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City Council President Talks About Past Year, Future

San Diego City Council President Ben Hueso
San Diego City Council President Ben Hueso
City Council President Talks About Past Year, Future
In the first of interviews scheduled with all eight San Diego City Council members at the close of the calendar year, we take stock of the city's accomplishments of 2009, issues as yet unresolved, and upcoming problems in 2010, including severe budget cuts.

DOUG MYRLAND (Host): You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Now we’re intending to conduct interviews with all eight San Diego City Council members at the close of this calendar year and that series of interviews is beginning today with the president of the council, Ben Hueso. Ben Hueso, thank you for being with us this morning.

BEN HUESO (President, San Diego City Council): Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MYRLAND: Now during this conversation, we do want to take stock of the city’s accomplishments in 2009, as well as explore some issues that we all know are unresolved. We also want to look at some upcoming problems in 2010. But before we get to those citywide questions, I just want to ask you one personal question about your background. I’ve read that your parents were really hardworking people and your father was actually an activist, so can you talk a little bit about how that shaped your desire to do public service?

HUESO: Well, I was raised in a neighborhood, Logan Heights, that had a significant amount of socio-economic challenges. My father was the director of a program called Neighborhood House in Barrio Logan that helped families in need, helping them obtain resources and helping them buy a home, get a job, start a business, and the simple things as putting food on the table, and that was a source of inspiration for me to go into public service and want to continue in my father’s footsteps in helping people in my community.

MYRLAND: Now your district is the 8th District and can you give folks a general idea of what parts of the city that includes and what the main issues are there?

HUESO: The 8th District goes from Balboa Park, downtown, all the way down to the border. It includes San Ysidro, the busiest border crossing in the world. I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Tijuana River Valley, which is one of the most important estuarine environments in the world, and that’s also in District 8. It goes along the bay, a lot of waterfront industry, the 10th Avenue Terminal, our largest shipping port in San Diego, Naval Base San Diego, which is the largest military base in the United States, and it also has, you know, waterfront recreation. We have a lot of waterfront jobs and a lot of working families in neighborhoods that we’re working hard to improve.

MYRLAND: Now this year was a big year for challenges and with you as the president of the San Diego City Council, you had to deal with half of the council coming in being brand new. Sherri Lightner, Todd Gloria, Carl DeMaio, Marti Emerald. How do you integrate brand new people into the business of the council?

HUESO: Well, I feel very fortunate to have four new council members that have come on to – and really hit the ground running, working very hard to get their arms around all the issues and prepared themselves to vote and to make very difficult decisions on a budget that was very challenging, on projects that were pushing forward to the city to put people back to work that require their support. So it has taken an enormous amount of work on their part to really get behind some of these issues that I have been working on for several years already. So I appreciate the fact that they’ve worked very hard and they’ve joined a council that has been working collaboratively together to support what we believe philosophically but also to agree on a package that’s going to put our city into, you know, not only the next century but into the modern era.

MYRLAND: Now, can you point to a couple of things that you think you and the other council members really can look back on as positive accomplishments in 2009?

HUESO: Positioning our city effectively and competitively to receive a lot of the federal stimulus dollars is one of the most important things that we’ve done to put our people in San Diego back to work. A lot of this money will go into infrastructure improvements projects. We’ve really worked hard on helping people keep their homes during this foreclosure crisis. We’ve helped people buy new homes, and we’ve also built a substantial amount of affordable housing to target a very large part of the population in our city that has not had adequate access to affordable housing, so we’ve been working on those issues. But I think the most important thing that we’ve accomplished this year was working hard to balance our budget that not only had an $80 million deficit but an additional $80 million that the state came after in trying – in hopes of balancing their budget. So that took…

MYRLAND: Well, and you’re still working on that.

