By Joe Tash
The battle over Prop. B — the June ballot measure that would impose term limits on county supervisors — pits those who say incumbents enjoy an overwhelming advantage that makes them nearly impossible to defeat, against those who argue that elected officials need sufficient experience to be effective at their jobs.
"Really, experience is the major issue in this crisis were facing. It's a tough time," said Supervisor Bill Horn.
"You have a chance every four years to end the term. I think those term limits are good enough," said Horn, who is running for his fifth four-year term on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Ron Roberts, who represents the county's 4th district, is also running for his fifth term.
But supporters of the ballot measure say the longevity of the current board is evidence of the huge hurdle faced by challengers. The board has seen no turnover since 1995, when Supervisor Greg Cox was appointed to the panel. Two other members, Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price, were first elected in 1992, and are in the midst of their fifth terms.
If approved by a simple majority of San Diego County voters in the June 8 election, Prop. B would impose a two-term limit on all board members.
The measure was put on the ballot by the 10,000-member Service Employees International Union Local 221. The union — most of whose members are county employees — spent about $245,000 last year on its petition drive.
Mathew Kostrinsky, campaign manager for the Yes on B committee, said the measure is supported by a coalition including unions, the San Diego Democratic Party, environmental groups and even some Republicans and Libertarians. According to recent campaign filings, the United Domestic Workers of America Action Fund gave $100,000 to the Yes on B campaign in January.
"What they've all agreed to is the current system is not working when it comes to elections. There should be term limits for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors," said Kostrinsky.
Among the unfair advantages held by incumbent supervisors, said Kostrinsky, is the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, which has been referred to in numerous newspaper editorials as a "slush fund." Under the $10 million program, each supervisor can distribute up to $2 million annually to programs in his or her district. The board voted earlier this year to cut the program in half, to $5 million total, next fiscal year.
Those grants, said Kostrinsky, help the board members solidify their base of support each year.
Horn and Roberts said the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program is completely transparent, all grants must be approved by the full board, and the money supports public safety, foster children and other worthy programs.
Kostrinsky also pointed to the supervisors' ability to draw their own district boundaries, and the size of their staffs, which he said are larger than the local office staffs of members of Congress.
According to Kostrinsky, San Diego County voters passed term limits for the Board of Supervisors in 1976, but the measure was later invalidated in court. The current measure, if passed, would amend the county charter.
"I think voters will support this again. They think you should serve and go back and live under the laws you have created," Kostrinsky said.
Although no official opposition committee has been formed, lining up against Prop. B are the San Diego County Republican Party, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the Lincoln Club, and business groups.
Roberts, who has indicated he won't run again if re-elected this year, said the measure has little impact on the current incumbents, since they would still be able to run for two more terms if the measure passes.
He pointed to the state of California and the city of San Diego, both of which face severe budget shortfalls and have term limits for lawmakers, as examples of why term limits are a bad idea.
"I'd say term limits have directly contributed to the downfall of the state of California," said Roberts.
Term limits, he said, cause elected officials to set their sights on their next office, and put too much power in the hands of non-elected government staffers.
The labor unions backing Prop. B, said Roberts, "want to be in control of everything."
But Kostrinsky said the issue is broader than the self-interest of union members or their county contract.
"Hopefully there should be influence for everyone in the county, right now there isn't," he said.
Supervisor candidates in the June 8 election
- Juan Del Rio, Housing Counselor
- Shelia L. Jackson, San Diego Unified School Board Trustee
- Margaret Moody, Retired School Teacher
- Ron Roberts, San Diego County Supervisor
- Stephen Whitburn, Community Health Educator
- Tom Bumgardner, Farmer
- Steve Gronke, Vista Councilmember/Teacher
- William Haynor (Occupation not provided)
- Bill Horn, San Diego County Supervisor/Rancher
- Fabio Marchi, Engineer/Broker/Contractor
- John Van Doorn, Engineer