“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
Poet Carl Sandburg once said, “Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come.”
Last week, several San Diego City Council members put a new spin on the quote, to the effect, “Sometime they'll give a press conference and none of the announced participants will come.”
That's what America's Wackiest City was dealt last Wednesday when Spin Cycle decided to attend a press conference announced the day prior by Councilmember Sherri Lightner.
“Council President Ben Hueso and Councilmembers Sherri Lightner and Todd Gloria,” a press advisory teased, “today announced that they will be holding a press conference on Wednesday, April 29, to unveil their plans to seek funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the development of an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy for the City of San Diego.”
Joining the trio of politicos, the advisory added, would be members of a loosely knit coalition of labor leaders, environmentalists and developer and social-service types calling themselves the Alliance for Green Energy and Good Jobs.
Perfect fodder for an alternative-press column, Spin Cycle thought. And, boy howdy, was it! Before the press conference, Lightner and her chief of staff, John Rivera, were seen mingling with a few coalition members as well as a cadre of mayoral staff members—Special Projects Guru Gerry Braun included—who seemed to time their work breaks perfectly so as to dot the periphery of the Community Concourse for the event.
Meanwhile, no sign of Hueso or Gloria.
But it gets weirder. When it came time to start the press conference—shazam!—Lightner and Rivera disappeared like a fart in the wind. Instead, the emceeing duties went to Councilmember Donna Frye, who, while not announced the day before as a participant, did sign a memo with Lightner urging Hueso to docket the day's topic for council discussion.
So why did three council members who called a press conference instead scatter like mice when the cupboards are opened? Depends on whom you ask.
“I didn't think the media was there,” Lightner explained later to Spin Cycle. “I apologize for not seeing you. Frankly, I didn't know if there was going to be a press conference because there'd been so much back and forth, so whatever. I'm not an expert on press conferences.”
The “back and forth” to which she alluded refers to a visit to council offices the night before by members of the mayor's staff, including Braun, according to several sources.
The purpose of the visit, the sources say, was to inform council folk that the mayor already had plans for the $12 million in federal stimulus money that the city is set to receive as part of the federal government's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program.
Unfortunately, that was news to the City Council. Frye, who chairs the council's Natural Resource and Culture Committee, which deals with energy issues, had led a conversation the week before in committee about seeking $250,000 in federal stimulus money first before deciding how the bulk of the $12 million should be spent in San Diego. Federal guidelines, issued in late March, mention the availability of the seed money and a four-month window for planning.
“I thought, ‘This is very cool.' We'd actually have some money to put together a larger strategy for how the city is going to really become energy-independent,” Frye said. “I was really excited.”
So, Lightner and Frye drafted a memo requesting that Hueso docket the request to seek the $250,000 in planning money. The next day, Lightner issued the press-conference advisory.
That's when the fecal matter hit the fan.
“Tuesday evening after council [April 28], all of a sudden there were people like Gerry Braun and some others saying,
‘Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing? We've already spent the money!'” Frye recounted.That's when, for the first time, the mayor's folks indicated that they already had plans for the money. In a very detailed memo (PDF) dated April 17 obtained by Spin Cycle, the Mayor's office describes how it proposes the energy-related stimulus money be spent, including:
• $5 million of a planned $30-million project to install 3 megawatts of solar-power panels throughout Balboa Park—part of Gloria's district—to “serve as a national model for independently powered communities of the future and energy independence.” Maryland-based SunEdison would kick in the remaining $25 million as part of a 20-year power-purchase agreement. An estimated 37 private-sector jobs would be created over three years, the memo states;
• $1.25 million as part of a $2-million “micro-hydroelectric power demonstration project” that would generate renewable energy at two or more of the city's estimated “470 pressure reducing stations that control water pressure in over 3,000 miles of water lines,” creating 16 jobs in the process;
• $1 million to convert 2,200 of the city's 45,000 streetlights to “broad spectrum white lighting technology”—either LED or induction lighting—employing 13 more;
• $1 million for “improved measurement and monitoring of energy use in real time at various city buildings and buildings in Balboa Park,” creating another 13 jobs.Toss in another $2.5 million for a revolving loan fund for energy-efficiency projects and another $1 million or so for education and energy audits (40 additional jobs), and that's $12 million planned and spent.
Diane Takvorian, head of the local Environmental Health Coalition, said she spoke to the White House's “czar on green jobs” before the press conference and was told that President Obama believes strongly that “local governments need to ensure equity and equal access, and that means both in benefits from these funds as well as how the process gets developed.” She added that it's “critically important” that “low-income communities and communities of color” who are “bearing the brunt of pollution in our region” get a seat at the table in deciding how stimulus funds are spent.
Richard Miller, development coordinator for the local Sierra Club, described the proposed 185 jobs generated under Mayor Sanders' plan “woefully inadequate. Who was sitting at the table developing this?”
Darren Pudgil, the mayor's spokesperson, assured Spin Cycle that “the public will certainly be given an opportunity to review and comment on these proposals when the mayor brings them before the City Council for consideration.”
Meantime, Councilmember Carl DeMaio has asked Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin to develop a federal stimulus budget process, “modeled on our annual budget process but, of course, condensed…. We're talking four weeks.”
“We can either do this half-assed, or we can follow a disciplined, structured process and get public input,” DeMaio added. “It shouldn't be that hard. This isn't rocket science. If people have better ideas, bring them forward. But we need to get our act together, because the money's on the table.”Got a stimulating tip? Send it to email@example.com.