Sept. 2 2008 07:57 PM

You can't fight City Hall—but you can fight retro plans to build a new one


I seldom find myself saying, “Hey, that Carl DeMaio—he's really on to something.” DeMaio is the newbie Republican City Council member elected in the June primary to replace outgoing Republican Brian Maienschein come December in representing District 5.

DeMaio is one of those Republicans who built a career on rhetoric about downsizing and privatizing government while building a personal fortune out of selling things to government—in DeMaio's case, selling seminars about downsizing and privatizing government. Go figure. As Justice Thurgood Marshall became almost blind, he was asked how he could continue to decide cases. Easy, he said. He merely listened to whatever fellow Justice Antonin Scalia said and voted the opposite. Such is my usual relationship with my given-name doppelganger DeMaio.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover common ground with this other Carl—in this case, over our mutual distaste with the city of San Diego's myopic and quixotic quest to build a shiny new (and expensive) ode to 19th- and 20th-century municipal governance in the form of a new, Downtown city hall. DeMaio first earns my applause for choosing not to locate his own council offices at the dilapidated 202 C Street seat of city governance, choosing instead to keep his HQ in his own district. Bully for you, Carl. Why should the residents DeMaio represents north of Miramar road have to drive Downtown to meet with their council member? And why should any council member spend the bulk of his or her days physically closer to city bureaucrats and Downtown lobbyists than to their own constituents back in the 'hoods?

DeMaio earns my further applause for questioning the fiscal efficacy of even considering building a new behemoth of a municipal building. Given that this is a city that still can't afford to fill its potholes, sinkholes and fiscal black holes, is this really the time to consider pumping millions into a Downtown bonanza for contractors and architects without adding meaningfully in the short term to the municipal bottom line?

DeMaio is thinking outside the box, which is something most of San Diego's elected pols aren't usually renowned for. Most of San Diego's civic leaders don't just think inside the box—they usually think inside a box dated “1990” that's nested like a matryoshka doll inside another box dated “1970” that sits inside yet another box dated “1953.” In short, San Diego has never shed its post-war identity: a city with a small-town mindset yearning for a big-city stardom that it's never going to, nor needs to, achieve. Such is the case with the drive for a big, new, Downtown city hall.

DeMaio's only problem is that he's not thinking far enough outside the box. This is the 21st century or, better speaking, the 1st century PA (post-analog). Why do we need a centralized Downtown city hall at all, now or ever again? DeMaio has half a brilliant idea. All of the council offices should be redistributed back out to their districts in refurbished or newly built facilities that represent the unique needs, character and interests of the districts they serve, where the council members and their staffs can spend their days surrounded by residents, not lobbyists. Why should the lobbyists and Downtown interest groups—interest groups that often have shallow roots, if any, in the residential districts—have the convenience of proximity to elected officials when most residents do not?

Downtown is neither the demographic nor geographic center of the city. Kearny Mesa is. So move the mayor and the rest of municipal government from their Downtown hidy-holes out to the Mesa and into a modern, efficient industrial-park complex where function triumphs over form. Each of the district council offices can be outfitted with a state-of-the-art digital video conference facility that would allow residents in each district to attend virtual council sessions networked to the other council districts and the mayor. Residents could attend public meetings in real time on their laptops or cell phones or, if they prefer, drive a few blocks to participate in person at council sessions rather than driving miles to Downtown, wasting gas and parking money.

Thousands of residents could become involved in public meetings rather than the dozens who currently are forced to cram into the antiquated Downtown council chambers. The mayor, council members and staff can start spending their lunch hours dining at the local sandwich and taco shops with their constituents rather than hobnobbing with the business elite over Dover Sole Meuniere at the Westgate's Le Grand Cafe. And lobbyists and the Downtown monied interest groups can get into their cars and spend their gas money driving out to the districts, where the voters live.Many believe building a new, shiny city hall Downtown would be more economical than keeping the current one. In this they may well be right, though the numbers being used to justify building new need thorough review. Many also believe that building a new, shiny city hall Downtown is necessary as a statement of public pride and municipal majesty. Such sentiment is, in my opinion, rooted in a 19th- and 20th-century vision of what defines community, a vision that has more in common with what defined communities in the age of the Greek polis than what will define communities in the age of WiFi, Bluetooth and text messaging. The modern forum of democracy is not a building in one fixed locale. Its nexus is wherever any citizen has digital access. Modern municipal government must evolve accordingly.

A few years back, Disneyland redesigned its Tomorrowland to give it more contemporary relevance. What they produced instead was a Retroland that looked more like Jules Verne's 19th century than America's 21st century. San Diego's City Council seems heckbent on doing the same thing.

Unless the citizens of San Diego speak up, that is. Ladies and Gentlemen: Start your e-mails and texts.     

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