Monday, March 21, 2005 | At the weekly Catfish Club lunch meeting, anguished questions about the state of our city rolled in on the speakers like a flood tide. They came from the Rev. George Walker Smith and from other blacks and whites, young and old. Any speaker taking questions from a San Diego audience these days is abruptly hammered into sensing that the desperate plight of City Hall puzzles, embarrasses and often angers San Diegans.

“What can we do?” was a question that came repeatedly to Dennis Morgigno and me. It varied only in its phrasing.

It is apt and plaintive, but answers are less than reassuring. The impetus for civic reform seems unlikely to come from within a dysfunctional and frightened city government. It may be unfeasible even for public reformers to step in this far into the crisis.

The momentum of reform lies with outside attorneys, particularly U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. Three federal agencies, probing city government, report to her. It is Lam who may still be digesting the 22 months of wiretaps she placed on the phones of Mayor Dick Murphy and City Council. It is Lam whose professional tools involve waiting out suspects as other suspects tilt toward implicating them to save themselves.

It is the same technique that precipitated the fall of Bernard Ebbers at WorldCom and brought fear to other CEOs who watched a federal jury toss out the claim of the big boss that he never knew what the little bosses were up to. Within courtrooms, the technique has provoked a terrifying image: Blood Alley.

Only one fact stands inarguable. Public respect for City Hall is crumbling.

On the day before the Catfish Club meeting, reporters and editors involved with the Envision civic movement addressed the same issues, posing hard questions of each other and doing what we sometimes do best: Isolating the questions, and then doing our best to patch together answers.

The speaker was Carl DeMaio, the Clairemont-born founder of The Performance Institute. In 2003, he contracted with the city for the “San Diego Citizens’ Budget Project,” a study of City Hall crisis that, in 2005, offered 10 recommended reforms. (My only problem with this entrepreneur is one of fair play. He concedes he needs and “uses” media but is quick to go off-record or mum at any substantive question from media.)

Had suggested reforms been installed, San Diego would be on its way now to civic recovery. City Hall didn’t follow his advice.

DeMaio had also been retained for an analysis of statewide problems while Gray Davis was governor. In his view, his work became part of the Schwarzenegger reform package.

There was discussion within the Envision group, after hearing DeMaio, of the possibility of unwritten, even unspoken “social contracts” among widespread San Diego leaders and politicians that silence alarms of conscience during betrayal of the citizens’ best interests.

Several media people had the courage to observe that the alarms of City Hall corruption had not all come from within San Diego. The New York Times made the definitive impact with its report by John Broder, its Los Angeles bureau chief: “Enron by the Sea.” All San Diego’s scandal needed was outside confirmation and a name.

There is indeed much the public can do, Morgigno and I told the Catfish Club. Each of us is part of government. Write down the name and number of your council member. Dial it. If we decline the citizen role of watchdog, anything can go wrong at any city hall. So we are all too busy? Too busy to call your council member? Then support those who will serve as watchdogs.

If any of us in the media goes soft with our own version of a “social contract,” it is like leaving the door unlocked for the burglar. Tell us so. We at Voice of San Diego believe we have found a medium in which we can tell the truth and never compromise with advertiser or sponsor (we have none), or with a social contract or anybody or anything but you and your Voices, who may speak out here anytime about anything.

But even in sweet, sunny San Diego, there is a fee. We must always pay attention.

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