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Saturday, July 23, 2005 | On Thursday, when I spoke to the downtown Rotary Club about ways to make City Hall behave, no one expected jokes or funny stories. Here were 400 intent, subdued men and women from across the leadership spectrum, wanting desperately, as a mayoral election approached, to help get San Diego’s city government off the comedy shows and back in business. Two hard lessons that hold hope:

The City Hall fiasco does not mean San Diego itself can’t do better. Half a mile downtown beside the waterfront, San Diego County government almost filed bankruptcy ten years ago. Today it has an AA1 bond rating, at the top of its class, and its preferred stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The county has offered to lend trouble shooters to the city when a new team launches reform. The city needs to learn.

And every San Diegan needs to understand the hard years ahead. No candidate seems to want to tell voters about the closest likely parallel to the recovery years ahead. It is the six-year period that followed New York City’s hairbreadth escape from bankruptcy in 1975. The New York experience teaches us much more than the Orange County case.

Both the County and New York cases are explored at length in the talk, which follows:

“It’s prime time in San Diego, isn’t it? Five days left to choose a leader for the toughest years of our civic lives.

“I’m here to offer ideas about the future of this exasperating city that we love.

“When we talked last August, Dick Murphy shared this podium. Your program committee urged me not to bring up anything that would embarrass Dick, and of course I agreed.

“At that moment, I became part of the problem.

“All across San Diego, we were either too polite about city problems or too laid-back to pay attention for far too long. Now we all know the dreadful depth of our neglect. We all share blame, including our media.

“San Diego’s clubby media could and should have done so much more as watchdogs over many recent years to forestall this collapse of city government.

The good news is that kind of lazy journalism is going out of style in San Diego. A few bold reporters and editors at the Union-Tribune have thanked us at the new nonprofit Web site Voice of San Diego for bringing competition back into daily news reporting. It’s good for everyone.

“I wonder, a year ago, if the ‘Duke’ Cunningham story would have played so big in the Republican U-T? Would the U-T have assigned reporters to research the sordid history of Ray Watt and Fairbanks Ranch? Could the snuggly Corky McMillin contracts be next?

“All of us love who love and respect San Diego should hope so.

“An example, our Park in the Park at Padres stadium was about to lose almost half of its size when an outraged Tom Carter went before the Centre City Development Corporation board and City Council and demanded that Dick Murphy and John Moores live up to their agreement. With the help of my column, Tom made enough noise. Tom and the people won.

“When there’s more time, I’ll explain the city’s contract with Corky McMillin to redevelop the Naval Training Center. There are many ways for politicians and developers together to delude the public, and this was one of the smoothest of cons.

“Is it any wonder there’s so little land left to build on in San Diego? Is it any wonder that many voters believe moneyed insiders like McMillin and Doug Manchester are supporting a novice like Steve Francis as their puppet in order to gain control of city government?

“But now, through Voice of San Diego, I can bring good news about San Diego government.

“Let’s talk about how the county of San Diego is being managed, in that grand old harbor-front building at the foot of Cedar Street, one of the few government buildings in San Diego that affords any sense of architectural pride or dignity. The county’s biggest problem, we know as of this morning, is that it has collected so much in room taxes and will have to give some back.

“(That’s a switch. If you ask City Hall now for a refund on anything, you’ve got to be ready to testify in bankruptcy court.)

“As we confront the issue of city reform, one of the nation’s most successful models is barely half a mile away from City Hall. San Diego County is one of the nation’s brightest turnaround stories. It has 17,000 employees spread over this vast county, from Ocean Beach to Borrego, from the border to Camp Pendleton. It has outsourced 600 contracts.

“But just 10 years ago, the county’s heavy investment in a trash landfill project at San Marcos went badly wrong. Bankruptcy was the word of the day. ‘County in chaos,’ the headlines read. Sound familiar?

“Then the county reorganized itself from top to bottom along a corporate administration model. The reform was led by Larry Prior, who was later grabbed off by the private sector and is now a senior vice president of SAIC.

“Ask Larry Prior how he managed to install a corporate culture on such a sprawl of employees. They have rules, you make a mistake and you report it right away or you’re fired.

“Now, Walt Ekard, who was Larry’s understudy, runs the county and reports to county supervisors. The county has its labor union, too, and its pension fund, but it does not have the problems of City Hall.

