Geographically, San Diego County is a microcosm of California – a coastline as its western edge, giving way to tree-covered mountains and a searing desert to the east.

By happenstance, the county is also a self-contained reflection of California’s cultural and political dynamics.

Its urban core, around picturesque San Diego Bay, is multicultural and liberal/Democratic in its politics. Its suburban and rural communities tend to be white and conservative/Republican.

However, unlike California as a whole, in San Diego, the two factions are roughly in balance and they spar constantly for dominance in its governmental arenas, including San Diego’s city government and the county’s Board of Supervisors.

One such power struggle is now playing out in the San Diego Association of Governments, known as SANDAG, a county-wide agency whose board is composed of city and county officials and whose major task is raising and allocating transportation revenues.

San Diego’s urban/liberal community wants more spending on transit and other non-automotive forms, including San Diego’s famous trolley system. It has bridled for years at SANDAG’s makeup and complex voting procedures that seem to favor the suburban/conservative communities and their preference for expanding roads and highways to serve their fast-growing populations.

The squabbling over San Diego’s transportation future has taken many forms, and occasionally has been transported 504 miles northward to the state Capitol. In fact, SANDAG, including its composition and voting procedures, were originally created by state legislation as a way to bridge the county’s cultural divisions.

The latest conflict was triggered by a scandal over SANDAG’s efforts to persuade voters last year to approve a sales tax increase for transportation.

The measure was defeated after the Voice of San Diego, nonprofit journalism organization, revealed that SANDAG had overstated, by billions of dollars, what the tax would generate.

Although the overstatement apparently stemmed from a clerical error in data entry many years earlier, the agency’s clumsy, self-serving response finally compelled SANDAG to order an independent investigation.

The probe’s report, released last week, revealed a bureaucratic mess, including efforts to cover up the revenue error by shifting key documents into a separate computer server so they could be hidden from public records requests.

The highly critical report was music to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher’s ears. The San Diego Democrat had already introduced Assembly Bill 805, which would overhaul SANDAG’s membership and voting procedures and, in effect, give the urban faction more power at the expense of suburban and rural communities.

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The bill was approved by the full Assembly before the Legislature’s summer recess and will be awaiting Senate action when it reconvenes this month.

She says the bill would deliver “more accountability, better transparency and more proportional representation.” But writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune, two suburban city officials say it’s about “power, of course” and “would seize it from virtually every community in the county and bestow that power upon a chosen few.”

Gonzalez Fletcher added another facet to the battle after AB 805 left the Assembly by inserting language that would, in essence, require union labor for major projects financed by SANDAG.

She is a former union official who, it’s widely believed, yearns to become mayor of San Diego. Her husband, former Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, switched parties and is now running for the county’s Board of Supervisors.

SANDAG obviously needs reform, but it’s unclear whether AB 805 would bring it, or is just another weapon in San Diego’s perpetual cultural and political wars.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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