Editorial

Public Servants are Supposed to Serve the Public

August 4, 2017

By Arturo Castañares / La Prensa San Diego Publisher and CEO

County Supervisor Ron Roberts and SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos. Photo: Vito Di Stefano

Something seems wrong with a system where public employees engage in plainly dishonest, deceitfully, and even illegal acts while they’re supposed to be working in the public’s best interest.

In recent years, we have heard of politicians, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, defy logic when trying to explain some sort of alternative truth, from “I’m not a crook”, to the definition of “is”, to who was in a meeting with Russians, and why. Washington, D.C. has provided some of the worst examples of stalling, hiding, and lying that the public has ever seen.

Most of those actions were dismissed as commonplace, as business-as-usual in the world of high-stakes politics.

But, what people seem to forget is that these politicians are employees of the government. They are public servants whose salaries, health benefits, and pensions are paid for by tax dollars.

The definition of “public servant” is someone who works for the government, especially someone who has been elected. Unlike civil servants, or Civil Service, which describes a sector of government composed mainly of career bureaucrats hired on professional merit rather than appointed or elected, politicians do not need to meet any prescribed level of work qualifications or expertise in order to be elected to office.

But, Washington does not hold the exclusive concession on malfeasance.

Unfortunately, even local elected officials and public employees have come under scrutiny for their failure to live up to the standards of public service.

As La Prensa San Diego has reported in recent weeks, local elected officials and employees of public agencies have been criticized for actions that raise concerns, including purposely failing to disclose important information to the public.

In the first case, stories in recent weeks reported that SANDAG, our regional transportation agency, failed to disclose flawed tax revenue projections to the public before the election when voters were asked to support a new half-cent sales tax increase to pay for future transportation projects.

When news first broke that the projections may have been wrong, SANDAG staff and elected board members (all public employees of various local agencies) began to work to further conceal information, hide documents, and may even have deleted documents related to the emerging issue. The fact that public employees may have become aware of information that could have changed the outcome of an election and failed to alert the public is, at minimum, a violation of the public’s trust, if not legally actionable.

A report released this week detailing an independent investigation into SANDAG’s actions concluded that, among other acts, staff created a secret folder on a separate computer server to store documents that would not be discoverable through media inquiries or through a Public Records Act request as provided by state law.

SANDAG staff were also told to stopp using emails to discuss the projections issue, and were told by executives to delete old documents as soon as media requests for documents began to arrive.

The report concluded that senior staff and some elected officials knew, or should have known, that their projections were wrong before the election, yet no one alerted the public before the vote.

La Prensa San Diego sent emails to 61 members and alternates on SANDAG’s Board seeking comment on what they knew about the flawed projetions and when they knew it. After one week, only 11 elected officials have responded, and most of those were only elected this year, after the SANDAG issues happened.

It seems that politicians who are usually quick to take credit for popular things they do, are suddenly unavailable to comment on what happened at SANDAG on their watch.

Another local issue that defies explanation is San Diego’s recent approval of a $30 million street lighting program that surreptitiously included the installation of 3,200 surveillance camera throughout the City. The program, billed as an energy efficiency project, was passed unanimously by the City Council on July 17.

But, during a presentation by city staff, there was no mention of cameras or microphones, and no Councilmembers addressed the existance of the cameras, who would have access to the video feeds, or whether facial recognition software and/or license plate reading technology would be deployed. The public could not have known surveillance cameras would be approved that day by reading the agenda or watching the public session.

La Prensa San Diego reached out to city staff for clarification on exactly what the technology will do, which departments will use it, and why the public wasn’t informed. Several city staff, including Supervising Public Information Officers Jose Ysea, San Diego Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Scott Wahl, and Environmental Services Director Mario Sierra did not respond to requests for comment.

The public has a right to demand competent, responsible, and responsive action from our public servants. Whether elected to office by the voters, appointed by elected leaders, or hired through an employment process, these are all public employees ultimately accountable to the taxpayers. They receive government salaries, and most, earn generous pensions.

Public servants, as the name describes, should serve the public. The County of San Diego’s motto is “The noblest motive is the public good” and many police agencies declare their focus is to “Protect and Serve”.

But, public service also carries with it a duty to the public. And, when public servants fail to live up to that standard, they should face consequences.

For elected officials, they may have to face voters again in a re-election and have to account for their actions or inactions. Employees may face disciplinary action or reprimands.

But, unfortunately, for most, reprisals for their transgressions will be short-lived, if not, non-existent.

This news will pass, and voters have short memories. All that will be left will be the financial consequences for taxpayers to absorb, or the lost opportunities for better outcomes for the public.

We should demand better and more loyal service from its public servants. If we don’t, we will only get the government we deserve.

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