Amid all the slashing and hacking going on at the San Diego Union-Tribune, it's possible that some enterprising young IT geek—perhaps to please the executives and save her own job—developed some sort of automated editorial machine, allowing the paper to secretly lay off its entire editorial board. Maybe old editorials are fed into this machine as raw material and then, when new editorials are needed each day, this young IT geek simply enters in new topic information, such as “Inauguration of a new president: black, Democrat” or “State budget crisis: Democratic legislature, Republican governor.” Maybe there's a setting for editorial writer, such as “Bob Kittle” or “Ruben Navarrette Jr.” just to vary the voice and position nuance of each new product.
How else to explain last Sunday's odd, unprovoked, knee-jerk attack on organized labor when the topic was something as simple as whether or not City Hall should back a ballot measure proposing a trash-hauling fee for single-family residences. If we're not mistaken, the IT geek set this one to “Chris Reed”—the editorial parrots statistics that Reed got directly from City Councilmember and union antagonist Carl DeMaio, numbers that Reed reported in his blog. Like his boss, Kittle, Reed has made a name for himself by bashing unions. Sometimes they deserve it; sometimes they don't. But this one was just weird in that it seemed to reflect 2007 reality rather than 2009. Perhaps the IT geek forgot to change the date setting.
The Sunday editorial pounced on a news story the paper published on Friday based on City Council President Ben Hueso's comment that a trash fee might be necessary to solve the city's budget crisis. It linked Hueso to his friends in labor and concluded that the trash-fee idea is nothing but a “transparent ruse” by the unions to avoid reducing city employees' retirement and healthcare benefits.
Charging residents for trash pickup is common among cities. San Diego doesn't do it, reportedly, because 90 years ago, citizens got pissed off when they learned that the city was charging to pick up their garbage and then profiting by selling the trash to a pig farmer in L.A. So they passed a law abolishing the fee, and city leaders haven't been able to reinstate it in the post-pig-farm era.
But the U-T wants you to think this trash-fee idea is some new scheme dreamed up by cigar-chomping labor bosses. What the editorial doesn't give readers is perspective and context. It mentions Mayor Jerry Sanders—by singing the praises of his drive to create competition between city departments and private businesses for the right to perform certain functions—but it doesn't say that Sanders believes the city can't cut much more and has begun to prepare residents for fee hikes. Sanders even mentioned trash service last week in his State of the City speech as he spoke of the need to find solutions on both sides of the balance sheet—expenses and revenues.
Here's what's really going on: The unions understand that they'll have to make concessions in this year's contract negotiations—it's not whether they'll have to give benefits back, but how much they'll have to give back. Sanders has said all along that he can't ask the public to kick down more money until people trust that the city won't squander the revenue. Once the unions help reduce the city's crushing pension liability, watch the mayor hop aboard the increased-fees bandwagon. Will the U-T pillory him then, or will they understand that what's needed is a balanced solution?
Perhaps the nuttiest thing about the U-T's editorial was its warped view of timing. It charges that Hueso wants to raise the trash fee in order to sidestep union concessions. But Hueso notes that the next opportunity to ask voters to hike the fee is 2010; by then, the city will have completed contract negotiations with the unions not once but twice, and it's likely that they will have had to give back benefits in both years.
If there's one positive aspect in the U-T's piece, it's that it raises vitally important questions, albeit clumsily: What services can citizens expect to receive for the money generated through property, sales and hotel-room taxes? And what services should be paid for directly and at full cost through fees? How does San Diego really compare to other large cities in employee benefits and tax revenue? A budget crisis is the ideal time to give the public answers.