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Voters May Decide Whether To Impose Term Limits On S.D. County Supervisors

Voters May Decide Whether To Impose Term Limits On S.D. County Supervisors
Next June San Diego voters may get to decide whether to impose term limits on our County Supervisors. The Service Employees International Union gathered the necessary signatures to put a measure on the June 2010 ballot. They say that County Supervisors are out of touch with the citizenry. Is this a matter of a strong local union flexing its muscle?

ALAN RAY (Host): You’re listening to Editors Roundtable on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Gloria Penner. We’re joined at the roundtable today by Dave Rolland, the editor of San Diego CityBeat, by Hieu Tran Phan, who’s the specialists editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and by Kent Davy, who is editor of the North County Times. Well, maybe – maybe a small political earthquake in San Diego County. There is the possibility that we might, next June, vote on term limits for San Diego County Supervisors. 80,000 signatures have been apparently been put on petitions that were put out mostly by the Service Employees International Union. Kent, do you think we actually will get a chance to vote on this?

KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): I think there’s a very high degree of likelihood that this will be on the June 2010 ballot. There’s a lot of motivation on the part of SEIU to collect these, to qualify this measure. There’s a fair amount of angst, I think, on the part of Labor for a five Republican Board of Supervisors. This represents, I think, a first step on their part to try and attack that power structure that’s been in place for, I don’t know, well over a decade.

RAY: You’re listening to Editors Roundtable and we’d like you to join the conversation about term limits or the possibility of term limits for San Diego County Supervisors. 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Dave Rolland, is this a union power grab or are unions now more powerful here than they were 20 years ago when the supervisors actually first sat down?

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, power grab is, you know, is a loaded term. It is certainly a union attempt to break up the current structure of the five supervisors who, as Kent says, are all Republicans and have not – none of them have really, really gotten any kind of meaningful challenge from somebody come election time. So it is absolutely – if there were three Democrats on the Board of Supervisors right now, I don’t think we’d be seeing an attempt to initiate term limits here.

RAY: I’m kind of curious. How is it possible that the voting population of San Diego County could be so different from the population of the Board of Supervisors?

DAVY: Well, I think it’s because the county supervisors tend to be removed from issues that most municipal residents, the city residents, know or care about. The elections, except for in the back country areas, are not considered all that hot, all that interesting. So it tends to tilt towards a more conservative point of view. And the county is, by and large, fairly well run. It has done a reasonable job with its budgets. There are specific areas you can go pick on and quarrel with but it is not considered to be the kind of disaster, say, that San Diego City government has been.

RAY: You’re listening to Editors Roundtable. Let’s check on the phones. Pam in City Heights, good morning. You’re on Editors Roundtable.

PAM (Caller, City Heights): Good morning. This is a favorite topic of mine. First of all, I support Labor and I support especially the SEIU but I find term limits to be a gimmick. We – to make it easier so people don’t have to vote. We have term limits. I wish that the efforts would go into paying for opponents to the current supervisors’ incumbency and stuff. People can be thrown out of office. I just find term limits to be very bad, and it gives too much power to staff members who are continuing, who may be very nice and skilled people but they’re not the people we vote for.

DAVY: It’s certainly one of – it’s certainly the case that you can make a strong argument that part of the state legislature’s dysfunction is the imposition of term limits there so that as you do that, you have inexperienced legislators rolling up into positions, therefore much more controlled, as the caller said, by the influence of staff.

HIEU TRAN PHAN (Specialists Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): And I think this is a point that Dianne Jacob made in one of the Union-Tribune stories. She said just look at how the state is run. She thinks it’s a logjam, it’s highly ideological. I think some of the opponents and the people in the labor movement who are trying to bring about this term limit ballot measure are seeing that they’ve gotten too comfortable, these five supervisors. They often have little competition. They’ve tried to gerrymander their districts so that the voting outcome is more favorable, and they also say that people perhaps with this new system would actually pay a little more attention to challengers. I’m not sure where I would land on that and how I would know for sure but it is an interesting contrast in arguments for why you should or should not have term limits.

DAVY: I think it also fits in in an interesting kind of matrix. Labor in San Diego County is arguably attempting to move more and more influence into elective offices. You have a recall election in Oceanside that’s going on. It’s financed almost entirely by the firefighters union there. You’ve had other kind of forays into this activity, and I suspect that at part of the root cause of this is that you’re in an economic situation in which municipalities and governments cannot afford the pensions that they’ve heretofore granted and you’ve got Labor trying to push back and defend that territory and say wait a minute, I need allies on my side to try and hold this.

