Read My Lips. I Mean My Other Lips.

Gentleman Jerry Sanders has had his full-on Bush moment.  (That would be the kinder, gentler Bush 41 as opposed to the swaggeringer, already all but forgottener Bush 43.)

Jerry Sanders, Special  Election Edition 2005“Read My Lips. No New Municipal Taxes.”*

(*Offer does not apply to “fee increases”  e.g. Sewer.)

Jerry Sanders, New And Improved Don’t Won’t The City To Go Bankrupt On His Watch 2010 Limited Edition:    New Taxes?  Er, Okay!”

Now, the proposed sales tax increase is probably never going to see the revenue light of fiscal day.  Come November, voters perched on the edge of a double-dip recession will probably prove reluctant to open their pocketbooks to bailout a city government that has proven reluctant to realistically deal with its financial problems for an entire decade.  And the “Reform for Revenue” measure is about as Rube Goldberg  a contraption as has ever been put on a San Diego Ballot.  What with all its “privatize this” and “renegotiate that” provisions, this initiative has more moving parts than the Space Shuttle.  And, for all the hand-wringing over budget cutbacks,  firestation brownouts and pool drainings, the real pain voters will soon experience in municipal meltdown has but put off, if not for much longer.

But it’s interesting to watch the evolution from Jerry Sanders Running For Office: Pander to the voters by telling them you can have no tax increases, no cuts to city services and no municipal maladies of any kind;   to Jerry Sanders Running For Legacy: Acknowledge  that, while yes  fiscal reform is needed at this late date it’s either steep cuts in services or some token increase in taxes.

The simple reality is San Diego is now several billion in the red, the economy is getting ready to tank again as the local housing market looks to drop into the next ditch and  the only thing separating America’s Finest City and other basically bankrupt cities is time.  How long, one must wonder, before the city starts turning off every other street  light to save money like Colorado Springs?

Of course the politics of all this right out of the  San Diego provincial playbook, with the two Republicans on the non-partisan council voting against the six Democrats on the non-partisan council thereby setting up the next GOP contender for the non-partisan Mayoralship to boldly campaign on the slogan, “Read My Lips – oh, heck, you know the rest.”  (One can see Carl D practicing the line in the mirror every morning.)

By then though the game of San Diego municipal musical chairs may be over and a city that has been dancing on the brink for ten years may finally tip over.  And by then  a minor half-cent increase will do about as much good for San Diego finances as a roll of duct tape would have helped the Titanic.

In the interim it would be nice if mayoral mouthpiece Darrel Pudgil took a moment spent praising the mayor for his bold leadership in trying to close the near hundred mil budget gap (and gee, after only five yeas in office) to issue a small little apology to Darling Donna Frye.  Back in 2005 His Gentlemanness, in a  very ungentleman-like way,  savaged  the honest council woman for simply suggesting the city consider what Sanders himself has now embraced.

If you’re worried about legacy, Jerry, why don’t you go the whole nine yards and admit Donna was right a half-decade ago?

In Lieu of Flowers

From Today’s Hard Copy of City Beat

A Eulogy For Mike Aguirre

True to my prediction of four years ago, Mike Aguirre has become San Diego’s version of the mad Florentine monk Savaranola: having incited the locals to burn down the downtown power establishment he finds himself instead burned at the political stake.  His legion of detractors, however, from the editorial and blogger  pages of the UT to the front office of the Chargers to the halls of City Hall right to Jerry Sanders himself might well find they will  ultimately rue the day of Mad Mike’s fall.  For now whom will they blame their many failings on?

No longer having Aguirre to kick around, Gentlemen Jerry and the City Council may also find that the only thing that’s kept the political peace in San Diego for the last four years was their  shared fear and loathing of Mike.  Sanders first tried to triangulate with Aguirre against the council, then teamed up with the council against Aguirre. With Mike gone and all the financial problems hanging over the city, watch the mayor and council turn on each other like rabid and ravenous professional politicians.

Let us not underestimate or minimize the degree to which Mike mauled himself. By most accounts Mike’s management of City Attorney’s office was closer to Humprhey Bogart’s helmanship in the Caine Mutiny than E.G. Marshall’s stewardship in The Defenders His inability to focus on any one project long enough to see it to completion, whether it be run-of-the-mill civil litigation or major investigations left him long on rhetoric but short on accomplishment.