“The county’s contrast with the city extends to elected officials. Think about Supervisor Greg Cox, whom I first knew when he was a Chula Vista school teacher. He has been in public service for nearly 30 years without even a whisper of scandal. His current pride is a 24-mile bikeway that will encircle San Diego Bay and link bayside cities. He comes as close as any politician can to being an Eagle Scout.

“Because the county learned its lesson the hard way, Walt Ekard is offering to lend experienced county executives to the city when the city undertakes reform. On the traditional matrix of eternal jealousies between city and county, this would be historic enough to suggest the ultimate possibility for the regional government we need and without which, progress in everything from airport to zoning to traffic control to immigration to welfare is stunted. Without it, the north and south San Diegos grow farther and farther apart. Under regional government, the City Hall scandal could have been prevented.

“So let’s face up to the bad news at City Hall.

“We are all searching for the way out of this mess. Individual honesty is the starting point. Courage comes next. Remembering the old-fashioned idea that elected officials work for the public, not for their own future as professional politicians.

“Our city is in notorious disgrace, and its healing will take as many as six years. I assume all of you are being hazed in phone calls from friends and relatives everywhere. In every corner of America, people know that perfect little sunny San Diego is a mess.

The New York Times, which has never cared much for my cheery reports from San Diego, has been calling regularly about the latest bad news. The Chicago Tribune is at work on an in-depth study of why San Diego went wrong. Even Walter Cronkite phoned yesterday from his lofty flat at United Nations Plaza. Because he’s a sailor, he calls our mess a shipwreck.

“I confused the old master momentarily by urging him to buy some shares of stock in San Diego County. You may not be aware of that conservative investment opportunity. The New York Stock Exchange trades the preferred stock of the County of San Diego. The symbol is CLD. San Diego County has the highest public facility bond rating, AA1. Its [preferred] stock sells around $26 per share, and pays a dividend of about 6 percent.

“Meanwhile, our city government belongs in intensive care and hasn’t got there yet.

“Most of us share some guilt for standing by and watching City Hall collapse. We all have dreaded facing up to what we plainly saw and heard and read.

“One measure of the hell of a mess we’re in is that the three primary moving forces in city government just now are the three public attorneys, Carol Lam, Bonnie Dumanis and Mike Aguirre.

“For the moment, let’s skip over any impending indictments. Let’s think of the city’s future.

“One of these candidates for mayor will be asked to lead San Diego through the worst years of our civic history. The bad time will not be over when the new mayor takes over. It will be just beginning.

“I follow these candidates and their hopeful, proud patter and wonder how many have any real idea of what happened to the city of New York in 1975. How many understand what they are trying to get into?

“Their handlers may think they are in a popularity contest. But that ends on election night.

“They are running for the most difficult years of their lives, with every minute of it public, not just sitting in the highest chair at City Council meetings, but dueling with lawyers and judges, accountants and investigators, and only then with the voters themselves.

“The tone that disturbs me with some of these candidates is that they and their consultants have worked up nice little talks about their experience, their own triumphs, their personalities, and their allies. We hear tired old phrases that pass for new ideas. We hear too little about how they will get things done. But, look, they are not running for Miss or Mister America. This is a deadly serious job that will require wise administrators and advisers who know about such crises. It’s a tough job.

“Just ask Dick Murphy.

“The New York City story should be understood by every San Diegan for it provides the closest parallel to what San Diego will endure.

“In that city’s 1975 crash, bankruptcy was advised and considered. But New Yorkers decided to try to do it themselves, with loads of high-powered specialists, with lots of experience, brought in to help them.

“Even then, it took New York six years to restore the city’s credit, to win back the ability to borrow money to keep New York moving, to convince the world’s toughest bankers that the people at City Hall were prudent and would stay in business. It took all of those six years to renegotiate every contract that the city of New York had signed with its labor unions, its lenders, its contractors, the state and federal governments, and its own citizens.

“How many of these candidates are wise enough and durable enough for even four punishing years like those six that New York endured? They will need task forces and specialists. We have only five days to hear from candidates on how they will handle this burden, and who they will bring in to help.

“One candidate, Jerry Sanders, has announced that if elected, his chief of staff will be the retired admiral Ronne Froman. She was the Navy mayor here, a legendary administrator who did the impossible: She wrangled 4,000 Navy housing units in San Diego out of Congress in the first public-private contract ever signed by the Navy. She adds immeasurably to that ticket. If Sanders suggests he would bring Pat Shea on as the city’s economic crisis expert, it would be even more attractive.

