Public officials rarely have an opportunity to exhibit statesmanship by casting a vote that eloquently speaks for social values and democratic principles while creating a legacy.
Members of the Board of Supervisors proved themselves incapable of grasping that moment with their recent vote to blow off 30,000 acres of the San Dieguito River Park, the 55-mile-long dream of pristine open space stretching between Del Mar and Julian. Instead, they fanned the flames of anti-government hysteria.
Rather than standing tall for a vision 20 years in the making by people representing all segments of the political spectrum, four Republican supervisors established their property-rights credentials by exploiting the fears of East County ranchers and farmers. Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Bill Horn led the drive to recommend exclusion of all private property from the planning area of the park.
More than a recommendation, the result is a threat by the county to withdraw from the park's Joint Powers Authority (JPA) and to take over already-acquired park land in its jurisdiction if over half of the envisioned park is not trimmed from the plan.
In the process, the supervisors didn't kill the park dream; they dragged it through the mud. By encouraging property owners' fears, they added "park" to the growing list of four-letter words that include "arts" and "NASA." Thanks to the supervisors' performance, the Joint Powers Authority for the river park can join the ranks of the "jack-booted government thugs."
Park advocates and elected officials on the JPA have been called effete flatlanders, elitist coastal yuppies, defilers of the Fifth Amendment and Bolsheviks.
In all their preening for whipped-up ranchers waving the Fifth Amendment, the supervisors and their followers on this issue have failed to remind themselves and the property owners that the JPA has no power to change zoning nor does it have the resources to condemn private property. Even with owner consent, condemnation is too expensive for any government agency to currently consider.
In the good old days, when environmental credentials were essential for a politician's resume, conservatives climbed all over each other to serve time on the San Dieguito River Park JPA. The JPA was virtually powerless to do anything but scramble for money, to plan and to hope. Miraculously, through 10 years of diligent effort by committed volunteers, a skeleton staff and elected officials with vision, a thoughtful plan emerged that reflected a broad political consensus.
The JPA actually managed to acquire land through careful purchases and land donations. The JPA proved that there could not be a more fiscally responsible organization nor one more mindful of the Fifth Amendment. The agency's biggest coup was the acquisition of Rutherford Ranch, a 900-acre eastern connection into the Borrego Desert.
But soon after the champagne corks popped at the ranch, rumors began spreading among property owners west of Rutherford that the government was coming to take away their land.
After losing a court battle against the JPA last year, fear found a friend in newly elected Supervisor Bill Horn and politically ambitious Dianne Jacob, who mined this new movement and fed the fires of government paranoia. Land owners received a letter from a property-rights group before the recent vote, warning that unless they testified at public hearings, they could lose their land to a government takeover.
Clearly, the Board of Supervisors was poised to embark on an agenda so radically out of the mainstream that conservative Republican Ron Roberts looked like a moderate, casting the only opposition vote to Jacob's motion. San Diego City Council member Harry Mathis, a representative on the JPA, and Mayor Susan Golding, neither of whom could be described as tree-hugging liberals, have worked behind the scenes to counter Board of Supervisors' moves.
On this issue, Supervisor Pam Slater, whose district includes the western end of the park, has sold her own allies down their precious river. The shock of that betrayal has been even more stunning than the supervisors' actions for the people who devoted a decade to the park dream with Slater's support.
Slater's announcement for re-election on a conservative talk radio show forewarned the new property-rights credentialing fad among some Republican politicians with their sights on higher office. But sacrificing a visionary park for those credentials is Machiavellian even to the most cynical among us