Meanwhile the promised centerpiece of his litigation empire—the lawsuit to roll back pension benefits– only served to alienate Aguirre from what could have been a political alliance with the municipal unions and gave the UT with millions of dollars in ‘wasted money” to shoot at him with.  That Jerry Sander’s said the lawsuits  needed to proceed and be resolved  before he could take any actions to solve the pension problem somehow has gotten deleted from the pension narrative.  With Jan  Goldsmith ready to drop the litigation, the UT’s question should be:  So what’s the new pension plan, your Mayorship? Instead, no doubt, the paper of record will congratulate Goldsmith for saving millions of dollars by dropping litigation aimed at saving hundreds of millions.   Se la vie.

And then there was Mike himself.  Or, specifically, Mike’s mouth.

Mike seemed to have reinterpreted Thumper’s Mother’s advice to be “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, go out of your way to kick them as many times as you can.” Mike was San Diego’s little boy who cried corruption so often that, even when corruption seemed to be evident (can you say Pensiongate?  Sunroadgate?) the press and much of the public rolled their collective eyes and said, “There he goes again.”   What Mike forgot was the Occam’s razor of municipal government: never claim corruption and conspiracy when simple incompetence will suffice.

Aguirre actually had a higher view of the city’s leaders than most common folk did.  Presented with the incredible screwups on every thing from sewer systems to development deals, most San Diegans simply threw up their hands and said, “What d’ya expect from those clowns.”  Aguirre was actually charitable enough to assume that city officials—both elected and appointed—where smart enough to know what they were doing and that screwups where actually intentional subversions of the public good.  His constant maligning of multiple malificient muncipal malefactors, however, eventually fell flat in the face of the depressingly low level of competence San Diegan’s have come to expect from their municipality.

Yet the real irony in the case of Mike Aguirre was that, no matter how flawed the messenger may have been, his fundamental message—that the city was heading towards, be it by incompetence, corruption or cowardice, a fiscal Armageddon and no one on the council (with the exception of Darling Donna Frye)  or the Mayor’s office was willing to even so much as admit how bad things were let alone take proactive steps to head off disaster–was  quite correct. Indeed, Mike is even more correct about the state of the city leaving office in defeat than when he entered it in victory.

Between 2000 and 2004 the city became the municipal version of the Titanic, slamming full speed into the pension fund debacle.  Over the last four years, under the stalwart stewardsip of two mayors, two acting mayor and scads of City Managers and CFOs,  the city backed up and then slammed full speed ahead into that iceberg again. And again. This time the ship might finally sink.

As Aguirre recently claimed (and Dan Bauder reiterated in last week’s Reader)  the pension fund deficit, around a billion  and a half dollars when Mad Mike came into office, is probably closer to THREE billion today.  Back in 2004 the City was in the middle of good times with the markets and tax revenues on the rise.  Today the City, like the rest of the country—and the world—is in a recession heading towards depression. Which means any hope of riding this out without making major—and painful—cuts are simply delusions or deceits.

The city council might want to hold off voting to ban plastic shopping bags. What will hundreds of city employees put the contents of their desks into when they are, let us say, sent on extended permanent furlough (what shall they call “firing you”? Let them count the ways…) once the full financial plight of the City is realized? Keep a few branch libraries from closing?  By this time next year the Council may be selling the library’s books on E-bay for spare cash and wondering how to keep at least a few police stations open. Citizen Aguirre thus leaves office as he came in,  with the name of his cherished boyhood sled “Bankruptcy” on his lips.

That Mike Aguirre leaves shallow footprints on city politics is in part due to his own personal failings but more because so many of the city’s movers and shakers worked so hard to brush him away.   His attempt to turn the City Attorney’s office into something of a Tribune of the People is now being rolled back, much to the relief of the city establishment. Safely ensconced at last in his new City Attorney digs, Landslide” Jan Goldsmith is ready, true to his word, to take the office back to the halcyon days of  Casey “Pension underfunding? Sure we can do pension underfunding”  Gwinn.

Just how will Ferret Man Jan deal with the next Sunroad? Or the next (as in current) pension under funding scheme?  Will Goldsmith continue any of Aguirre’s Quixotic adventures, like efforts to force Kinder Morgan, the corporation that owns the tank farms by the stadium, to finally make good on its legal responsibility to clean up the Mission Valley aquifer  contaminated in a fuel spill twenty years ago? Given that Goldsmith campaigned on the platform of turn the City Attorney’s office back into the legal mouthpiece of the mayor and council, one can only imagine the answer.

Meanwhile the changing of the guard at 202 C Street is now complete.  In addition to Aguirre’s agonosites,  the last four members of the City Council’s gang of seven (the gang that voted the city into its current fiscal failures starting in 2000) have been turned out as well, though, in these cases, by term limits and not voter vindictiveness.

