January 7, 2005

Commentary

Be Careful For What You Wish For, You Just Might Get It

By Robert Castañeda

Last November a plurality of San Diegans voted for considerable change, but now many worry that change could come at a significant cost.

For the rest of the country the election season is over except in “America’s Finest City.” Continued court challenges concerning the Mayor’s race, threats of litigation on the issue of open-government, and combative political theatre will inhabit the San Diego landscape for many months to come. All of this leaves most asking, will any of this be worth it in solving our city’s problems?

On the surface, the city’s troubles appear to be financial as well as structural. However, what rests beneath the water line is the true threat. The real issue for our city’s leaders is political. Illustrating this point was the clamor by candidates to end closed-door meetings and open up government. This political epiphany was put forth as the salvation for a decision-making process that appeared to be dysfunctional at best and shady at worst. True, no one can argue that government that is closest to the people is the finest form of representation. However, television cameras, scores of reporters, and an audience to play to may not be the ideal setting for some politicians in doing the people’s business. Their desire to stop being politicians and start being problem-solvers, and dare I say statesman, may be severely handicapped in this reality TV environment.

San Diegans know the severity of the problems at hand, and their voice was loud and clear at the polls. That being said, there is no one that would say San Diego is not a beautiful city that has much we can be proud of and point to as the most desirable place on earth to live. In this charged political environment many would cite that “change is good”, and game politicians recognizing advantage may see themselves as the agent for that change. That is the political reality, but city leaders should remember that only through building consensus can we ensure that the best decisions are made. That course is not a path traveled alone; rather it is the crowded high road of people joined by virtue in believing that they are doing the right thing. To get that done it will take a rare brand of leadership that is not anxious with getting individual credit. Statesman know that making hard choices will take the courage to rock a few boats of vested political interests and the discipline to see it through given vociferous and tenacious opposition.

These political and financial calamities are not new. Severe deficits have hit Sacramento for years. In dealing with that level of monetary crisis genuine leaders of both parties know that the best resolution to a financial emergency is measured by the special interests of both political spectrums being angry at the same time with those decisions. There are no clear-cut winners, and the financial pain is spread out. That brand of leadership makes the hard choices and that takes the political hit. Political courage, discipline, wisdom, and even sleeping with the enemy if necessary to get the job done is the work of statesman, not political opportunists. Relationships that bridge the political divide are king and that is not fostered by finger pointing, carefully crafted innuendo, or unending political gamesmanship.

San Diego has a new city attorney, perhaps a new mayor, and certainly major reengineering as to the city’s charter, management, meetings, deliberations, and decision-making ahead for local government to tackle. This agenda is not self-fulfilling; there is much to be done with process design, approval, and implementation. San Diegans voted for this agenda and they expect a consensus amongst their leaders to bring about this change and expected outcomes to light, soon.

On the surface the open-meeting process appears to be a needed new approach in deliberating the people’s business. Hopefully, it’s not the harmless tip of the iceberg concealing a disastrous fate that ensures political warfare and delays action on needed public policy.

Cameras operating in courtrooms have long been a sticking point for judges that fear that the lawyers representing both the plaintiff and defendant will be playing to the cameras and not focused on the work at hand. Hopefully, that is not the outcome with the city’s now open-meetings that will address major issues that will determine the fate of taxpayers, stakeholders, and the city’s future. Given the dynamics of what will be discussed, the attention paid, and the scrutiny given to what is eventually decided will come with pressure and the temptation to be self-promoting. However, the quality of the final product will ultimately be determined by the unselfish efforts of all involved in those decisions.

In the words of Indira Gandhi, “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group. There is much less competition”. These are words that our city leaders should live by when deliberating and eventually deciding on what is best for everybody.

Robert Castaneda was appointed by former Governor’s George Deukmejian as his Liaison to the Hispanic Community and by Pete Wilson as a Special Assistant for Community Relations.

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