HUESO: And, actually, we’re already responding to next year by working early to – We might be cutting an additional amount of money from this year’s budget to make sure we don’t have to cut that much from next year’s budget. Our entire strategy was in keeping our libraries open, our parks open, all the services that provide – we provide, police and fire, trash collection, street maintenance. Our goal was not to affect those last year and I think that’s going to be our goal this year, and I feel very confident we’re going to meet our goal.

MYRLAND: Now talking about the budget leads inevitably to the question about working with the mayor. Now you have a relatively new form of government that we’re theoretically testing, going to vote to see if we want to keep it next year. Tell us about what it’s like, as the president of the council, to work with this mayor, how you’re finding the process, how’s that going to work in the future.

HUESO: Well, as a person Jerry Sanders is a wonderful person. He’s a very humble person, he’s a very approachable person. He’s somebody that cares very much about our city. So it’s a great place to start when you’re engaging somebody in a whole host of very important issues affecting our city and going through the budget process. It’s been great to work with him but we don’t always agree on every issue. And the key approach to this lack of agreement is communication. We sit down and we talk how we can advance the goals of our city and we go through this process every week of putting things forward before the agenda, and I’ve been very open, as the council president, to docketing everything that the mayor and the council want to discuss to make sure that we have an open dialogue on every issue. And I think that’s been what’s given us a lot of success.

MYRLAND: Now how big is the deficit that you’re trying to cover right now?

HUESO: We – The mayor estimates about $179 million, the – our independent budget analyst estimates about $200 million. So, in essence, we’re really working at resolving a $200 million deficit, which is – which represents 27% of every department budget in our city where we’ve been cutting since – You know, when I first got elected, the first thing I did is cut how much I spent from my own budget and I’ve been reducing that every year. So the council themselves have been taking the initiative of cutting from their own budgets…

MYRLAND: But not nearly as much as the mayor asked.

HUESO: Well, in terms of the budget that’s approved and the actual savings at the end of the year, I think we’ve exceeded what the mayor has asked. If you take it cumulatively, I have far exceeded what the mayor has asked. But we have a situation in which we have very limited staff in analyzing – You know, the public wants their council to be part of the solution, and it’s hard to do that when we’re only reacting what’s to (sic) being put in front of us because we don’t have enough staff. We – The mayor has 10,000 people under his – well, about, you know, just under 10,000 people under his direction where we have about 8 to 10, trying to respond to a $3.3 billion budget and…


HUESO: …and a whole host of legislative actions and land use approvals and other matters.

MYRLAND: So keeping that in mind, that, you know, the mayor really has everybody working for him and you have very few, is it fair to say then that the council’s position is to expect the mayor to come forward with proposals to cover that 27% deficit and then have you react to it rather than the council being more proactive and coming up with a lot of their own proposals?

HUESO: To be proactive we need to have staff, to be proactive we need to have access to information. We need talent on our staff to actually come up with solutions that the public needs. I don’t think the public needs to rely only on the mayor to make proposals for solutions. I think that’s part of the council’s job, too. It’s our job to find savings in the budget. It’s our job to make the best decisions that are going to get to the best public policy that our constituents deserve. I think it’s very, very important to mention that there have been some votes taken by the council in which there’s been a deficiency of information and the council members don’t feel comfortable about voting for a certain issue. And I always talk about the saying that – I make reference to the saying ‘pennywise, pound foolish,’ where we can forego a very important decision that can either save taxpayers a lot of money or bring a project to our city that will be the source of generating a lot of revenue, and we could forego that by not supporting a project when we have an access of – a lack of access to information or lack of adequate information or the right analysis to support our vote. The mayor doesn’t vote in our form of council; only the council members vote. But when you vote for something, that’s what opens you up to – potentially opens you up to criticism, so people want to make the right vote. When you’re on – sitting on council, you want to make the vote that helps people, you want to make the vote doesn’t hurt your community. And to do that, you need information and to do that you need staff and to do that, you know, you can’t possibly read the piles and piles of documents that they put on your desk every week. We vote on hundreds of issues every month that require a lot of analysis, a lot of debate, and a lot of preparation.