And thus it’s a final irony that, with the exception of Dick Murphy (who cheated a public recall hanging by his own political suicide) Mike Aguirre is the only elected San Diego official since to pay any price for a lack of success in public office is recent memory. (And how many people DID get fired over that little Sunroad flap?  Ah ha.  Thought so.)  Scott Peters is off to his cozy sinecure on the Port Commission, a going away present from his former council buddies. The troika of Atkins,  Maienschein and Madaffer may be, as yet, unspecific about life post-council but we should all sleep well at night knowing that there’s probably a nice public sinecure or private partnership awaiting them somewhere.  Jerry Sanders,  meanwhile, having coasted to easy reelection can now hear, wafting whispers of his name on the lips of Republicans desperate to find some one to run for governor in 2010.

Only Mike Aguirre comes out of this miserably mauled.  But take heart Mikey. Your principal public antagonist, the UT, is on the sales block.  And your political antagonists like Peters and Sanders may well see their political shelf-lives shrink to that of overripe mangoes given the financial fury facing the city.  Indeed, it is unfortunately possible—and not for your lack of warnings–that your dourest predictions of municipal collapse might yet come true.  Like the mad monk Savaronola ranting against the corruption of the  De Medici’s, you may end up vindicated in the end.

And the citizen’s of San Diego may find themselves saying a few years—or months—if only we’d listened to that obnoxious Mike Aguirre.

City Hall — The Discussion Goes On

I’m having a friendly agree-to-disagree with my CityBeat Editor, Dave Rolland, over the idea of building a new downtown City Hall.  You can follow the thread of the discussion here.

Fighting City Hall

I’ve had several interesting responses to my commentary in last week’s edition of CityBeat in which I argued  against building a huge, expensive new downtown city hall and, instead, redistributing Council offices out to their districts.  You can read the piece  here.

One letter to me, from an urban planner, took me to task for my viewpoint:


You have put forth a decentralized City Hall idea.

If you remember, San Diego has moved its City Hall before. The first one use to be in Old Town, but someone burned it and built a spiffy new one in New Town San Diego… effectively raising property values throughout the recently platted New Town. Here we go again?

Moving City Hall to his district would be an interesting way for Carl DeMaio to take care of his constituents.  Probably not though, as most would rightfully complain about traffic. It seems to me to be very odd rational, geographical-center, to move our largest civic institution from downtown to our most suburban area.

While I know City Beat bangs the hedonistic – anything I say is ok – drum loudly, moving a downtown function to 2nd tier Suburb is the dumbest idea I’ve read in quite some time. I say ‘dumb’ because the hedonistic freedom of the internet hasn’t given Kearny Mesa the waterfront port, airport, Highway’s 5, 163, 94 and Pacific, plus the Trolley, Amtrak and Coaster Rail Service (connectivity to the entire population of San Diego). Despite it’s renown beauty, Kearny Mesa wasn’t built to become another Downtown area as it is built with suburban infrastructure and characteristics (wide 65-mph streets, small format retail, single-family detached homes and one Sunroad tower).  City Hall is also just ONE centralized function of a downtown.  We have courthouses, libraries, colleges, and county facilities. Please don’t suggest putting each of these in their geographic center as well!? That simple criteria is arbitrary planning, at best.

We have been building cities for thousands of years.  Before the advent of the internet, space shuttle, television, telephone, automobile, and printing press, all of which were believed would dramatically change our built environment. But, we are still confined by our height, speed and range, therefore neighborhoods and cities that are connected, compact and complete are still important.  Cities are built by a declination of place: from the most urban (downtown) to the most rural (Julian) to natural (Cuyamaca Mountains). There are many scales of urbanism between.  From Downtown – North Park – Rancho Santa Fe- Ramona – Julian. Each of these have an associated infrastructure to support them (or lack of, thereby causing problems).

Connection by automobile-only would cause traffic problems in Kearny Mesa because there is no trolley system now, you and Carl are only giving people the option to drive.  In contrast to Kearny Mesa’s scale, the region’s downtown has over the past 100 years built the infrastructure to handle the amount of people, utilities and parking spaces in response to the amount of business City Halls get’s done.

Here is a radical, but thoroughly un-modern / kookie idea: Put our City Hall on the Waterfront! Make it as Grand as our County Administration Building.  Be bold with our City Hall rather than trying to hiding it in Kearny Mesa.

