Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | A year ago, you’d never heard of Carl DeMaio. Now he’s pissed off plenty at San Diego City Hall and in the labor community rampaging against city finances, oftentimes as a source in the national media. In addition to his private think tank, Performance Institute, that challenges budgets on all levels of government, the 30-year-old heads an event planning company and a business that gives conferences in government and business administration. He talks with us about making people uncomfortable and “Burning Down the House.”
Why aren’t you a carpetbagger?
I have a home in San Diego, in Clairemont, I have for 2 1/2 years. And, you know, anyone who knows me knows I’m a Southern Californian at heart in reality. This is my home, and this is where I want to build my life. We’re committed to seeing our city’s finances get restored because this is my hometown.
Why does nearly everyone in City Hall say your name like it’s a curse word?
When you shine a light on people in government, in particularly in San Diego city government where things are not well-managed, people get uncomfortable.
Has the press helped your for-profit businesses?
No, not at all. We are a private think tank, so any money we make through our education programs goes into our advocacy programs. We have not filed tax returns from our beginnings 5 years ago showing any profits. The money we make on training and conference programs is all used to fund our advocacy agenda and research agenda.
What gives you the authority and the credibility to be coming up with your own budgets?
I think the fact that people listen to us. First of all, let me ground it in our expertise. What we’ve done is we’ve gone and looked at best practices in government. What we’ve done is we’ve asked not what’s wrong with government, but what’s right.
What’s one fact about the city budget that everyone should know?
Well, that the budget and financial management of this city are not sustainable.
Who’s your favorite person in San Diego?
Who’s your least favorite person in San Diego?
(Laughs) Can I say no comment? Come on. Can I say no comment?
Do you picture a day where everything’s cool in San Diego and you can take off if you see problems in another city, like Omaha?
You know that’s the thing. People assume that I’m just focusing on San Diego. If you do a Google search, most of my work is with the federal government in Washington.
There’s a skewed view of the Performance Institute as defined by Citizens’ Budget San Diego. It totally overlooks the Citizens’ Budget California and the federal reform President’s Management Agenda.
But this is the only city government you’re involved with, right?
There’s a reason for that. I don’t want to just come out and say, this is how government should work generically from my ivory tower. I want to focus in and basically create a case study. And we never expected San Diego to be a negative case study. The theory was, you take a city that is well-managed, and remember, I gave the city an award in 2001, you take a city that’s relatively well-managed – applying the principles we’re advocating nationwide, and make it even better. That was the theory. Instead, we applied the principles and when we looked at the transparency, we found out the emperor had no clothes. So now, what you have, ironically, is a different case study.
San Diego will be to cities and counties around the nation, in terms of toughening standards and creating reform, what Enron was in the private sector to board rooms across the country in terms of stiffening controls, making things more transparent to the public and shareholders. San Diego is going to be the bad poster child as to why we need better accounting in city and county administration.
How come I’d never heard of you a year ago?
Because we didn’t focus on local government.
My next project is schools, so we’re going to keep going down. But we don’t leave until we have results.
If you were to dance in public, what song would you want playing?
God, you guys are going for, like the weird questions, the Barbara Walters questions. “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?”
Umm. Dance in public? You know what, because of how bad the situation is now, we really have to start over here in San Diego with a fresh start. I don’t believe that the people currently down there get the message that change is needed, so the song “Burning Down the House” (by The Talking Heads) comes to mind.
It feels like that’s what’s going on. But I wouldn’t want to dance to that song.