MYRLAND: Now, over the weekend, an advisory panel to the mayor brought up the subject of bankruptcy. And when you’re talking about 27% of the budget, that seems like a reasonable option to discuss anyway. What’s your position about...

HUESO: I don’t think it’s reasonable, and I’m sorry that we have come out and said that everything’s on the table because I can tell you very certainly the bankruptcy, from my standpoint, is not on the table. When you have a family in a community that doesn’t have a job or don’t have any source of income, they can’t make an adjustment. They can’t say, well, we’re going to spend less because they don’t actually have any revenue coming in. So they can declare bankruptcy. Our city has revenue coming in. It’s less than you – People are paying less taxes this year. We’re getting less revenue from fees from taxes from all of our revenue sources. That’s true. But we still have a considerable amount of revenue. We still have enough money to make our city function. Of course, we’re going to have to make some cuts and we’re going to have to make some reductions and we’re going to have to get creative in terms of how we provide police and fire protection, which is our number one responsibility as a municipality, but we also have to collect people’s trash. We have an enormous amount of responsibility to our constituents. Declaring bankruptcy takes the decision away from elected representatives and gives it to a judge who’s going to do the same thing in terms of making decisions on how we spend our money. I think this decision should be – should fall in the hands of elected representatives to make sure that we do the best things by our constituency. And if we don’t do a good job, then we should be voted out of office, it’s that simple.

MYRLAND: Speaking of voting, what do you think about the strong mayor – so-called strong mayor form of government? What do you think that vote is going to happen – how’s that going to go in 2010 and how would you recommend that it go?

HUESO: The only thing I can say on that is that I hope the constituents do their job in terms of analyzing what form of government is best to serve their needs. I find that it’s my responsibility to make this form of government work because this is the form of government that our voters passed so I want to send a message that I’m working very hard to make sure that we implement the voter mandate, which is to make strong mayor form of government work. And I’m working very hard every day to try to make it work and to make it an effective government for our city.

MYRLAND: We’ve got about three or four minutes left and because you’ve announced that you want to run for the State Assembly in the 79th District, I want to talk about that for a couple of minutes. Are you still intending to do that?

HUESO: Yes, I’m working to campaign for the 79th…

MYRLAND: Now, when…

HUESO: …in the upcoming months.

MYRLAND: When we were talking about all the different questions that we could ask you when you came in for this interview, the one that I really wanted to ask is why the heck would you want to join that Assembly? It seems to me that that’s a difficult, thankless job. Things are not looking good for the State of California. Whereas, on the city council, you have, you know, direct contact with your own neighborhood, you have a lot of challenges but a little more control. What’s the appeal to go take that, from an outsider point of view, seemingly really awful job. I mean, why is that…

HUESO: Well, why do so many people join the Armed Forces and want to go abroad and potentially die for their country? Because they care about their families, they care about their country, and they’re willing to put their life on the line. I don’t compare being in politics to what some members of our Armed Forces do. It’s not even a close comparison. But it’s similar in that I’m not doing this for my own – put my own betterment – I’m doing this for my family, I’m doing this for my community. When I ran for city council, people asked me the same question. Why would you want to go to the city and face this fiscal meltdown. Things are terrible. They’re attacking politicians every day. And it’s true, it is a thankless job. It’s a very difficult job. It requires an enormous time of – time commitment, it just puts a strain on your family, but it’s the best thing that I can do to serve my community. And I think I’ve done a great job on the council. I think we’ve got – we have our city moving in the right direction. And I think we need people like that at the state level to make the difficult decisions. You know, we can’t continue to fund state government on the backs of local government and we need to keep our local government responsive and responsive to the needs of the community and also functioning effectively. And that requires people at the state level that are going to go up there and make the difficult choices like we’ve made here. And if we need to make cuts, we – let’s make those cuts. If we need to find new ways to be innovative, let’s find those ways. But we cannot continue with the same leadership style in Sacramento that is pushing our state in the wrong direction.

