Monday, May 16, 2005 | Tony St. John, a Voice reader, responds to a column about the troubles at City Hall: “But what new ideas are there to fix all this (at City Hall)?”

He might have joined the large and lively audience at the Holiday Inn on the Bay on Thursday morning, asking similar questions. It was a unique frontal assault by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce on our civic embarrassment.

It was as if, well, somebody had to get something started if we are to get going and clean up City Hall. City Hall isn’t going to do it, is it? The SEC and FBI are on the case. City Attorney Mike Aguirre is up to his armpits in ferreting out corruption. As a public official responsible for the civic good, he is making the right moves, a panel seemed to agree, but he might be more popular if he didn’t seem to be enjoying his success so much.

We sat there as perplexed as all the rest, four journalists assigned to comment on City Hall issues as the audience pressed buttons to register their own choices of multiple civic solutions. Joining Voice as panelists were Rick Bell of the San Diego Business Journal, Bob Kittle of The San Diego Union-Tribune and Sean Gallagher of The Daily Transcript.

Seven multiple-choice questions were put to the audience, and their responses flashed electronically on a control board.

One asked if City Council should seek to erase the city deficit by (a) Revenue enhancements through new taxes and fees, (b) A reduction in city staffing and services, or (c) A combination of a and b. There were some loud no-tax people in the chamber audience, but the electronic vote favored (c), a combination of new taxes and reduction in city staff and services.

The next asked if pension benefits should be rolled back in order to help address the pension deficit. This proposition had relatively few opponents.

It was, after all, the same week in which a federal judge had approved United Airlines’ proposal to stiff its pension obligations.

The third sought to place blame for the $2 billion pension deficit on any of four miscreants: the current City Council, the previous council, the retirement board or labor unions. Plaintive protests rose over this one, with complaints that there was no fifth option with which to place blame on each of the above.

The fourth asked if the audience approved or disapproved of the July 26 special election for a new mayor, as opposed to an appointment. Approval seemed strong.

Four options were provided to express approval or disapproval of the current work of mayor and council. The audience seemed generally more tolerant than I had expected: There were strong votes granting qualified approval and only qualified disapproval.

“Do you generally approve or disapprove of the job being done by the city attorney?” The question itself brought a noisy stir across the audience, much as the name of Mike Aguirre these days provokes quick response. The city attorney seemed to win a majority vote, although with some grudging remarks, that he was on the right track.

The final question asked if the audience agreed with Mayor Dick Murphy’s decision to resign on July 15. Following some more complicated inquiries, this one seemed to be accepted, though with proper reluctance, as a no-brainer.

An intense conversation followed between media guests and audience. It was sharpened by the presence of the Transcript’s Gallagher, a former New Yorker. On the West Coast, the most spectacular governmental collapse has been that of Orange County. On the East Coast, nothing ranks with New York City’s harrowing brush with bankruptcy in 1975 after outside underwriters determined the city was insolvent.

But it took New York six years to restore its financial solvency. There is no reason to suspect a quicker fix in San Diego. The attorney Pat Shea, who was involved in the Orange County rehabilitation, guesses it may take San Diego five years of hard-headed negotiations and reorganization. The prospect of that hard drought lying ahead was not explored in the chamber session. It will have to be soon.

Shea is troubled because he sees few at City Hall who yet understand that this means renegotiating city financial relationships with labor, banks and all the rest.

The chamber event was an interesting foray into public understanding of the long hard road ahead. One of the more plaintive notes in this generally cheery event was that, it seemed to me, few of those present seemed prepared for the ugliness ahead.

I risked expressing one conviction that – as in New York City – the civic repair work that lies ahead cannot be completed without unexpected and unprecedented alliances unlike any seen before. The Chamber of Commerce itself, I suggested, must join in hard talks with the labor movement in search of enough common ground to allow reform efforts to go forward. A city struggling to recover from grave danger cannot tolerate internecine battling. In crisis time, just as New Yorkers did, we may find we need to sit down at the same table with those of whom we disapprove.

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