The Navy is leaving the Broadway Complex area and our lease with them was to give it back when they don’t need it for military purposes anymore (rather than making a deal with Manchester).  And remember, the current City Hall is located where it is now because C. Arnholt Smith wanted to raise the property values of his adjacent hotel/office towers and he convinced San Diegans to move it from the waterfront in the middle 60’s.

Same as it ever was?
Sincerely,  John Doe, III, FIUD, CNU
Principal, Urban Designer

My Response:

Dear Mr. Doe:

Thank you for taking the time to write you response to my commentary.  I appreciate your insight and thoughts on the matter though, of course, I fully disagree with your core conclusions.

Moving Council functions to their districts would cause minimal disruption of traffic patterns in those areas—certainly, one must imaging, substantially less than the creation of any single big box store would.  As to the suitability of Kearny Mesa for hosting non-council functions, there is substantial infrastructure in terms of road and bus service to the area. I agree, however, that a transportation study would need be done to determine how many citizens doing business at the current 202 C street locale actually use mass transport to reach it and how their needs could be accommodated should Mayoral and service functions be moved to Kearny Mesa.

You go on to mention that “City Hall is also just ONE centralized function of a downtown.  We have courthouses, libraries, colleges, and county facilities. Please don’t suggest putting each of these in their geographic center as well!? That simple criteria is arbitrary planning, at best. “  Forgive me for my surprise at this statement from a self-identified urban planner but it is categorically incorrect.  There are County Court facilities in both north, east and south county.  People in Fallbrook don’t have to go to downtown San Diego for legal matters. There are community branch libraries across both the city and county that, collectively, have far more patrons than the downtown “central” facility does.  The regions colleges and universities are distributed across the county allowing easy access by students and providing for synergies with local interests—such as the high tech UCSD-Sorento Valley nexus.  My institution, Mesa College is able to serve as an educational and job training hub for the bulk of the city because it is located  in the geographic, not urban, center of the city.  Fire stations, police stations, park services—all are successfully—and necessarily—distributed into the communities they serve.

I will not comment on your somewhat ad hominem labeling of CityBeat and, by association, my commentary  as “hedonistic except to say the following.  I have no financial ox to be gored in this public issue, no professional dog in the fight.  As you are a self-described urban designer I would suggest the same is not true for you and that, the old adage, “if you have a hammer it all looks like nails” applies, Where else would an urban planner want to plan a new City Hall but in the downtown urban core?

You hit the nail squarely on the head when you point out that “C. Arnholt Smith wanted to raise the property values of his adjacent hotel/office towers and he convinced San Diegans to move [City Hall] from the waterfront in the middle 60’s.”  Building municipal facilities downtown has never been about simply serving a public good or satisfying civic pride.  From Alonzo Horton to the present, downtown development has been about making big bucks for big developers,  the public good being an ancillary, not primary, focus.  As you conclude,  “Same as it ever was.”

Carl Luna

And the debate goes on.

Shoulda Didda

Here, noble three readers, are my picks for who , come Wednesday, probably “didda” win after the chads clear—and who probably “shoulda “won:

Gentleman Jerry has had a good year: fires left him coated in good publicity Teflon, the return to the bonds markets (albeit limited in scope and at less than optimum rates) is a major step away from the municipal fiscal brink and no major oops have stuck to him, allegations of corruption by Mauling Mike Aguirre not withstanding. But Jerry’s scorecard of campaign promises met is even bleaker than the current Padre standings. And the return to the bonds markets is months later than he promised. Meanwhile City services continue to deteriorate and the mayor is on a collision course of epic NASCAR proportions with City employees over pensions.

Sander’s saving grace is that millions spent by supply-side businessman turned progressive civic savior St.eve Francis of the City’s hasn’t been the definitive tipping point one might have thought it to have been. Granted, given how the dollar has been doing in recent months, four mil just doesn’t buy what it used to. But Francis has not been able to translate his media onslaught into a coherent narrative of why Jerry, despite his shortcomings, should be dumped. Or, more importantly, why used-to-be-hard-right-now-coming-from-the-left Francis should do the dumping. Francis has positioned himself in the worst of both San Diego political worlds: progressives don’t trust him and conservatives resent him. He has not delivered a compelling narrative of just what drove his Paul on the road to Damascus moment of political conversion, leaving many to suspect cheap political opportunism as the motivation and not true social enlightenment.

