SANDAG: The Undemocratic Gorilla in our Midst

More and more every day, it becomes clear that the obscure realms of regional planning and transportation policy have a huge impact on our quality of life, both today and in the future.  Here in San Diego, the governance of these issues is largely vested in SANDAG, a behemoth institution that directs a budget of over a billion dollars with little public or governmental oversight.  All major transit projects in the County are usually controlled by SANDAG.  Given that the availability and nature of transit often shapes where (and how) we live and work, SANDAG wields tremendous power in the region.  Indeed, many have argued that SANDAG could exert its influence even more over our regional planning if it wanted to, despite its inability to mandate local entities to make specific zoning changes.

I've written before about the structural problems with SANDAG.  As codified in state legislation, SANDAG is controlled by a Board of Directors from the individual cities in the County plus the County of San Diego itself as an entity.  Both the County of San Diego and the City of San Diego have two representatives (i.e., votes) on the Board.  SANDAG is structured to be like the federal House of Representatives and Senate rolled into one:  not only does an action have to pass with a majority of votes weighted for population (giving power to the large cities and the County but limiting San Diego city to 40 weighted votes out of 100), it also has to pass with a majority of votes from the individual entities.  With this structure splitting power between 19 entities, two of which have two votes resulting in a total of 21 votes, 11 cities can prevent any action by SANDAG.  

Although an entirely unsexy topic, the structure of SANDAG creates many of the problems we face as a region.  When examined closely, SANDAG is revealed to be an entirely undemocratic institution with tremendous power over how we live our lives.  There are two main aspects of the SANDAG structure that lead to this conclusion.

1.  The Equal Voting Power of Each City Results in Disproportionate Representation

Like the United States Senate, the SANDAG Board structure vests equal power in each city, making an exception only to grant the City of San Diego and County an extra vote each.  Scholars and pundits have long argued that the Senate is undemocratic and should be abolished.  (If this is a new concept to you, see here or here or here)  In essence, the argument in regards to the Senate is that a small, rural state has the same voting power as a large, populous state.  In the Senate, this results in citizens in low population states (Wyoming) having as much as 66 times the voting power as residents in large states (California).  As a result, less than 18 percent of the country's population is represented by a majority in the Senate.  In other words, that 18 percent can effectively control most actions of our entirely country.  Far from democratic!

If that sounds bad, the situation is even worse when it comes to SANDAG.  The city of Del Mar has 4,161 residents.  The City of San Diego has over 1.3 million residents.  Even when accounting for the two "votes" afforded to the City of San Diego, this means that each resident of Del Mar has almost 163 times the voting power of a resident of the City of San Diego.  Given the size disparity, the eleven smallest cities can control the actions of SANDAG, but only represent about 14 percent of the county's total population.

The problem is more stark when viewed through the lens of demographics.  On average, the "whitest" cities in San Diego have seven times the voting power of the cities with the highest percentage of hispanic residents.  Del Mar, which is only 4.2 percent Hispanic, has 62 times the voting power of Chula Vista, which is 58.2 percent Hispanic.  Similarly, geographically, the 13 cities that could be considered to be located in the North or East County (i.e., rural and suburban) can prevent SANDAG from taking any action.

Based on its structure, SANDAG vests disproportionate power in our smaller cities. Given our demographics, this generally results in the whiter, more affluent, and more suburban and rural cities having complete veto power over our transportation and regional planning.  Unlike the Senate, however, changing this does not require a (likely insurmountable) constitutional amendment going to the very core of our nation.  It requires only an amendment of state Public Utilities Code section 132351.2.

2.  The Board of Directors Is Not Directly Elected and Only Effectively Allows Part-Time Representation.

The same state law requires that the Board of Directors be comprised of directors from each city, but those directors must be a mayor, councilmember, or supervisor.  In effect, this means each city cannot delegate its authority to a full-time Board member.  In the City of San Diego, for example, the SANDAG Board members are Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria.  There is basically no salary for each board member and, as far as I can tell, each Board member is not afforded any budget for hiring personal SANDAG staff.  

This means that, at most, each Board member is considering SANDAG actions as an extra burden to their normal duties representing their cities.  As any Board member would probably admit, this means that SANDAG activities are "staff driven" with minimal oversight by elected officials or the public at large.  The Board members are briefed by staff, who appears to largely act with only occasional input by Board members.  As a result, no Board member has the time or resources to adequately direct SANDAG. 

Moreover, this results in little public accountability.  The staff has little incentive to involve the public in its decision making because that public has no direct means to disapprove of their action.  SANDAG largely operates in the shadows of public debate and its staff is further shielded from the public.  Although this can often be a benefit, it seems to have resulted in a SANDAG staff that shuts out the public, attempts to obfuscate its work to avoid oversight, and is not overly concerned with Board member meddling.

The Board members also have little centralized power to push any specific agenda.  Although the small cities have disproportionate power under the "Senate-like" half of the vote, the larger cities have more power under the "House-like" half of the vote.  Neither end of the spectrum can force any action or build a ruling coalition.  Given the lack of power or ability to direct, the result is little to no political control over the agency.   This political stalemate gives the staff the most power.  To keep their jobs and placate the bosses, it seems they side with the absolute numbers, which favors the outlying, smaller, but more numerous cities.  Is it any wonder that SANDAG focuses on building freeways out to the edges of the county at the expense of transit and active transportation in the urban core of the county?  As one SANDAG Board member admitted, her constituents in the East County want freeways, not bike lanes.

This lack of public accountability can be seen when considering the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan and resulting litigation.  An overwhelming majority of Californians supporting cutting our use of greenhouse gases and petroleum.  SANDAG, however, maintains that it has no duty, or interest, in cutting greenhouse gas emissions beyond the absolute legal minimum.  This disconnect screams for reform.

How Can We Fix This?

If we want SANDAG to be aligned with the public interest, both of the problems discussed above need to be fixed.  

First, the State Legislature should abolish the requirement that SANDAG action be approved under the two-threshold procedure.  Allow simple majority rule, with no caps on the weighted vote.  If a majority of the population supports an action that it otherwise allowed under state and federal law, it should be possible for SANDAG to take that action.

Some will argue that this would shut the small cities out the process, negating their ability to participate. Unfortunately for tiny cities, that's called democracy.  Regardless, the larger cities have a vested interest in seeing the surrounding cities also succeed. Although there would be a shift in priorities, it is unlikely that the smaller cities would be entirely shut out of all funding or would see the freeways demolished within their borders.

Second, SANDAG should be governed by a full-time board, made up of either directly elected officials or members appointed by the respective cities.  Or perhaps the Board members from each city should vote on a smaller governing board.  SANDAG should operate in the same way as the City of San Diego and other large governmental agencies:  each Board member should have his or her own small staff, which directs the professional staff to meet its directives.  This heightened level of oversight would divest the current professional staff of its power and also provide more accountability to the public.

If the State Legislature is interested in addressing the climate change crisis, it would be well served by making sure that entities like SANDAG are not shielded from public sentiment supporting their cause.  If nothing else, the general principle of democracy and equal representation under the law requires that the state law creating the SANDAG structure be changed.  I'm hoping our local representatives can address this in the next legislative session.