In San Diego, is libertarian dream alive, stalled — or dead?

Nov. 8, 2012

By Chris Reed

San Diegans had an extremely unusual choice for mayor Tuesday, picking between a gay libertarian who’d already turned the city into a hotbed of government experimentation and a 20-year congressman who is a ’60s-ethos liberal with serious anger-management issues. The contrast between City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Rep. Bob Filner was so unusual that it even got prominent play in The New York Times.

Fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in union-paid attack ads and a hypocritical strategy that sought to remind voters DeMaio was gay, Filner pulled off a 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent win.

With less than four weeks until he takes office, the question for Filner is whether he will try to fight implementation of aggressive reforms approved by San Diego’s voters or whether he will betray voters by working with unions and the union-controlled state Public Employment Relations Board in trying to sandbag those reforms.

The first of those reforms is Proposition C, approved in a landslide by San Diego voters in 2006. It was intended to cut the cost of providing city services through a “managed competition” process in which private companies bid against groups of city employees for city contracts.

After four years of stalling by public employee unions in negotiations with the city as well as stall tactics by a City Council whose Democratic majority had strong union ties, “managed competition” was finally implemented.  The four “competitions” to date have all been won by city employees, to the surprise of some. But the savings have been substantial, and are expected to reach tens of millions of dollars annually in coming years.

Under Mayor Jerry Sanders, the city has been moving steadily toward the biggest “managed comp” implementation of all, in trash collection.

Defined-benefit pensions no more?

The second reform is Proposition B, approved this June by San Diego voters in another landslide.

It seeks to impose a six-year freeze on “pensionable pay” — the types of compensation that are added up to calculate pensions. It will end defined-benefit pensions for new city employees, except for police, and give them a 401(k)-style defined-investment retirement benefit.

This is the measure that PERB, in an extraordinary move, tried to kill before it even reached the ballot. The agency makes the bizarre argument that, because DeMaio, Sanders and other city leaders led the push for the ballot petitions for Measure B, it amounted to an illegal attempt to circumvent mandatory collective bargaining on job conditions. (San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who is fighting PERB, so far successfully, captures the absurdity of the PERB stand well here.)

Filner has said he will honor voters’ wishes on these measures. But he has long criticized both, and it would be easy to see him saying he had changed his mind.

So is the DeMaio-driven libertarian dream of increasingly privatized city services and private sector-level government compensation still alive in San Diego?

To a considerable degree, it appears to be up to Filner. If he follows through with managed competition on trash — which has potential savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years — Filner may learn to appreciate the process. The extra money could pave a lot of roads in a city where even busy boulevards in rich areas like Camino del Norte in Rancho Bernardo are pothole-strewn.

The stark choice for a true-left pol

But to the extent that the left sees privatization as a bogeyman akin to outsourcing, it’s hard to imagine Filner accepting a trash-service bidding process that led to hundreds of city workers getting axed. Sooner or later, an outside bidder is going to win, and trash is likely to draw several serious bids. That would leave Filner with a stark choice.

There is a transactional quality to the enthusiasm that many of California’s elected Democrats show for public employee unions. They know where their bread is buttered. But Filner’s passions, for better and worse, seem real. He sees the world in binary fashion, with little gray. For him to decide to accept, rather than fight, a mass firing of public employees is difficult to imagine. The same may hold for accepting a profound change in public-employee retirement benefits as well.

So much for heeding the voters in America’s eighth-largest city. Libertarians may be left to wonder what might have been. DeMaio would be the next mayor if only one in 66 San Diego voters preferred him to Filner.

One in 66.



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