Guest Commentary: Why should La Jolla be its own city? Let us count the reasons

La Jolla's secession from San Diego has been attempted in the past but hasn't succeeded.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The time for La Jolla to incorporate as its own city has, after many fits and starts, finally arrived. This incorporation as a city will help all involved — including the city of San Diego itself.

But hasn’t La Jolla been down this road before? It’s a fair question. And before even addressing the steps involved, a fair answer is required.

La Jolla has been here before, with the most recent effort failing in a dramatic denouement in 2018 when Cindy Greatrex, the president of the group behind the independence movement, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $67,000 from La Jolla Recreation Center funds.

But this time is different, in part because the newest iteration comprises a group of some of La Jolla’s most prominent residents. These are serious people with fundamentally sound plans for improving La Jolla and San Diego.

But what exactly are the plans for accomplishing what others have in the past failed to do? There are four steps, as recently reported (“Leaving San Diego?”— a series on potential La Jolla cityhood, April and May, La Jolla Light).

First, a formal proposal is to be submitted to the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Second, a petition calling for incorporation must garner at least 25 percent of local registered voters, which, given La Jolla’s population of almost 50,000, would be around 12,500 people. Third, LAFCO would have to approve the initiative. And perhaps most dauntingly of all, separate public votes must show that both a majority of La Jollans and the rest of San Diego (known as the dual-majority requirement) approve of La Jolla’s detachment.

The Association for the City of La Jolla has hired Richard Berkson of Berkson Associates to prepare a fiscal impact report and will clear a big hurdle if fiscal feasibility can be shown.

But let’s focus on the expected benefits of incorporation.

There are at least three easily recognizable benefits. A self-governed La Jolla would almost immediately improve public safety and cleanliness; incorporation would allow La Jolla to contract independently for municipal services; and autonomy would lead to a more robust and engaged electorate.

With a new movement underway for La Jolla to become its own city rather than remain a neighborhood of San Diego, questions arise about whether that could create economic and housing opportunities or problems.

June 13, 2023

Anecdotal evidence suggests that smaller cities have a much easier time keeping up with street sweeping and police protection. This also is because burgeoning cities, such as San Diego, have an increasingly difficult time staying in touch with the “periphery.” Core services tend to be concentrated in and around the city center, not the outskirts. And if one spends any amount of time downtown, one sees instantly that even core services have atrophied almost to the point of nonexistence.

If the city center is struggling to keep up with the strain of services, how can it possibly provide for places that are further afield? It strains credulity to believe that the city can continue to properly provide for all areas, especially in light of its perpetual city retiree pension obligations.

Incorporation also will allow La Jolla to contract independently for core services like police, fire, water, wastewater and trash collection. Being a city doesn’t necessarily mean these services would immediately improve. But it means that accountability for bad service would increase.

The greatness of La Jolla would only falter under proposed independence.

July 3, 2023

The city of San Diego, like almost all cities, has found it difficult to retain top talent, especially police officers. Part of the reason is that they are paid less than their colleagues in other cities. The average city of Coronado police officer, for instance, makes $7,039 a month, which is 24 percent above the national average.

La Jolla is blessed with affluent and highly educated residents. But so many have learned to be helpless because of a lack of autonomy and agency. This saps passion because, in the end, the city of San Diego does what it’s going to do — notwithstanding the often contrary wishes of La Jollans. The stories of La Jollans backing a certain project, only to have the city of San Diego torpedo it, are legion. Why throw so much time and energy into a project, the thinking goes, when ultimately the work will be overlooked?

Having more control over final decisions would therefore lead to more empowerment, passion and participation.

The La Jolla Light included a poll with the online version of the final installment of its six-part series “Leaving San Diego?”

May 30, 2023

There are, to be sure, many challenges and roadblocks, not the least of which is the amount of mitigation payments that would have to be paid to the city of San Diego every year. But given the solid foundation of La Jolla’s property taxes, the nonstop tourism revenue and the desire by many to accomplish this, detachment is possible. And the money generated in La Jolla would be used to pay the city of San Diego any and all mitigation payments — i.e., it’s a mutual benefit.

The signs of disrepair and dysfunction are displayed on a depressingly regular basis. Having a city of La Jolla to address these issues will allow La Jollans to participate directly in the maintenance and upkeep of their own city. Pride of ownership. That’s ultimately what it comes down to.

“All we have to do to create the future,” organizational consultant Peter Block once said, “is to ... go from blame to ownership and from problem-solving to possibility.”

The incorporation movement at its core is therefore focused not on blame but possibility — positive possibilities and local solutions to local problems.

James Rudolph is a lawyer and a past president of the La Jolla Town Council. Trace Wilson is president of the Association for the City of La Jolla, the group leading the new effort to make La Jolla its own city.


5:36 p.m. June 25, 2023: This commentary was updated with changes and additions submitted by the writers.