Still, Francis has been able to do respectfully well against an incumbent supported by most of the City power establishment, from the GOP to the UT to the business community in general. He’s within five percent or so of Sanders in polls. And, while the other runner-ups are running far behind, the five to ten percent of the vote they might get tomorrow could possibly throw this race into a fall runoff. Which would give Stevo time to retool his message and reintroduce himself to the independents and crossover progressives he’d need to win in November.

Didda: Sanders wins a narrow victory tomorrow putting this to bed.
Shoulda: Voters burned by a succession of nice but nonperforming mayors should dump Jerry and take the chance on Francis, proven or not.

I’ve laid out my pros for keeping Mike Aguirre, warts (…tantrums, media stunts, over-using of the “C” word, poor press conference fashion statements…) and all. Numerous times. His detractors have laid out their case to dump (or, preferably, immolate and scatter the ashes to the next Santa Ana winds) him as well. Mike Aguirre is the Hillary Clinton of San Diego politics: we all fully well know his negatives by now and fully well know what he stands for. The same cannot be said for his primary primary challenger, Judge Jan, whose campaign has been a statement in blandness. Meanwhile, of Aguirre’s two City Council opponents, Scott Peters is clearly the standout having demonstrated consistent—though often erroneous—leadership on the Council. But Peter’s opposition to continuing the investigation of Sunroad alone defines what he would be like as City Attorney—and, in my view, disqualifies him from consideration for the office. That’s without even considering the various pension-fiasco votes he cast. Ditto Brian Maienschein, except for the leadership thing, which he hasn’t really demonstrated. Think of him as Peter’s lite. That being said:

Didda: Aguirre gets his 30%+ and goes on to the fall runoff, probably against Goldsmith. What happens then is still, as the statisticians would say, a stochastic event.
Shoulda: Aguirre wins outright. San Diego, do you really want to go back to the Golden Gwynn days? And, his own warts and all, Peters would be a better choice than Judge Jan.

Didda: Phil Thalheimer’s money beats Marshall Merrifield’s, buying him the right to stand against Sherri “The populist pauper” Lightner come fall.
Shoulda: Sherri wins outright as the vox populi speaks to say it’s tired of guys with tons of money trying to buy their way into office. Say what you will about the sordidness of soliciting campaign contributions. In the absence of public funding of campaigns, it is still better than just letting those with money already steamroller over those without.

Given the matchups (or, in District Five, lack thereof) I can’t muster the emotional energy to pontificate on these two. Except, to point out, just how much I am really looking forward to four years of Carl Pod-boy DeMaio jovially joshing with Roger Hedgecock about outsourcing as many City Services as possible to for-profit private contractors who can then outsource them to a Chinese subcontractor using Pakistani labor imported through Saudi Arabia.

Didda: Marti Emerald beats April Boling by a reasonable spread.
Shoulda: Marti Emerald beats April Boling by a reasonable spread.

Didda: Exempting fire and police personnel from privatization/outsourcing is a sure winner. After all, after supporting the troops, we love to support our cops and firemen (although not with competitive wages and benefit packages…). Prop A passes by a landslide.
Shoulda: Any social conservative government-is-bad-private-sector-is-heaven types who don’t vote no on Prop A should be forced to wear a scarlet “H” for sheer hypocrisy. The “managed competition” crowd will tell you that the private sector is always more competent and efficient than government. So why, then, should any of us entrust the most important function of government—keeping us all physically alive and safe—to such incompetent government? If trash collection and midlevel paper-shuffling can be done cheaper and better by the private sector, why not police and fire? After all, for most of human history these functions, when provided, were largely provided by private entities outside of government anyway. Or could it be, perchance, that there are some things that affect the common good that government can do better than the private sector? And if that includes cops, firemen and lifeguards(and, apparently, Marines, Blackwater notwithstanding) might it not include at least some of the other providers of government services conservatives would target for privatization? Perish the thought.

Didda: Ditto Prop A, this passes by a comfortable margin.
Shoulda: Prop B should have expanded the Council by at least three seats to provide better, focused attention by representatives to the people they purport to represent.

Didda & Shoulda: Donna Frye is wrong about Prop C. She says allowing the Mayor to have so much influence over who will audit the City books is like allowing the fox into the hen house. Actually, it’s more like moving the whole hen house into the fox’s den. Prop C should—and probably will—fail. I mean, how many times will you expect to see Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye agreeing on anything?

OK. Now go vote.

An Odd Year

Elections in odd-numbered council districts and an odd trio challenging an odd city attorney make for odd times Read the rest in CityBeat Online HERE.


