In the Money

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I got my e-invitation to the San Diego County Tax Payer’s Association’s 14th Annual Golden Watchdog and Golden Fleece Awards.  The event’s being held this year on May 13 at the tony Town and Country Resort in Mission Valley (right down the street from the entity that used to be known as the Union Tribune but may one day in the not too distant future be known as the Union Condominiums…)

I’m passing on attendance. 

It’s not just that I (and many of the taxpayers the SDCTPA claims to represent) have ideological disagreements with a group that is knee-jerk reactionary when it comes to any mention of enhanced public revenues (aka blood-sucking taxes.)  Even higher taxes,  on occasion, serve a public good even though most of us—even my self, on most occasions—do not like paying them. It’s not just that I have a minor irritation with the SDCTPA over its name, as I’ve written about before.  The SDCTPA does not represent all tax payers in San Diego county (I do believe that is the task assigned to the progressive jazz quintet known as the Board of Supervisors.) Yet, that they don’t more accurately call themselves the San Diego County Republican & Libertarian Tax Payer’s Association is only a small quibble.

It’s not even my annoyance that, while the SDCTPA loves to ridicule the ridiculous spending of public institutions (spending which, at least, purports and attempts to do something for this thing called the public good)  it says not a peep about the ridiculous spending of the private sector (Sunroad, debasement of the Padre Brand over a de-nuptialization, ghost-town developments in Eastlake, not to mention pretty much anything happening within a hundred klicks of Wallstreet these days ring a bell, anybody?)  These days (and for much of the last generation) the true fleecing of America has come courtesy of the best and the brightest minds of the Wharton, Harvard and Chicago schools of business.

No, my ultimate reason for passing on the tax-paying bashing binge is much more parochial: the $200/head dinner price.  Unless the chicken is really that good, seems to me the SDCTAA should put themselves on the menu for a fleecing award.

Hmmm, the SDCTAA celebrates the exposure of government waste at a $200 per person event.   I wonder just which tax brackets their membership comes from… 

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The fall of Mike Aguirre

(From today’s CityBeat)

OK, don’t get excited, loyal and dedicated Aguirre bashers. I don’t mean to imply that Mike “Agonistes” Aguirre is finally down for the count. There’s plenty of pluck left in—and public support left for—San Diego’s embattled city attorney. Yet, from failed lawsuits to his flaming fire fears, bad headlines have been dogging Aguirre constantly since the dog days of summer. And Aguirre hasn’t passed up many opportunities to throw additional fuel on the fires, either. Which has all come together to make the fall of 2007 the autumn of Mike’s discontent. The big question now is: Will his stumbles this fall translate into the ultimate fall from political grace in next year’s election?

This past spring, Aguirre was a civic hero for taking on the Sunroad “damn the FAA, full speed ahead” corporate juggernaut and forcing it to back down on (and de-build) its Kearny Mesa Tower of Terror. But then Mike had to go off quarter-cocked and accuse Mayor Jerry Sanders of corruption in the matter, destroying any last vestige of bonhomie with Sanders or his supporters. Sure, his Honorableness took campaign money from Sunroad and then took actions that seemed to try to help the beleaguered company out of its bind, but you don’t call that being corrupt—you call it being a politician. Meanwhile, Mike’s pension-recall lawsuit was largely recalled by the courts while he was lambasted for blowing millions of dollars on fruitless litigation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Good, The Bad and The Uuug-Lee

A few quick comments on the doings around town and beyond.

The Good: California Republicans. Last month Republicans filed a state initiative for the June, 2008 primary to switch California from awarding its 55 electoral votes from a winner-take-all to apportioning them by Congressional District – which ever candidate wins a plurality in a particular district gets that district’s one electoral vote.

The motivations for the move by Republicans are obvious. Democratic Presidential nominees can count on winning all of California’s electoral votes under the current system. But George W. Bush won in 22 of California’s congressional districts in 2004. Under the proposed plan those electoral votes would go to a Republican candidate in 2008. As the Sacramento Bee points out, that’s like creating a new state the size of Ohio and giving it to Republican candidates.

If this change gets passed into law it is going to be that much harder for Democrats to take bake the White House.

