If the San Diego City Council wants to see what one issue can do to a political career, just take a look at North Park.
The 14-member, all-volunteer planning group known as the Greater North Park Community Planning Committee, which oversees the burgeoning, eclectic central-city neighborhood, held its elections last week, and the results were astounding: seven new members-half the board-were voted in.
Observers of the elections were quite clear in the reason for the shakeup: the planning board's past approval of a needle-exchange program in the community.
“They kicked half the board off over needle exchange,” said Ernestine “Ernie” Bonn, a longtime local activist from neighboring University Heights who served as the voting observer for the North Park committee elections.
One of the hotter issues to wend its way recently through the San Diego political process, the pilot needle-exchange program has not only split the City Council but also pitted neighbor against neighbor in a debate over how best to deal with the spread of deadly diseases through the use of dirty needles. The program, run by the Family Health Centers of San Diego and until last month relegated to the East Village, now is sanctioned by the city-but the controversy will not die, particularly in North Park, where the program was expanded last month.
North Park residents who opposed the expansion of the program into their neighborhood began attending planning committee meetings. And, according to Bonn, the seven new members elected to the board last week oppose the program.
Robert J. Green, a community-planning consultant by trade, was chosen to serve as chairman of the newly formulated board. When the previous committee voted to expand the program to North Park, Green was the sole dissenter of that plan.
“It's a deeply polarizing issue in the community,” Green acknowledged in an interview this week. “We've spent an awful lot of time on this one issue. I think a lot of people feel there could have been alternative ways that this could have been handled without creating such deep divisions, that the spirit and intent of helping people could be achieved without upsetting everybody.”
Green, who has lived in North Park since 1988, seemed exasperated talking about the needle-exchange program, noting that the community faces a “universe” of planning issues. “The new members I've spoken to are way past this one issue,” he said. “They're looking at how the community can be improved. I think this issue has diverted a lot of attention away from one of the major purposes of the planning group in North Park, which is to try and further good planning here.
“I think the needle exchange was inserted in the community without really listening to the residents,” he said. “That really has rankled a lot of people. But it's also been a distraction from what our common goals are, like getting some quality planning and development here as opposed to having North Park being treated as a dumping ground, which, unfortunately, I feel it has been in the past.”
Yet, talk long enough to Green, and the needle-exchange program is hard to avoid. When asked if he is resigned to the fact that the council and committee have already spoken on the issue, he paused. “I don't think that the debate on this issue is finished,” he suggested. “My desire to move on to other issues did not preclude discussion of this item, because I think this is a problem that was not properly addressed.”
George Biagi, spokesman for Councilmember Toni Atkins, who led the council majority in approving the program, said the debate is over and the one-year pilot program will proceed. “It's important to point out that the program is up and running, and the new planning committee can't undo the council action... or the prior committee's site recommendations.”
Biagi noted that since coming to North Park on Valentine's Day, the program has taken in more than 1,400 dirty needles and given out 524 clean ones. The mobile RV that houses the program has been visited by 30 people, and of those, 22 have been referred to various drug-related services and counseling.
“We will continue to monitor the program,” Biagi added, “and if a nuisance or public-safety issue arises, we will deal with it. But to date, none has arisen.”
Biagi also noted that such board shakeups are not uncommon at the volunteer level. “In fact,” he said, “many of the people who were replaced on the North Park committee themselves were elected to the committee a few years back based on their opposition to a planned street closure in their neighborhood. They got a large number of their neighbors to come out to the requisite number of meetings in order to be able to vote, and then they voted their neighbors into office.”
Putting a positive spin on the turnover, he said “it's really a great way to get new people energized about community planning, and it gets a whole new group of people into the process.”
So, City Council, take note. Remember what W.C. Fields once said: “Hell, I never vote for anybody-I always vote against.” ©