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Monday, June 20, 2005 | Has anyone really let it sink in that in about a month, Michael Zucchet is going to be mayor of San Diego? Not that it’s a bad thing or good thing – it’s just fascinating. Some may find it intriguing that he’s preparing for the post at the same time he’s still defending himself from felony charges made by the U.S. Attorney, but that’s really only part of it.

The fact that these days you can even write a sentence like “Michael Zucchet is in line to become mayor in about a month” is something that would have astounded City Hall observers a year ago.

The events that have gotten us here are easy to understand separately, but following them day by day it’s easy to forget how remarkable each one is. Stand back a little bit, and it’s quite obvious that San Diego is undergoing a major correction. In order to pay for all of its dreams without using actual money, the city deferred maintenance and added complexity – some say corruption as well – to certain aspects of its operation. That stinky stew cultivated an unsustainable bubble that has just been pricked.

The next mayor after Zucchet will be the first in a while to actually receive the support of a majority of voters. And it will be his or her first responsibility to help make sure that the correction actually works so that the city provides better and more efficient services to the citizens.

When they make their choice, San Diego voters will have to decide whose approach best accomplishes that. And they’re going to do that with incredibly substantive debates.

Take this one, for example, which is not between two candidates but between one candidate and a person who’s become a major player in the rhetorical war about the pension crisis that has hit the city.

Attorney Pat Shea – who wants to lead the city into Chapter 9 bankruptcy – kicked off his mayoral campaign by standing in front of one of the city’s most valuable pieces of government property. The city’s unions, he said in an interview, were trying to use the current crisis to argue that the city sell real estate and raise taxes to pay for the giant deficit in the pension fund. Of course in 2002, the City Council didn’t plan for new revenue; it just gave new retirement benefits without concern as to how they would be funded.

“If in that year, in order to balance the budget, the mayor had announced that he had reached an agreement with labor to pay them enormous benefit increases and they would do that by selling Qualcomm Stadium and increasing taxes, the public would have lit his hair on fire,” Shea said in an interview.

Consider another point of view. Attorney Ann Smith, working for the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said that had the mayor and City Council explained to the public the benefits they were granting and that they would need more money to do that, the public would have obliged. After all, Smith contends, the county of San Diego gives its general employees better benefits. What’s to keep the county from getting the better employees? Her argument is that the public would have understood the need to pay city workers good benefits if the public had been made aware of the possibility that services would not get better and more efficient without content employees.

“I don’t think that most people are as begrudging of city employees having decent retirement benefits as some would make them out to be,” Smith said. It’s hard to imagine the mayor paying a political price – or having his hair ignited – for selling real estate and charging residents a “reasonable” fee to have garbage collected, Smith said.

In a debate last Thursday, Republican mayoral candidate Jerry Sanders said that although he’s chased dangerous people down as a police officer and made extremely tough decisions that affected the entire city, he didn’t have the guts to ask San Diego residents for a tax increase.

On its face, this is an easily anticipated disagreement between a few Republicans and a labor attorney trying to protect workers’ benefits.

But more than that, it’s a conversation about the very assumptions the politicians are going to use when they get into office and help the correction proceed. It’s evidence of a unanimous acceptance that major problems in City Hall exist as opposed to an ever digressing discussion about whether there is even a problem.

Now that’s a fascinating development over last year.

Scott Lewis is a former reporter at The San Diego Daily Transcript. You can e-mail him at

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