Am I the only one mildly creeped out by Carl DeMaio? He shows up on the local political scene six years ago, fully formed but without any real history behind him, like he had just emerged from a pod cultivated at the Reagan Ranch and dispatched to infect San Diego with his conservative mantra: Government is bad, taxes are too high, downsize this, outsource that, reform government by taking it back to 19th-century laissez faire, etc. Every time I hear or see him, I wonder if little Carl DeMaio doppelgangers in smooth suits are peddling the same neo-con gospel in city councils and boards of supervisors from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Beaufort, S.C. Then I snap out of it and realize: Of course they are.

Charter Reform This

Egad how complicated can you make charter reform. What to put on the ballot? When to put it on? Come on, guys, it’s not that complicated. Here is the four-step plan to simple San Diego charter changes:

1. Mayoral Veto: The UT had to have published one of the most inane editorials it ever has (and believe me, the competition for the title in the annals of UT lore is intense) last Sunday when it lambasted the City Council for refusing to accede to the Mayor’s ultimate dream scenario of requiring a super-majority to veto Mayoral actions.

“The flimsy pretext for this unwarranted delay was that a six-vote requirement to override the mayor’s veto would constitute more than two-thirds of the eight-member council.”

So sayeth the oracles of the UT.

Exsqueeze me? Not wanting to adopt a 75% override super-majority is a “flimsy” excuse? So what now? The UT’s Bowtie Bob Kittle disinters Jimmy Madison from his crypt over in Montpelier and slaps the corpse around for having the temerity for putting a two-thirds veto Congressional majority into the Constitution as opposed to the three-quarters required for ultimate weighty issues like, say, amending the Constitution? How dare Mr. Madison, et. al, constrain the power of the energetic and noble executive.

A Super-Mayor (as opposed to just a run-of-the-mill Strong Mayor) would provide one-stop convenience shopping for the powerful economic interests that dominate the downtown scene. So, of course, the UT would love to see a Mayor with a super-majority veto shackling the City council. At least, that is, a Mayor who conforms to the UT’s editorial board positions which, often as not, align all so nicely with those of the downtown money crowd (which, given the paper’s dwindling readership, seems to be their principle subscribers anyway).

I wonder what the UT’s position on the veto would be if a social progressive like a Donna Frye was Mayor. Hmmmm, let me think…

UT, get over it. Ain’t nobody this homie knows of that requires a super majority for a legislative veto. The Council’s veto should be set at two-thirds. Which, of course, means the council has to be expanded to at least nine districts, with six necessary for the veto. And which leads me to suggestion….

2. Council Expansion.: The proposed nine council districts is better than the ridiculous even numbered eight council districts the Strong Mayor reform package left the city with. Going to nine districts will reduce the number of people each councilmember is trying to represent from 163k to 146k. But this pales in comparison to the level of personal representation afforded citizens of, say San Francisco, whose 11 supervisors represent around 70k citizens each or Chicago, whose 50 (yes, 5-0) Alderman represent around 50k each. In other words, San Diegans are vastly underrepresented.

Okay, significantly increasing the size of the council adds to costs (staff and salaries, etc.) and to complexity (more people trying to reach agreement). So, what? How about we abolish the council entirely and just have a mayor—maybe a wealthy one like Steve Francis who will foreswear his salary—running the show? Boy, that would save the moola. And, of course, flush the whole concept of democracy down the porcelain fixture.

I’d like to see a council of 11, 12, 15 or 18 (which makes the 2/3 veto majority math easy). That would increase representation (and, potentially, diversity) on the council. So what if that would also render the current council chambers obsolete. They keep saying City Hall is outdated and needs to be replaced. So do so and build a new one, big enough to accommodate the needs of San Diego in 2008 as opposed to 1974 when the current City Hall was built. Which brings me to suggestion….

3. Build a new City Hall and don’t build it downtown. Why is “downtown”– a place most San Diegans seldom go to–the nexus of City municipal life? Could it be because the rents and land there is are cheap it would be foolish to move City Government somewhere else? Could it be because downtown is centrally located and convenient in terms of traffic and parking for most San Diegans to reach? Could it be because it places City Hall within easy walking distance of all the developers, bankers and lawyers representing these said and other special interests who can afford to maintain tony downtown offices precisely to lobby City Government?

Gee, I wonder which one it could be?

How about we sell all the City’s downtown property and disperse the mechanisms of City government around the City itself? Downtown San Diego has always been more of a wish than a reality anyway. Why is Normal Heights or Clairemont any less advantageous a locale for the seat of governance of a sprawling Uber-burb like San Diego? There are these thing called phones, fax and the internet which, I hear, makes communication over vast distances (like, say, Linda Vista to Mira Mesa) very doable these days.