MYRLAND: And in the 35 seconds or so that we have left, what advice would you give to your successor in – as the new 8th District council member?

HUESO: Listen to the people in the community and work very hard to meet their needs and to fight very hard for leadership positions and representative positions that are going to help make you not only a better elected official but help to make sure that you can best represent your community and bringing the resources home. San Diegans need their communities to improve and we can only do that by fighting for our bigger piece of the pie every day.

MYRLAND: Now, you are going to run for the Assembly, you – say you get elected, you get termed out, you’re there long enough to get termed out, have you thought about after that? Do you have political ambitions that go beyond that?

HUESO: It’s really – I mean, last year at this time, I was saying that I could not run for a state position because it’s a mess but here I am finding myself doing that. You never know in politics. I mean, I want to serve my community. As long as I have that passion and desire to do that, I’m going to be working to represent my community. I don’t know at what capacity but I hope that if I decide to do so, God’ll give me the strength to continue working hard for my community.

MYRLAND: I want to jump back to a little bit of city council business. One of the things that always gets talked about whenever you talk about San Diego and budget problems is outsourcing or managed competition. Is part of the solution to really take that more seriously and really talk about outsourcing government functions?

HUESO: It’s a solution. It has a role in government. Any time you can create innovation by putting forth a process that does that, it’s a good thing to do. But it also has the potential of taking the decision making away from people in the community and it also can erode job quality. And, generally, people that I’ve heard of – from in my community want us to go in there and fight for job equality, for better jobs, for better quality of life for everybody in San Diego. So you want to make sure you take – make decisions that don’t affect people’s quality of life but also get to creating efficiencies and innovation. California is famous in the world for being an innovative state and San Diego is in the leader of innovation. I think we can use that innovation and apply it to government to create a situation in which we can find better forms of doing things that lead to, you know, reforms in government but also new technologies, new management styles and practices that will put our country on the cutting edge.

MYRLAND: Well, you actually proposed at one point a fairly radical innovation and that is to combine city and county government. Are you still interested in that idea?

HUESO: I’m interested in finding ways to promote – reduce redundancy in government. There’s a natural tendency for people want to know their mayor and council intimately, to be – to have access to their leaders and that has created a fragmentation of government along our state. But government is also very costly to sustain and taxpayers pay a lot of money to have representative government. So what we have, a conundrum that we’re trying to solve here in creating an environment where we have less taxes imposed on our constituency to make sure that we have this ability to provide a suitable environment for business but we also have a very strong voter mandate to provide a lot of services, a broad range of services that get to everyone’s needs, and that’s very costly as well. So how do we do that in a way that doesn’t break the bank?

MYRLAND: It just seems almost politically inconceivable to get people to compromise enough and give enough to make a radical government change like that one that you proposed. I mean, do you really think that other than just as a conversation starter that there are – that, practically, that could be done?

HUESO: I think it can. It’s been done in other instances. San Francisco uses a city/county form of government. Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to accomplish change that’s going to improve our ability to get things done locally. I mean, if the ultimate goal is to make San Diego a very attractive place to live in and a very competitive place to want to locate your business, I mean, we – government has to be relevant. Government has to be able to come in and solve people’s problems and to move the region in a direction. When you have a fragmented government, when you have different governments moving in different directions, it doesn’t bode well for the region. We want everyone working together on solving our environmental problems, our transportation challenges, our community planning issues, our environmental – I mentioned environmental twice but it’s that important to me that we really have to start doing something to solve the environment problems but also to get water to the region. I mean, there’s a whole host of issues. We just dealt with a water rates hike as a result of – I mean, our city’s working very efficiently but the County Water Authority decided, you know, that it cost more to bring water to San Diego and they’ve done – they’ve – they are a higher authority and they can basically say…


HUESO: …you need to pay us more money. And we do because what do we do? I mean, what do we take money away from trash collection…


HUESO: …where we don’t have any money to subsidize water. It’s a big problem, I mean, and this is…