City crew repaving North Harbor Drive
A city of San Diego crew repaving North Harbor Drive during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of the city

For over a decade, I have witnessed a public narrative perpetuate that has created a false choice between public employees and the level of services we all want from our city. The narrative started with complaints about what public employees were paid, how much work they did, how many there were, and, of course, what they received during retirement. 
This false choice was an easy pitch. People were, rightfully, angry about an economy that was still in the post-Great Recession dumps. Many had lost jobs and seen their 401(k) plans demolished, and there had been nearly no accountability for greedy corporations and the ultra-rich individuals who had caused all of the harm. Beyond the impact on individuals,  there were significant cuts to our budget that greatly impacted the level of city services.  

Rather than leading with real solutions or by addressing the root cause of the issues, cynical politicians decided to blame government employees to distract the public from their lack of vision for how to create a city where we all can thrive.    

Unfortunately, the attacks worked, and the cynics got what they wanted. The City of San Diego became a less desirable place to work as wages of city workers stagnated and fell behind neighboring cities, and both working conditions and services worsened as high turnover rates and vacancies exhausted those who stayed.

Additionally harmful has been the way the cynics’ scapegoating of city workers has lingered in the public’s perception. I am continuously startled by the consistency with which I hear unsubstantiated comments about “bloated salaries and pensions” and unwarranted attacks on the unions that represent our workers. 
It is nearly impossible for an over worked and under-resourced city workforce to meet the needs and expectation of the city’s residents. The inevitable delays and shortfalls helped build the case for the cynics’ calls for privatization, too. This led to hiring contractors, instead of a stable workforce, which produced lower quality work and inconsistent costs, while demoralizing the city’s workforce. 

It’s been a vicious cycle and we’re all worse off for it. It’s a false choice to believe we can pay city workers less but still expect consistent high-quality services. 

That’s why, in honor of International Worker’s Day that was just celebrated on May 1, I think it is time for San Diego to officially end the chapter of villainizing city employees and begin writing a new one where we, as a community, honor and respect their work. 
This means appreciating the garbage haulers and maintenance workers who do back-breaking work that we all depend on. This means not taking for granted the librarians, pool lifeguards, and park and recreation staff who create welcoming and safe places for our youth and children to learn and play.

This means saying “thank you” to the folks who are behind the scenes in the City Attorney’s office and in administrative roles that are the glue holding the million pieces of a large city together. And, of course, it means expressing gratitude for the courageous workers who dive into stormy waters, run into burning buildings, and rush to dangerous situations to keep us all safe. 
We can make sure San Diego is the best city a public employee can work for by paying, equipping, and respecting them. My colleagues on the City Council have partnered with Mayor Todd Gloria to begin this work through improved wages and a unanimously supported compensation philosophy that aims to make San Diego a competitive employer. 
This is how we ensure there are enough city employees to make the streetlight repairs, road improvements, and responses to calls that residents have every right to expect. 
Moreover, it’s a way to create a path to the middle-class for communities that have long been shut out of economic opportunity. San Diegans from every neighborhood should be able to know they don’t have to look any further than their own city to find a great career that can be the foundation to a quality, dignified life. 
I’m excited for this next chapter in San Diego’s history. Let’s start writing it together. 

City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera represents District 9 and serves as president of the council.