Put the main City Hall, and its council chambers someplace truly central, like Kearny Mesa or Tieresanta. Have each councilmember’s office and staff located in their own district so their constituents can find them as opposed to the downtown suits. And put the Mayor in a really big RV and have him or her tool around town, doing each day’s business in a different district.

Okay, the last one is a little pie in the cracked sky. But why keep all the representatives of the City in the same building every day? They should be in the communities they represent. And access is power, something, interestingly enough, mayoral candidate St. Francis of the City acknowledges when he’s suggested the Mayor’s office be moved to City Heights or some such . Why do you think the very first battle in every new administration, be it mayoral or presidential, is who gets the office closest to the chief? You keep city government downtown and,–Surprise! Downtown money interests get disproportionate influence.


4. Fix the City Attorney conflict. An elected City Attorney cannot faithfully serve both the people who elects him or her and the members of City Government as the interest of the People and the Government often conflict. This puts the CA in an untenable position: either be a lapdog of the Mayor and Council (as past CAs were and which the Council and Mayor would like the current and future ones to be) or be a public advocate at odds with the very City Government he or she is called upon to represent. So, as I’ve advocated before, split the job. Create a new position of City Counsel to represent the City in legal affairs and turn the CA into something more akin to the County DA—a watchdog representing the legal interests of all members of the community. Do that or simply abolish the elected status of the CA and return the position to that of Council/Mayor appointment. You can’t have a good watchdog and lapdog at the same time. (Well, actually you can as my ninety pound shepherd-collie-Afghan mix attests to, but you get point.)

There are other tweaks that can be done (like having truly independent City Auditors appointed by a “blind” panel of public citizens and a truly independent City Ethics Commission. But these are my Big Four for Charter Reform.

Then again, why fix anything? I mean, things have been running so well in San Diego government for so long, if it ain’t broke……

Orange You Glad I didn’t say Derivatives

You’ve got to love San Diego City Council meetings. They drag on and on (like the nine and a half hour marathon session last December 4) about items of municipal minutia so mundane that even the most wonkish of policy wonks find their thoughts drifting to their next session of “World of Warcraft.” But buried in all this mundanity are often items of extreme importance. Which, of course, the press and public, overwhelmed by the sheer boredom of it all, don’t pick up on.

Like last Monday’s session. And Docket ITEM-200: Variable Rate Debt and Derivatives Workshop for the City Council.

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Like going over your insurance portfolio with your sixty-two year old, loves to talk about fly-fishing and vaguely smells of Lysol agent.

So last Monday the council sat through a long, monotonous presentation on how the city, should it EVER get back into the bonds markets, could pursue various options in reducing short term borrowing costs. All presented in the clearest of businesseeze readily comprehensible by any Ph.D. in economics with a five year post-doc in esoteria.

At the end of the presentation a motion was put forward to bring this topic before the City Budget committee next month to continue consideration of the high-falutin’ investment strategies—using variable rate bonds and derivatives to offset up front financing costs—with an eye towards recommending their adoption by the full council.

And then Donna Frye pointed out the five ton orange elephant in the room.

Orange, that is, as in Orange County which, more than a decade ago, went belly up when the similarly sophisticated investment strategies they had pursued came tumbling down.

Frye asked the workshop presenters to go over the risks of variable rate borrowing. You remember the concept: low initial rates that can skyrocket if conditions change? The kind of borrowing millions of Americans engaged in to afford their overpriced homes? What do they call that market, now? Oh yes, that’s right.


So there is the San Diego City Council all hellbent on signing the City up to engage in volatile interest rate borrowing without even the slightest peep of protest.

Except for Darling Donna.

After going over the risks associated with the scheme the council was being recommended to buy in to Frye then asked which of those risks would be present if the City continued to borrow under traditional, fixed-rate terms. The answer, of course, was none. So Frye asked the obvious question: why should a City bludgeoned out of the bonds markets because of its incompetent financial management even consider reentering those markets using riskier strategies than it ever used before?

The response of her fellow council members was deafening. Or, better said, deaf. The council over road Frye’s motion to reject the proposal out of hand as the snakiest of snake oil and referred the matter to the Budget Committee for further review. From whence it will emerge, months from now, to be considered and adopted by the full council during yet another marathon, bore the world into submission session, no doubt.

So why would the Council even consider getting the City into borrowing strategies which have the possibility of putting the City essentially into the same position as millions of homeowners (homeowners, that is, until the repo orders come down) who were caught in the subprime swamp? Why, for the same reasons that drove millions of Americans into that swamp in the first place.

