say these challengers can only raise $500.00. Everybody plays by the same rules.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, John, as I said in the opening, it seems that in this argument that traditional supporters and opponents of term limits have kind of switched sides. Now, is it – It’s my understanding that more Republicans than Democrats usually support term limits and it’s also my understanding that you do not oppose term limits just across the board, is that correct?
DADIAN: Well, that’s probably not correct but to get to your point exactly, I have talked – I was against term limits in 1990 when the state imposed it and most of the Republicans were for it. And I was kind of chastised actually by some very big names. Since this has been on the ballot in this year, I have talked to over two dozen Republicans who’ve all said the same phrase, I supported it in 1990 for the state, that was a mistake, look how the state’s run now. Term limits are a disaster. To get to your point as far as how it’s flip-flopped as far as partisan opponents, I keep using the phrase that read this initiative, it’s contradictory, it – To me, the most confusing point in it, here we have Lorena here speaking on behalf of it and it was her organization that funded getting on the ballot. This is a very special interest. In the ballot itself it says, the reason pro for it is to stop the special interests. What bigger special interests than the labor unions?
CAVANAUGH: Let me just get this clear. Are you saying the San Diego County Republican Party now says that term limits are wrong, that their support for them was wrong?
DADIAN: For – I don’t know if they’re saying their support was wrong but from my understanding on this particular initiative the county Democratic Party’s in favor of it and the county Republican Party’s opposed to it.
CAVANAUGH: Lorena, let me ask you a similar question. I know that the labor council has fought term limits in the past when it comes to our state representatives, when it comes to our representatives in Congress. So why is it a good idea on the county board of supervisors?
GONZALEZ: I think there’s a couple of things. Number one is term limits exist. They exist for the Assembly. They exist for the city council and our mayor. They exist for the President of the United States. And as long as they’re in existence, they – we should have them at the county board of supervisors. And I would just note this, you know, term limits have been good and they’ve been bad. In 1992, there were 21 women in the Assembly, today there are 32 women. There were 5 Latinos, there’s over 25 Latinos in office now. Term limits had one very important feature, it made the representatives look like the people that they were serving. This is because after you get out the entrenched incumbent, you’re able to actually have competitive elections. We think in San Diego County that’s very necessary. We have five very similar representatives representing very different constituents and so we think it’s time to make it more diverse. And I think that that’s one of the best things about term limits is how it has changed the face of who’s representing us at the state. And as far as things being wrong with the state, I agree. There are things wrong with the federal government as well and Congress doesn’t have term limits. So we might have to look beyond what term limits has caused and say why are governments dysfunctional? That’s true.
CAVANAUGH: I see. And also, the point has been made, John, that there might be something different about the county board of supervisors in that it’s a group with really no checks and balances that might make term limits more of a fit here than in other areas. How would you counter that argument?
DADIAN: The way I counter that is, again, one of my previous points about both the ballot language and the arguments that the proponents have used contradict each other. In the ballot language, they use the state and the city as an example and Lorena’s done it here today. They say that these jurisdictions have it. When I have brought this point up in public forums, the response I get is, oh, the state’s different, it’s legislative. Well, you can’t have it both ways. I absolutely think that it’s a fair comparison. The two biggest jurisdictions that overlap the County of San Diego are the City of San Diego and the State of California. I always end these topic discussions by saying I’ll agree with Lorena, if you honestly philosophically believe in term limits, you should vote for Prop B if you want the county, one of the best well-run in the country, to be run like the State of California. If you want it to be run like the City of San Diego with pension deficits and back-biting – We haven’t even discussed that term limits promotes job hopping politicians. The minute they get in their second term, they’re going to go to somewhere else. If you – The City of San Diego also has term limits. If you want it to be run like the city and state, go ahead and vote for term limits. Your county will be a disaster within 8 years.
CAVANAUGH: Lorena, the proponents of Prop B cite the fact that we don’t have a county fire department, as John pointed out, on their argument for this ballot measure. How is that the result of not having term limits for the supervisors? How do you make that connection?
