San Diego 101: The Roles of Local Government

San Diego County is big, so big that you
could fit the entire state of Rhode Island in it. So you’re probably pretty familiar with San Diego’s great food and beaches, but maybe not so familiar with how the region operates and how big
decisions are made. One of the most useful things to wrap your mind around is the difference between the city of San Diego and the county of San Diego. Let’s dig in to that. The county of San Diego is a government agency
that covers the whole county. But within the county are 18 cities. The places outside of
the cities are called unincorporated areas. Cities and the county have very different
roles play in our region. Let’s start with what a city does. Cities have crucial roles in making society
work. There are six major things a city needs to function – if any of them doesn’t work,
the city won’t work. Number one, water. A city without water is not a city. Two, wastewater treatment. You have to be able to dispose of sewage. Three, trash removal. No city can function
well if trash piles up. Number four, police. Residents must have someone to call during emergencies. Five, firefighters and emergency medical response. If a house catches fire, it helps to have people who can put the fire out and stop it
from spreading to other houses. And number six, streets and roads and transportation. We all have to get places. These functions are managed by individual
cities. And each city has a different way of managing things. Now, if a city is doing well, it may have resources for things like rec centers, libraries, parks, other amenities. At San Diego City Hall, there are nine city council
members who sit on the San Diego City Council. Each one represents the residents and the
needs of a specific area. There’s also a mayor, who represents the
entire city. This person is also the chief executive of the city. That means that almost
all of the city’s employees report to him or her. The mayor can veto city council decisions,
and the council can override the veto if enough members team up against the mayor. That’s
called a strong mayor system. That’s different from some other cities
in the county, like National City. There, the mayor is just another member of the City
Council. The council hires a city manager to manage the city’s employees. If they
don’t like the manager, they can fire him or her. Cities have a lot of latitude when it comes
to how they handle their core functions. For example, some cities have police departments.
Others pay the Sheriff’s Department to patrol. The Sheriff patrols all the areas outside
of the cities. Its budget comes from the county. The county of San Diego began as an outpost
of the state of California. Obviously the state is very big, so this was kind of the
local branch of the state government. The county government’s main job is to handle
the money and services that the state and federal government send to San Diego. The
state has rules for things like health care access; counties have a mandate to care for
the poorest people. They are also responsible for public health issues, like if a virus
breaks out. And air pollution. Those are all handled by the county of San Diego. Then there are services like food assistance.
The federal government has food assistance funding. That goes to the state. The state’s
program is called CalFresh and in San Diego, CalFresh is delivered by the county of San Diego. Just like a city council, the county has supervisors who represent specific areas of the region. San Diego County has five supervisors. There’s no elected mayor, though. The board of supervisors hires a Chief Administrative Officer. And the county is the regional government
for a lot of places in San Diego that aren’t part of cities. The county handles building permits for areas
that aren’t part of any city. It also delivers roads and emergency services in those areas. And, for much of the region, the county manages the libraries and parks. Both the cities and the county play a major role in what gets built and where. So it can all get pretty confusing. If there’s a pothole on your street, who’s responsible for fixing that? If you see a county supervisor on television, is that person representing you? And where does the city’s authority end and the county’s begin? San Diego County and the cities in it are
constantly working together to get things done. They play different but complementary roles to keep the region running.

Stephen Childs

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