Democrats are screaming that this is a naked Republican power grab. Duh. But since when are power grabs, naked or otherwise, illegal? What Democrats a really mad about is that they didn’t think to do this first – or to create a legal firewall before now to make it impossible to do what Republicans are doing. Like passing a law prohibiting changes to the California electoral system less than six months or a year prior to the election.

Meanwhile, Republicans, like ‘em or hate ‘em, you’ve gotta admire their moxy. And Dems – maybe you guys better smarten up. This is hard ball, for heaven’s sake

The Bad: California Democrats. Not only are they letting Republicans possibly steal their state’s electoral votes, Democrats in the state legislature are letting 14 Republicans in the State Senate publicly spank them over the budget while all they can muster in return is to cry like little girls. Yo, Fabian, Don – Republicans play hardball, you play hardball. When you return from your Iraqi parliament-like summer recess (California grinds to a fiscal halt while the legislature recreates) time to bust heads. Call both chambers into floor session, invoke quorum and keep all lawmakers chained to their desks for the duration (turning off the A/C would be a nice touch) until the combined peer pressure/hostility and lack of personal hygiene drives the renegade fourteen to their knees. And then, after the dust settles, strip each and every one of them of any and all powers you can, right done to reassigning their parking spaces to the far side of Mongolia.

Or you might just try and address the root cause of this calamity which is the system of safe gerrymandered districts you’ve adopted in a Faustian deal to give Democrats enough safe seats to keep control in the legislature without ever having the chance to get the two-thirds majority needed to really achieve an agenda. Maybe if State Dems got a little more spunk they’d make more Districts in California competitive. Sure, you might lose seats. But you might gain ‘em, too. Competition might actually give the Sacramento Democrats more spine, more spunk and more soul.

The Uugee: San Diego Government. Just when you thought San Diego couldn’t become more dysfunctional, word comes out (from much maligned Mike Aguirre, please note) that City Development Czar James “I didn’t read that memo” Waring continued lobbying to let Sunroad developers exceed FAA height standards right up through last week. In other words, weeks after the Mayor said that it was the City’s position that the building had to be reduced to FAA standards.

Just who’s in charge at City Hall, Mr. Mayor? It doesn’t look like you are. And, given all the Sunroad shenanigans, it doesn’t look like you’ve been for a while. Yes, Waring has resigned. But the fact the mayor had no clue what one of his chief staffers was up to – either last year or last week – when it comes to Sunroad makes one wonder just how far out of the loop he is on other issues.

Voters voted for Jerry thinking they were getting an affable, capable administrator. Looks like only the former was correct. As I wrote a few weeks ago, any more problems and Jerry might become a one term mayor. Looks like those problems keep mounting up.

Sunroad, Sunset

“The voters want[ed] someone to show strong leadership. They want a mayor that’s going to go in immediately and restructure City Hall.”

—Jerry Sanders, Sept. 24, 2005

“This report makes it painfully obvious that various processes failed us. This is not a happy day for me or my administration.”

—Jerry Sanders, July 19, 2007

During the mayoral campaign of 2005, non-politician Jerry Sanders promised to make America’s formerly “finest” city “finest” once more. Two years later, amidst the flap over a development project gone terribly wrong, now-Mayor Sanders has had to admit that his goals of massive city reform have fallen well short of the mark.

With Sunroad Enterprises agreeing to reduce the size of its Kearny Mesa building to comply with federal aviation standards and the release of a report exonerating the mayor and other city officials from willful wrongdoing, the whole sleazy Sunroad saga may be starting its slow fade. But, just a week shy of the second anniversary of the special election that led to his ascendance to the mayoral throne, the political future of Jerry Sanders may be fading as well.

What a difference a couple of years can make in the political life of a city. Not the real, day-to-day life of a city, mind you. San Diego still has not gotten its financial house back in sufficient order to reenter the bond markets. City services continue their slow degradation, brought on by years of under- and deferred funding caused by said financial maelstrom. The employee-pension program and the retiree-health-benefits programs are still woefully underfunded. National media continues to label San Diego a den of mismanaged inequity. And the same city government that brought San Diego to the brink of financial ruin and national humiliation (the former of which we still teeter on, the latter of which we have long since plummeted over)—both elected and appointed, politician and career civil servant—is largely still running the place.