GONZALEZ: Well, the county board, on so many things, have just decided that they don’t want to fund what is their responsibility to fund. And a perfect example is, San Diego County has spent about $18 million in the 2008-2009 year on fire protection services where Los Angeles County spent about $939 million and Orange County spent $294 million. They’re actually taking care of their constituents. In the early 1970s, the county board decided it was too expensive to provide a county firefighting service and so instead we rely on volunteers, we put ourselves in dangers, and we make the cities basically fund what the county is not funding. And they’ve done this not only in fire protection, they’ve done it as far as the safety net, in-home health services, the services to the poor. They continue to neglect their responsibility. I don’t think that makes them a well-run government organization. And as far as this being, you know, a few small people putting on the ballot, I’d remind John—and he knows this—we represent 192,000 middle class taxpayers in this county who have said, yes, we think it’s time that the county government start to fulfill the needs of all the county residents and the best way to do that is through term limits to ensure that we don’t have entrenched incumbents who have just completely given up on their role and their responsibility to implement these types of changes in the county and, instead, just sit on a huge $500 million reserve at times when people are in most need of these kinds of safety services or fire services.
CAVANAUGH: John, let me give you the chance to respond.
DADIAN: These particular supervisors, most people in general in the public sector, sees the main role of the county supervisors to set priorities. They have done that. And I think they’ve done it very successfully. Again, the issue of the fire has been brought up. What the supervisors said is we think the priorities need to be elsewhere but the public – this is a big concern. We need to let the public decide. It was the supervisors who placed it on the ballot. It was the public who voted no on it. To accuse these supervisors of not going for fire protection when the public – Again, as the Union-Tribune has described this particular initiative as being anti-democratic, this argument is anti-democratic. They’re saying that even though the people vote it down, it’s still the supervisors’ fault. Again, every argument is being very fallacious in this ballot argument.
CAVANAUGH: Lorena, from some of the things that you’ve said, I get the feeling that part of your goal in getting this Proposition B on the ballot has already been met. You, of course, are supporting the passage of this proposition but you wanted to get out – to get people interested in the county board of supervisors. Do you think that that’s already been done?
GONZALEZ: I think it’s already started to have an affect and we’re very proud of that. I don’t think it’s cured all the problems. You still have a situation, and we’ve seen it time and time again with this county board of supervisors where somebody’ll decide to retire midterm and they’ll decide who the next incumbent is going to be. We just saw it, in fact, with the new sheriff, and the new sheriff may be a good guy but this makes a situation where he has the power of incumbency for just a year because the county board decided he should, and we don’t have an open election for sheriff. We continue to see the county board act in this way, and I think the only way we can ensure that we have a different county board of supervisors, that we have a more accountable county board of supervisors doing the work that they’re really mandated to do by the state and federal government is by ensuring that there is competitive elections, that there continues to be competitive elections and that people continue to look at what’s really going on at the county.
CAVANAUGH: John, I know you want to respond. What would you want to say?
DADIAN: Again, I keep using the word fallacious and that’s, again, I keep saying it’s what they’re not saying. She says that – she used the county sheriff as an example. It is in the County Charter that the process that they did – and, again, she insinuates, as she’s done so many in these things, that it was done behind scenes that that the board appointed him. It was – They were required by law to make a – to take applications. They were required by law to hold public hearings, which they did. And, again, similar to an argument I made about the county supervisors, when she says the power of the incumbency, look at the candidates who are running. The other two opponents against the incumbent sheriff, very well qualified. This is a donnybrook, the sheriff’s race. So the power of incumbency is very, very minimal. And they were required – and the other opponents did apply for the position also, and many people in public testified both pro and con for different candidates. That’s the democracy way. To say that the supervisors are doing something under the table is very fallacious.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both a political question, if I may, as if we haven’t been talking about politics. But there’s been the observation made that, you know, if indeed there were five Democrats on the county board of supervisors, that perhaps the Labor Council would not be promoting Proposition B and because there are five Republicans on the county board of supervisors, that’s why the Republicans and the supporters are – the opponents of Prop B are against term limits on this particular issue. Now do you feel that this is – you’re just arbitrarily switching sides on term limits because your guys are in or your guys are out?
GONZALEZ: Well, I want to be very clear. The Labor Council is a nonpartisan organization. We’re supporting Steve Gronke and – against Bill Horn, and he was a former Republican who’s now a decline-to-state voter. So it’s not a Democrat-Republican thing for the Labor Council. What it is is ensuring when you have a public body and there’s no accountability and there’s no – since 1984, there has not been a challenger who’s been able to unseat an incumbent supervisor, 1984. I would venture to say that since then there’s actually been rules created to make it even more difficult for a challenger to challenge an incumbent. And the slush fund, for the last 10 years, these county board of supervisors have been able to really shore up their base through handing out money to people like the Oceanside Women’s Federated Party in order to ensure that they’re ready for reelection every few years. That’s a power that no challenger can really capture in a short election. And so I think that this board, looking at it independently, we’re going to need term limits in order to keep them accountable. And I think right now I couldn’t imagine having an all-Democratic board that I’d want to keep there either, to be honest. This is about serving the people of San Diego County and about making sure there’s accountability and making sure people are paying attention to what the role of the county board of supervisors is and whether or not they’re doing the job.
