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Column: Fletcher reflects on changes at the county and looks forward

12/28/22

 

By: Michael Smolens, Columnist

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher communicates with the public in multiple ways. One of them is through what have become signature short videos in which he talks directly into the camera about county accomplishments.

They’re often paired with other videos on the same topic that give basic details in text superimposed on various images.

They all have the same overarching theme: “We changed SD County.”

That might seem a bit boastful, but it’s a legitimate claim.

The county government is much different than it was when Fletcher was elected four years ago.

There have been big investments in mental and behavioral health care, more attention to homelessness and housing, an overhauled climate plan, a reversal on suburban-style development in outlying areas, greater focus on poorer and traditionally underserved communities, increased social services, better pay for county workers and improved access to county government.

Despite some vocal critics, the supervisors and county health officials received considerable credit for their response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, when Fletcher said officials often were left with finding the “least worst option.”

The supervisors’ actions in these areas, much of it led by Fletcher, have resulted in many measurable improvements, though it’s still too early to determine whether success will be achieved in reversing some longstanding problems, particularly growing homelessness and mental health concerns.

In 2018, Fletcher campaigned in part on promising to tap into the county’s significant budget reserves, which he accused the five-member Republican board of sitting on at the expense of services for county residents. It was an open question how much change the newly elected lone Democrat could effect.

The growth of some county services started before he took office, such as the creation of the Innovative Housing Trust Fund. But that expansion ramped up after Fletcher took office and more so when he was joined by two other Democrats after the 2020 election. The spending has made some conservatives uneasy, especially with a possible recession looming.

He then became board chair in back-to-back years, something that hasn’t happened since 1947-48.

“Some of it was certainly a fundamental change from how the previous board approached things,” said Fletcher, who has endorsed Supervisor Nora Vargas to succeed him as chair next year. “A lot of the change was having a county that was more aggressive and assertive.”

He featured that record heavily in his runaway re-election this fall.

The change at the county, and his role in it, no doubt will be part of what appears to be a likely run for state Senate in 2024, when Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is termed out of office. Fletcher already has created a committee to explore a state Senate bid.

When Fletcher arrived at the county, he teamed up with some of the board’s four Republican members on various initiatives. He immediately joined Supervisor Greg Cox’s effort to create a temporary refugee shelter, which soon was located in the old family court building downtown.

Other than during a couple of brief interludes, the board mostly had been made up of the same Republican members for more than two decades, even as Democrats came to dominate voter registration in the county.

A former Republican himself, Fletcher had gained a reputation for working across the aisle during his two terms in the Assembly.

His work with Cox, a South Bay Republican moderate, and Supervisor Dianne Jacob, an East County conservative, became something of a hallmark of Fletcher’s first two years in office. The long tenures of Cox and Jacob ended in 2020 when voter-approved term limits kicked in.

The three focused on common goals and worked to achieve them, sometimes with Fletcher working to build coalitions beyond the County Administration Center.

“I formed good relations with Greg and Dianne,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for both of them.

“I would use external pressure to build support and work with Greg and Dianne internally.”

They had their disagreements, such as when Fletcher opposed a move to outsource health care services at the troubled county jail. The number of deaths among people incarcerated there remains an embarrassment for the Sheriff’s Department and the county.

Fletcher noted there have been bumps along the way.

“We, as a county, have to move fast and when you go fast, things don’t always go smoothly,” he said.

One thing that wasn’t on Fletcher’s — or anybody’s — agenda was the coronavirus pandemic. For the most part, Fletcher became the face of the county’s response, which raised his profile and earned him praise in some quarters. He also received sharp condemnation from some people who opposed state and local government restrictions to limit the spread of the virus and were skeptical of vaccines developed to protect people from the disease.

Fletcher served on a special pandemic committee with Cox, who was board chair at the time. The new supervisor delved into the details of the county’s response and would have played a key role under any circumstance. But at the time, Cox was having throat problems that made it difficult for him to talk, and Fletcher took center stage at most of the county’s daily public pandemic briefings.

Later, board meetings became chaotic as COVID skeptics would rail at the supervisors and other officials for hours. The meetings also attracted some oddballs whose public comments occasionally went viral on social media.

“Disagreeing is not inherently hostile, nor is disagreeing passionately,” Fletcher said last week.

Some rhetoric went too far, though, with threats and racist attacks. “That’s the stuff we have to get rid of,” he said.

Yet the supervisors’ vote to curb disruptive comments at meetings was not universally embraced.

There has been an undercurrent through much of Fletcher’s political career that has been apparent during his four years on the board: Many people feel passionately about him, one way or another.

While some give him credit for being media savvy, critics say he has an overbearing penchant for self-promotion.

Fletcher isn’t shy about pushing new policies and makes no apologies for informing the public about them.

The case he is making is that he led a transformation of county government. He acknowledged that what has happened might not sit well with everyone.

“But I don’t think anybody would deny that county has fundamentally changed,” he said.

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