It was supposed to be a the dawning of a new day in town when Sheriff Jerry took over, wearing the whitest of non-political, untainted white hats over his new mayoral duds. Unsullied by the pollution of previous political participation, there being no campaign contributions and grasping special interests in his background, Sanders could rise above the foul fray of politics and, with his trusted sidekick, likewise nonpolitical and universally applauded former Navy Admiral Ronne Froman at his side, provide exactly the kind of stern, strong, successful leadership that his predecessors had failed to do. The sun was rising on San Diego again.

Back in the good ol’ days of ’05, Sanders was going to demand the resignation of 300 city officials to bring the bureaucracy to heel, use the threat of massive layoffs to bring the municipal unions to heel, wave his bully-pulpit and appointment power to force the resignation of a half-dozen pension board members to bring that group to heel and use Mad Dog Mike Aguirre as the mayor’s own personal pit bull to bring the council and everyone else to heel. He was going to speak with gentlemanly softness while swinging a big, city-cleaning stick. Now these promises lie like bleached bones on the political trail Sanders has trodden to this, the near halfway point of his administration. And maybe it’s all finally catching up with him and—at last—the public.

Now, you can blame a lot, if not most, of Jerry’s jinxes on the usual host of San Diego suspects always on hand when ideas of political reform and change need assassinating. The municipal unions, doing what they are supposed to—which is look out for the security of their members first and foremost—have not been compliantly willing to simply roll over on Sanders’ command and give back the benefits and pay they won in collective bargaining.

The pension board members essentially did to the mayor’s request for en masse resignations what they’ve done to everyone else for the last decade: gave them a big political raspberry. The city bureaucracy simply locked its bureaucratic shields and avoided any substantive change (creating enough frustration to drive Ronne Froman right out of city government). And the City Council and the city attorney have proven themselves far more dedicated to each others’ mutual annihilation than to working out meaningful compromises and solutions under Sanders’ smiling auspices.

Throw in Sanders’ hanging on to his no-new-taxes pledge, but only at the cost of substantially boosting water and sewer fees, and the straight-shooting mayor has seemed to miss his targets more often than not.

But, at least, through all this, Jerry had one unassailable thing going for him. He was seen by the public, the press and even most political players to be a straight-shooting genuinely nice guy. As CityBeat itself pointed out in March 2006, during Jerry’s honeymoon, even as Sanders was admitting he was having trouble gaining traction in his first 90 days in office, “Sanders, a likeable figure with a slow, deliberate speaking style and grandfatherly charm, has proved a calming influence at City Hall.”

But along came Sunroad. And Jerry is just not the same anymore.

Yes, the report compiled by Sanders’ ethics chief, Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, commissioned by the mayor in the face of rising public scrutiny over the Sunroad project, says that, while mistakes (read: incredible incompetence) occurred in the city’s handling of the issue, no criminal or otherwise corrupt wrongdoing was found to have occurred. Of course, when the mayor’s office issues a report largely exonerating itself from charges of wrongdoing, one should keep a big shaker of Morton’s on hand to accompany the swallowing thereof. But Aguirre’s previous protestations now falling silent and there being no rumbling of interest at the county, state or federal levels, it is highly likely that this report will be the final official word on the matter.

But the Sunroad story leaves a whole host of questions and queries that, while they may lie unaddressed over the coming dog days of summer, are sure to rise up again during Gentleman Jerry’s bid for reelection.

Of course, none of this is exactly new news. Back during the 2005 campaign, there were allegations by his opponent and echoed in the press that Sanders wasn’t really all that different from the same old City Hall establishment he was lambasting. Calling for open and ethical government, he then acted positively Murphian in keeping the press from interviewing Froman, his anointed chief of operations. Then it came out he’d received campaign contributions from the previous president of the ill-fated pension board, a central figure in that scandal. Under pressure, Sanders returned the money, but the incident lent credibility to then-candidate Donna Frye’s claim that he was just part of the same old downtown political guard committed to business as usual.