CAVANAUGH: And, John, how much of the opposition do you think is based on the fact that there are 5 Republicans there and you want to see them remain there?
DADIAN: Oh, I don’t think so at all but I want to get back to the question you asked, and I’m going to answer it directly. First of all, one of the reasons why I’ve been speaking so much on this, because I’ve been consistent over – I’ve been involved with this issue actually 30 years, way before California even instituted – So I’ve been every consistent. But as far as your direct question about have the side flip-flopped, etcetera, again, I will quote from the Union-Tribune and they say the Public Employees Union has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past two decades seeking to undermine California’s term limits is leading the charge to limit term limits in San Diego. It’s extremely hypocritical and it’s absolutely because it’s what they personally want to do. And, again, most of these supervisors that realistically won’t apply to them because most of them had said they probably aren’t going to be on the board in 20 years so, clearly, I think you asked the right question. I think anybody – I use the colloquial term the smell test, does it pass the smell test? I think anybody would say if the Union had 5 supporters on board, some supervisors, you absolutely would not see this. I want to bring up a point because we’re talking about this initiative. Lorena mentioned that hundreds of thousands or over a hundred thousand San Diego citizens put this on the ballot. It was a paid campaign by the labor unions. These weren’t volunteers. They didn’t get a bunch of citizens together and said, hey, (unintelligible) gotta (unintelligible) – It was paid people that went out. The campaign itself on the yes side – the no side doesn’t have a main paid campaign right now. The yes side does and it’s being funded by the unions. As the Union-Tribune says, it’s a power grab.
CAVANAUGH: Let me give you about 30 seconds or so just to wrap up your positions on why people should vote for or against Prop B. Lorena, let me start with you. Why should people vote for Proposition B?
GONZALEZ: Well, I – First, I’d be remiss to not point out, and we need to continue. You know, when folks say, you know, the unions, the big unions, my clarification is the unions are made up of 192,000 people in this county, middle class taxpayers, and they have made the decision to use their funds to pay to help get this put on the ballot, yes, because they think it’s that important. And I think San Diego County residents think it’s that important that we need to continue to hold a county board of supervisors who, unfortunately, without term limits, there’s no attention paid to really what they should be doing, what they’re not doing, and even the prospect of term limits has now created a situation where more people are running for office, more people are paying attention to what the county is doing, and we’re going to be ensured once this passes that we’re never in this situation again where we have five entrenched supervisors who are unaccountable and are using county money for their own personal priorities and personal preferences and not serving the voters of San Diego County.
GONZALEZ: That’s why you should vote yes on B…
CAVANAUGH: Sorry. That’s why you should vote…
GONZALEZ/CAVANAUGH: …yes on B…
CAVANAUGH: …says Lorena.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: John, why should people vote no on B?
DADIAN: I can’t understand why any voter would not want the most qualified person to represent them. And what this would do, it would say out of a pool of potential people that are eligible for all the other requirements that they may think person A is more qualified but they’re not going to be able to vote for them. That is un-American, it’s undemocratic. I will use the famous cliché, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Again, you can talk philosophically about term limits but I’m – I like to use concrete examples. Because the county board of supervisors, one thing Lorena and I agree on, they affect our daily lives of the two and a half million people in this entire region. These county supervisors, if you want the state run like the – if you want the county run like the state with budget deficits and job-hopping politicians, go ahead and vote for term limits. The city, look at – there’s problems. Those aren’t hypothetical, those are concrete examples of where we’ve had term limits. They’ve failed, plain and simple. This board of supervisors are one of the best run counties in this country (sic). We need to keep it that way.
CAVANAUGH: Both very lively advocates. Thank you so much for your – speaking with us today. I appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with Lorena Gonzalez. She is Secretary-Treasurer/CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. And John Dadian of Dadian & Associates, a full service governmental, lobbying and public relations firm. Remember, please post your comments online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, families coping with a genetic illness that has no cure, Huntington’s disease. We’ll learn about it after the break here on KPBS.