RAY: You’re listening to Editors Roundtable on KPBS.

ROLLAND: I would – I just want to get back to, you know, what he said Dianne Jacob’s comment was, I think, about the state and I think Kent also made the point that term limits has had some unintended consequences at the state level, and I do not deny that. I agree with that assertion. And also as a matter of principle, I’m opposed to term limits. I think, you know, it reduces choice come election time. But when you’re talking about the state legislature, you can’t have the conversation without mentioning the onerous two-thirds budget requirement. It takes 67% of the legislature to pass a budget and I think there are people that will argue that that has been a larger factor, you know, when talking about the logjam than term limits. But, you know, certainly, term limits creates its own set of problems up there.

RAY: 1-888-895-5727, if you’d like to join the conversation on Editors Roundtable. Roy in San Diego, good morning. You’re on KPBS.

ROY (Caller, San Diego): Hi, good morning. My comment is I think it causes dysfunctional government to keep inexperienced, you know, legislators or supervisors or council people because it’s just – it’s a – they go from one job to another to another. You know, they’re still professional politicians regardless of whether they stay in one job for 10 or 15 years or migrate from job to job. That’s my comment.

RAY: Thank you.

PHAN: Kent, I think you brought up an excellent point earlier which is, you know, what is at the, you know, the genesis of this situation in terms of the pension, in terms of the economic distrust we have right now. But I – If this measure does make it on the ballot, I think one valuable side effect of it may be that we’re – we’ll get a more public discussion of what the county’s priorities are and people can have a, I think, a more high profile discussion of what are we doing well at the county and what do we not seem to do so well. Because it’s true, unless you’re paying property taxes or you live in an unincorporated area, you rarely get the attention paid to a city council or even a planning committee in a certain community versus the County Supervisors.

RAY: I’m curious. Does anybody have any idea why with the city having term limits and the State of California having term limits and some other counties having them, why did that never come here?

DAVY: I don’t – I can’t answer that.

RAY: It just seems like it would be such a natural, especially when you have people – such a change in the voting population in this county in the last 20 years.

DAVY: If you remember all that term limit push was back in the – it came back in the nineties. There was talk of term limits, you know, across the U.S. in general. That was, I think, in a sense a political fad of the moment and for some reason, probably because this is such a conservative place, it escaped it.

ROLLAND: Well, I think you have relatively few of the 58 counties have term limits in place so I think we’re the rule more than the exception here.

RAY: Would that be the case, I would think, in most counties except, say, San Francisco. In most counties because San Francisco is a city and a county.

DAVY: Umm-hmm.

RAY: In most other counties, the county is kind of camouflaged in a way the cities are not.

DAVY: Well, both – Yeah, that’s true. And both LA and Orange County have term limits imposed of some sort so…

PHAN: Well, and our county reporter, Jeff McDonald, did point out that there have been two recent attempts to put a term limit measure on the ballot that failed to get enough signatures and part of it was just the sheer cost of being able to get enough signatures. And here SEIU has the paid petition collectors as well as their own volunteers and union members to do it, so I think they have the financial and numbers strength in order to pull this off.

RAY: Dave Rolland, do you have any sense if this – presuming this makes the ballot, whether it has a good chance of passage?

ROLLAND: I – My question is – I want to answer that with a question. Does anybody know of a term limits measure that has ever…

DAVY: Failed.

ROLLAND: …failed. I honestly don’t. I’ve never heard of one that has failed. We have such an ingrained fear and loathing of government and politicians, it’s such an easy sell to say kick them out after a certain amount of time. It’s interesting it’s such a patchwork, though, when you go up the government ladder, you know, starting with school board. You know, local school board doesn’t have it and then, you know, the city council does and the County Board of Supervisors doesn’t, the state legislature does but the House and Senate on the federal side do not but the president does. It’s such a patchwork, you know, I think – But the problem is it goes toward the symptoms of the problem, not the root problem itself.

RAY: All right, guys, it’s been fun. Hieu Tran Phan, specialists editor with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times, and Dave Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Thank you all.

DAVY: Thank you.

PHAN: Thank you.

RAY: This is Editors Roundtable on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Gloria Penner.