20 Years Later, “Enron by the Sea” Still Awash in Duplicity

| May 1, 2022 | 0 Comments

By Kate Callen

When a 2002 whistleblower’s report unleashed the city’s massive pension fund scandal, and San Diego was branded “Enron by the Sea,” humiliated city leaders vowed to clean up their accounting practices and operate in full view.

Two decades later, a new generation of city leaders is devising new ways of fudging data to evade scrutiny. This time around, City Hall is playing shell games to ramp up housing density and remove street parking in the face of strong public opposition.

The 20th anniversary of the pension fund debacle seems an apt occasion to review San Diego’s recent history of municipal sleights-of-hand. Here are new examples of twisting the facts to cover political tracks:

Using Old Data (Housing): The region’s much-lamented “housing crisis” has attained gospel status. It’s common knowledge that hordes of people moving to San Diego and hardly anyone leaving equals thousands of residents needing shelter. Numbers don’t lie.

No, but they can expire, as Neighbors for a Better San Diego (NFBSD) discovered by conducting its own review of population data used by the city to significantly upzone the College Area.

The city’s “updated” plans are based on SANDAG projections from October 2013. With a little digging, NFBSD found July 2021 SANDAG data showing that by 2050, the College Area should anticipate 4,000 fewer housing units than projected and only one-third of the projected population growth.

Scale up those numbers to cover the entire city, and the housing “crisis” seems far less critical.

Using Old Data (Traffic): It’s a rare San Diego neighborhood that isn’t seeing stacks of small dwelling units on single-family parcels. At a moment when more residents are driving more cars on urban streets, City Hall is shrinking traffic lanes to give more road space to sparse numbers of bicyclists.

This has included baffling and highly dangerous configurations like the “advisory bike lane” on Mira Mesa’s busy Gold Coast Drive. The design requires motorists traveling in opposite directions to share a single center lane and yield to cyclists.

When furious residents demanded an accounting, the city took a second look at the project and — oops! — found that it was based on old data from a 2015 study with traffic estimates far below current usage patterns.

Data? What Data? (Bike Lanes): Throughout North Park’s three-year battle over the 30th Street bike lanes, residents and small business owners have asked a question that remains unanswered: Where are the projected bike lane usage data that justify spending millions of dollars and removing hundreds of street parking spaces?

The City’s 2013 Bicycle Master Plan was sold as a climate action measure to reduce gas emissions by increasing bicycle commuting. Both the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census reports show that for over a decade, only 2 percent of San Diego commuters have been biking to work.

So the City’s long-held goal of 6 percent remains elusive. But why 6 percent? And has anyone calculated how much a 6-percent shift from cars to bikes would decrease rush-hour traffic and reduce pollution?

This spring, Save 30th Street Parking, a group opposing the bike lanes, decided to perform their own usage analysis. They reviewed 20 hours of security video of peak commuting times at 30th and Upas. Their logs posted an average of 16 riders per hour.

The City responded by installing an electronic bike lane counter at 30th and University that has been counting thousands of riders. Save 30th has responded by videotaping how the device “counts” riders when the bike lanes are visibly empty.

Here in San Diego, when government resorts to deception to achieve questionable political ends, citizens must have the tenacity to challenge misinformation.

Just ask Diann Shipione.

Shipione was the lone pension board trustee who warned the public in 2002 that City Hall was putting less money into the retirement fund and taking more money out of it. City leaders smeared her, nearly arrested her, and eventually pushed her off the board.

Two federal investigations proved her right. Today, Shipione’s Wikipedia entry lists a dozen awards and citations for exemplary public service.

She persevered, and she prevailed. In San Diego, if you want local government to be accountable and transparent, you have to be ready to dig up the facts and play the long game.

Callen is a North Park neighborhood activist.

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Category: Finance, Government, Historical, Housing, Local News

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