“On the dangerous side, we should remember that chiefs of staff can be Rasputins. John Kern, a shrewd political operator, was Dick Murphy’s chief of staff. I believe Kern to have been the fatal flaw in Murphy’s tenure.

“So I want to hear in these final days from any other candidate who is ready to tell us the name of any team leader, and thereby suggest the strength and sensitivity of their understanding of what lies ahead. If they don’t know who their staff will be by now, I don’t want to vote for them.

“But most of all, I hope San Diego citizens will begin again to become involved with city government. These days, it is easy to feel that everyone is represented in government but us. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

“It will take courage at the top to turn San Diego around. We haven’t even begun. We don’t yet know how deep the hole is. But we know the county reorganized itself along a corporate administrative model. It can be done.

“At this point in San Diego, any corporate board would vote to can the present managers and bring in a turnaround team.

“It’s timely that a new mayor is about to be elected. It had better be a courageous mayor who understands the depth of this crisis and won’t hesitate to step on either labor or management.

“I suggested to a Chamber of Commerce group recently that the coming years of gritty recovery would lead to closer relationships between management and labor. That was certainly true in New York City’s long negotiations. But my remark caused a chilly moment. Few are really ready to face the future that awaits us. Many old rules will be stretched to accomplish this reform.

“I hope Mike Aguirre is correct in his belief that the courts will sustain the city in rolling back pension increases when he offers evidence that the increases were tainted by conflict of interest. Mike holds copies of letters which he believes will establish a quid pro quo between City Council and the Firefighters Union to grant those extravagant final pension increases. If a court finds criminal behavior, these increases can be arbitrarily rolled back.

“That would be a starting point.

“The deeper problem as we seek reform is that politics has gone professional. To re-establish the balance of a democracy, we need to field our own people’s teams to vie with elected politicians who are in it for lifetime careers and whose goals differ from those of the public. We as individual citizens and voters are the beginnings of such a team.

“The social scientist Dan Yankelovich has recently shown with research in San Diego neighborhoods that such reform never comes from the top.

“If the public will is to be heard, it must work its way up from below. Nobody has said it better than Donna Frye. These politicians win an election and move into City Hall with big staffs they’ve never had before, with all the people suddenly kissing their butts and telling them how great they are until they begin to believe they can do no wrong. Is it any wonder that they are turned?

“Our ideas and outrage must spread from one neighborhood to another until they gain the strength of voice to be heard and initiate change. The steady drumbeat of an aroused citizenry is soon heard through the media, which is always in need of arousing. Soon such grassroots movements gain support from all who fear being left behind. Leaders of labor and management, chambers of commerce and service clubs and women’s clubs, churches and temples. It offers new entry points for the people of ethnic communities to be heard. It gains strength through outrage and conviction, anger and hope.

“I know that because it has worked that way in several American cities in recent years.

“But if ever the people of any city had the provocation to rise up and force local government to behave, it is the people of San Diego, right now.

“Mayor Murphy scheduled two long meetings during his six years to tell me that my columns of criticism were making it harder for him to do his job. I was urging that he use the mayor’s bully pulpit to side with the people and our needs, to face ugly issues that have been hanging over City Hall.

“Diann Shipione had blown her whistle, but Murphy shrugged her off. If he had listened to Diann, Dick would still be mayor.

“I hope no one will be elected mayor now without heeding the warnings of the attorney Pat Shea, who is the only candidate with experience in getting through this kind of mess, as he did in Orange County. But Pat, who has been urging the unpopular medicine of bankruptcy, is not likely to make the runoff. If not, the candidate who brings him on-staff in the runoff will have a huge asset.

“I don’t know yet who will get my vote on Tuesday. But it will be the one who understands these issues best and seems ready to use the mayor’s bully pulpit to show the city there’s a leader and to bring the people along.

“The heroines that got San Diego this far are the whistle-blower Diann Shipione and Donna Frye, who became the symbol of opposition on City Council, encouraging others to express their indignation at the disintegration of city government.

“We are all searching for the way out of this mess. Individual honesty is the starting point. Courage comes next. And remembering the old-fashioned idea that elected officials work for the public, not for their own future as professional politicians.

“We get another chance when we elect San Diego’s first strong mayor on Tuesday.

“Tuesday must mark San Diego’s first step toward civic reform, to think first of our city, not our party or our pals, but of which candidate can best bring San Diego back home.

“Let’s not mess this up again.”

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