San Diego, for all the smiley faces Jerry Sanders and many council members try and put on it, is still in a world of financial hurt. The City faces a three hundred million dollar, five year budget shortfall which will get worse as the economy continues to stagnate, is still a billion dollars in the pension hole and has hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged building and repair projects thanks to its being locked out of the bonds markets for almost five years. Things are getting so tight that there is even talk of privatizing the crown Municipal Jewel, Balboa Park, which needs two hundred million dollars that the City doesn’t have for basic repairs and deferred maintenance.

If and when San Diego returns to the bonds markets it will need to hit those markets hard and heavy, borrowing as much as possible at the cheapest rates as possible. At least, that seems to be how the Council is trying to position the City. Borrow billions now at cheap entry rates, fix things, make everyone happy and then run on that goodwill for a higher office when term limits are reached. That also seems to be the underlying strategy of the Council. And when, in three or five years, the new financial house of derivative and variable rate cards collapses the perpetrators will be off to Sacramento or the Port District or some other home for former San Diego politicians.


But at least these decisions are made right out there in the open, right between “Requests for Continuance” and “City Council Budget Priorities for Fiscal Year 2009.”

With no-one paying attention.


What’s with the San Diego City Council lately? First Council President Scott Peters shows leadership in saying San Diegans may have to pony up more revenues if they’d prefer not to have their houses burn up in the next fire. Then the Council votes to flush Jerry Sander’s veto of the water reclamation proposal down the political toilet?

I don’t know what they’ve started putting in the water at 202 C Street (maybe some of that reclamated stuff—and I know “reclamated” isn’t really a word but doesn’t sound like it should be? ) but keep spiking their aqua with it, by all means.

Apparently Sanders skipped his waterboarding by the Council by “going to the movies” according to his spokesman. I do hope he was watching a retrospective of Lawrence of Arabia or Dune. Maybe that would have helped remind him that San Diego is an arid, semi-desert environment in which water isn’t all that copious a commodity.

The Mayor says there are other, more cost effective ways to satisfy San Diego’s thirst. Like what–shipping water here from Fiji in little bottles made of oil from Saudi Arabia so we can biologically transship said water into the sewer system and flush it back out to sea? Where it will eventually evaporate into the atmosphere, come down as rain in Fiji, refill the aquifers there to be rebottled and reshipped in our circle of life? Or depending upon waters from Nor Cal and Colorado when more and more people are sticking bigger and bigger straws into it?

It’s time to start thinking outside of the imported water bottle, your Honorness, and face facts. New technologies such as reclamation need be tried and embraced before water bills in San Diego, already soaring to record highs, start to surpass the gasoline and electric prices San Diegans are already being gouged by. It’s time for you to now faithfully follow the Council’s mandate and not bureaucratically bury this initiative out of misplaced obstinance.

And for all you who “dis” reclamation with the pejorative “Toilet to Tap” label, as I wrote back in September, shaddup already. You obviously don’t have a clue where that “fresh” water from your tap has already been before it ever reached your gullet.

I said after the great fires that Sanders came through it all smelling like a political rose. In retrospect, me thinks me was too hasty. Given the Feinstein roadshow’s scathing critique of San Diego’s failure to fully prepare for the next big fire last week, the post-backslapping on a job well done by Jerry and his boyz now seems premature. Kind of Jerry’s “Doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie” moment.”

The bottom line: Jerry has not delivered on pretty much any of his big campaign pledges. He didn’t raise taxes but he certainly raised water rates. He hasn’t outsourced nor downsized any of municipal government of note – perhaps because most of it, by nature of what it does, cannot be profitably outsourced nor meaningfully downsized. Not, at least, if you want to deliver first world, finest city sorts of services to city’s residents. The San Diego’s fiscal house is still not in order and the bonds markets continue to turn their financial noses up and preclude the city from reentering the bonds markets. Sanders’ much hyped dream team as decamped for greener pastures. Meanwhile the state-wide budget crisis, precipitated by the housing bubble bursting and the resulting credit crunch and about to be made worse by possible recession (Gee, haven’t the Bush years been a gas?!!!) don’t foretell an easy ride for the next four years. That Jerry, who couldn’t make things work in two years of relatively good times, can do the job in the coming years of fiscal famine, is far from certain.

So, Jerry. That reelection thing next year? Just a heads up. I don’t think it’s in Santa’s bag for you just yet, afterall.