At the risk of miniaturizing a public-policy debate, I offer you the lowly news rack as a litmus test on the low quality of government to which the people of San Diego are being subjected.
Pete Wilson’s previously optimistic, but now inapt sobriquet, America’s Finest City, has been nearly abraded from our hearts by subsequent political and also visual reality.
I have had the privilege of visiting many great and old cities in my travels around the world.
I am sad to say that not one, from Istanbul to Seoul, suffers from the managerial ineptness of San Diego.
Instead of clean beaches, we have fly-infested seaweed rotting for days before being inefficiently removed.
Instead of glorious avenues we have street surfaces increasingly effective at savaging our car suspensions.
Our sidewalks are mostly trip-and-fall hazards waiting to be reported but never fixed.
Too many of our traffic signals look as if they are suffering retinal detachments; their poles go unpainted for decades, dents go unrepaired and they are festooned with the latest marijuana-induced stickers.
Street markings — intended to make us safe by an array of limit lines, lane dividers, and important cue words such as “Stop” or “Pedestrian Xing” — are mere ghosts of their original appearances.
What were formally legally enforceable red, white or yellow curb markings now require a forensic investigation to determine which law we might offend by parking near them.
Throughout the city there are dilapidated community-watch signs mourning the absence of the formerly concerned neighbors who used to back up their bravado by calling the cops.
Our traffic islands are universally grunged over with primordial soot, speckled with decayed trash, surrounded by disgusting mounds of cigarette butts, and all punctuated with the latest crop of knee-high street weeds.
And on nearly every street corner, a human wretch begs us for a pittance.
As a concerned citizen, you might consider writing to your elected representative asking them to take action solving this or that problem.
Save your stamp. It is rare that any members of the City Council bother to answer their mail, even belatedly.
And if they do, answers constitute little more than litanies of excuses for the city staff.
Self-serving phrases such as: “Prop. 13,” “budget cuts,” “other priorities” or just plain silence are likely to greet your appeal.
Or they may engage in “complicated cooperation” by “reaching out” or “collaborating” with a labyrinth of idea-swallowing front groups guaranteed to jam your concerns into the city’s managerial black hole.
I am not being cynical, just honest, in the interest of drawing attention to the malaise that has too long gripped our city management.
Good city management makes things better and cheaper each year: They don’t sit and watch the decay.
News rack management is just one of many examples of what is wrong and how things could be done better … if anyone in the city cared … Mr. Gloria.
As you can easily see, our city streets are chock-a-block full of these eyesores.
News rack owners do not have a constitutional right to block pedestrian traffic, damage our city sidewalks and create urban blight.
Because of the scourge, many years ago, a City Council adopted an ordinance and charged the city staff with enforcing it.
Apparently that was the last time any city council took any interest in the subject and even more apparently, all of them are now blind.
How can they move around the city and not see the problems and be concerned enough to take action?
The blight became so bad that just last year our county grand jury investigated the issue. They sampled over 500 of the thousands of these nuisances and found that 39 percent of the news racks surveyed and fully a third of the publications on the streets were not in compliance with the ordinance.
Worse, the city staff had no database from which to determine which racks were legal and which were bandits.
Nearly all the racks were in violation of the code in that they were not kept in good order.
Consistent with the rest of the city’s inability to price things correctly, the $15 annual fee collected by the city did not cover even 20 percent of the cost of one employee to enforce the ordinance.
The grand jury report was submitted to the city with no apparent action in response. The scourge is still with us.
Here is what the City Council should do:
First, amend the ordinance and set the fee high enough to recover the costs of registration, tracking and enforcement. No more financial excuses.
Then announce the Urban Corps has been hired to remove all non-complying racks on a given day and will do so unless there is immediate compliance and payment of the new fee.
This will both raise the needed funds while simultaneously removing most of the junk off our streets.
However, there is even a better plan than that, one I observed and inquired about in New York, Chicago and San Francisco: “condo news racks.”
In those cities, they have adopted news-rack zones. They then bid those zones out to master news rack contractors.
Those contractors pay the city a substantial fee for each location. Then they subcontract with distributors. One news rack, maintained by one contractor at each major location.
No other lousy broken-down, slum neighborhood news racks tarnishing our city, blocking pedestrians and damaging city property.
But, the council didn’t take action on recommendation of the grand jury, so why should they listen to you or me?
Oh, right, that is what they were elected to do.
Maybe they forgot.