Which included business with people like the mysterious president of Sunroad, Aaron Feldman, a man who likes to operate out of the public eye and apparently on the edge of ethical business practices just as much as making friends in high places to help him keep things that way. Feldman helped raise thousands more dollars for the Sanders campaign. When the oversized Sunroad project in the Montgomery Field flight path was initially derailed by Aguirre last fall, Feldman had two private meetings with Sanders. After each meeting, the city took steps to help Sunroad—and Feldman. Not until May, more than a half year after Aguirre first raised the roof on Sunroad, did Sanders finally stand tall and tell Sunroad to back down.

Coincidence? Collusion? Corruption? Who really knows. But what San Diegans now know is that Sanders is a politician like the rest of them, taking money in large chunks from powerful interests for whom favorable things just seem to happen. Maybe that’s why his poll numbers are starting to slide.

Sanders may, of course, weather this latest sun-storm. The SawyerKnoll report went out of its way to throw dirt at Aguirre for contributing to the problem. Given how the Union-Tribune likes to see everything through “It’s all Mikey’s fault” glasses anyway, it’s only a matter of time until this is spun as Aguirre’s failure. For his part, Mauling Mike seemed more than happy to play nice-nice with the mayor at last Thursday’s news conference unveiling the report. Aguirre is already off on his next crusade—questionable land deals involving San Diego City College—and the press will move on as well, and the Sunroad saga will quietly set.

Come 2008, Sanders also has one major advantage that might well outshine the nasty glare any resurrection of the Sunroad story might produce: He has no real opposition. City Council President Scott Peters wisely says he doesn’t want the job. Wealthy businessman Steve Francis doesn’t have the political base. Frye says she’s not running. There just ain’t no other white-hat-wearing strangers coming into town to take a shot at being the new political sheriff.

Thus, tarnished badge and all, halfway through a far-from-stellar first term, Sanders—Sunroad or no—still has a political future. But as the public increasingly realizes that Gentleman Jerry is no gentleman at all, but just another politician, that future is anything but certain. One more Sunroad just may do Sanders in.

Sunroad Sixpack

Here are six quickie observations on Sunroad. Look for a detailed piece on what Sunroad tells San Diego about Sir Jerry Sanders and his political future (???) coming out in this Wednesday’s edition of CiityBeat. (Just as soon as I finish writing the darn thing….)

1. Any investigation of someone accused of incompetence/corruption that is conducted by the very someone who has been accused is not worth the laserjet ink it’s printed with.

2. This report is just a big, bureaucratic broom being used to help sweep the whole tadry mess under the San Diego political rug. This week Sanders mea culpas. Next week it’s on to something else. Six months from now someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to Sunroad?” And the answer will be: “Sunroad? Heck, that’s old news.” (Like Stadium-deal corruption, City council corruption, pension fund corruption, etc.)

3. No-one is ever going to be fired at Development Services over this. Jim Waring will probably take an “early retirement” (like City Manager Lackless Lamont did) and, a respectable number of weeks or months later take a lucrative private sector job, City pension intact. But no-one will be “fired”. They can’t be. Otherwise one of the lackeys—cum-fall guy will start to talk about this and that which could raise too many questions about who helped whom. The big difference between San Diego corruption and East Coast corruption is that back east they’re willing to whack someone to save a little payoff dough. In gentile San Diego the power that be have found it much easier to simply silence peoples’ mouths by stuffing them with manna.

4. Within a matter of days/hours the UT (and it’s “Finest Blog”) will begin the editorial process of ignoring everything in the SawyerKnoll report except the part castigating the City Attorney and spinning Sunroad to all be, like everything else in San Diego, Aguirre’s fault.

5. There’s not going to be a Sunroad lawsuit that ever reaches court. Neither the mysterious Mr. Feldman nor those directly involved with this at the City really want all this dirty laundry aired in public, Even if there is no outright provable corruption, City officials right up to the Mayor don’t want to have all their incompetences dragged back into the headlines a few months from now. And Feldman doesn’t want his cross-the-line—but-not-by-enough-to—make-people-(Especially the FBI)-take-serious-notice approach to business too closely scrutinized. My prediction: out of court settlement announced some late Friday afternoon (like the Friday before the Labor Day weekend) that compensates Sunroad for all costs of demolition, redesign and rebuild. And maybe an additional little stipend to offset lost revenues from the reduced property.

6. The real payoff to Sunroad will be a few years from now when they get a few friendly tweaks from the City on their next major project.