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Saturday, October 01, 2005 | The two candidates vying to take over a city stuck in an ever-tightening fiscal and political crisis squared off in their first public one-on-one debate Friday night, expanding a dialogue that has to date been largely focused on San Diego’s pension system.
The debate capped off a week of sharp campaigning between City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police Chief Jerry Sanders and covered a wide expanse of issues, from open government to fluoridation of the city’s water supply to housing and development policies.
Both candidates looked polished and precise, confidently working through a variety of questions and offering light-hearted chatter here and there.
In the opening and closing statements of each candidate, as well as the questions offered them, the theme of open and accessible government lined the debate.
Both campaigns have made the issue important to their campaigns and perhaps only the giant issue of fiscal recovery has grabbed more attention.
Early on, Frye pointed to her recent successes in opening up a City Hall known for its secrecy.
Frye and fellow Councilwoman Toni Atkins boycotted the council’s closed sessions for three weeks last year. The boycott forced the council to change its permanent rules, allowing for a court reporter to transcribe what was said during the meetings and public notices describing what will be talked about in the closed meetings.
The councilwoman noted her push to put a successful measure on the ballot last year that eased access to government records for the public and media. She also trumpeted her efforts in creating the Government Efficiency and Openness Committee, which she now chairs.
“For those of you that know me, you know that my public life has been defined by fighting for the public’s right-to-know and open government,” Frye said.
Sanders also boasted his credentials in the field, saying that he made transparency a central theme while leading the Police Department by putting neighborhood crime statistics on the Internet and at the Red Cross by opening its books to auditors during the 2003 wildfires.
“I created open, accountable organizations,” Sanders said.
He accused Frye of only pushing for open government when it was convenient and said she’s been part of the problem at City Hall since being elected in 2001.
Also, during the debate and at an afternoon press conference on Harbor Island, Sanders sought to draw attention to the labor support enjoyed by his opponent and the effect it could have in dealing with the pension deficit that will be the first order of business for the new mayor.
The deficit is estimated to be more than $1.37 billion and is the most visible player in the city’s fiscal crisis. It is central to a number of ongoing local and federal investigations and threatens to consume the city’s annual operating budget for years to come.
It is unclear if Sanders’ tactic will work. While Frye does have the support of countywide and nationwide labor unions, she has earned the wrath of City Hall’s unions for her votes and public statements. Members of the city’s largest union, the Municipal Employees Association, often group her together with City Attorney Mike Aguirre when voicing their displeasure at efforts to roll back the pension benefits at the heart of the deficit.
Surprisingly, much of the debate did stay away from the pension crisis though both candidates lauded parts of their plans.
They also touched on how their administrations would handle the switch to a strong-mayor form of government, which transfers the executive powers of the government from the appointed city manager to the Mayor’s Office in January.
Sanders said he would lobby Washington, D.C. and Sacramento for more federal and state funds, while leaving much of the day-to-day governance to the person he envisions as his city manager, former Navy Rear Adm. Ronnie Froman.
He said he would spend time out in the neighborhoods and touted his plan to ask for the resignations of 300 top city officials upon taking office.
“We need new blood, we need new ideas, we need new expertise,” Sanders said.
Frye said she would hold meetings at night and on the weekends, at times convenient to the public, not just the politicians.
“I would make sure I was accessible and available to the public,” she said of her role as “strong mayor.”
Both candidates acknowledged that the city’s problems run deeper than just the pension system.
They also shared the view that no public subsidies should go toward a new Chargers stadium.
Sanders said any plan must carry with it the type of development that sprang up alongside Petco Park downtown, whereas Frye demanded 70 acres of parkland for the Mission Valley site as part of any proposal.
Mission Valley, which falls in Frye’s district, currently has no public parkland. Voters will be asked in November 2006 to vote on a yet-to-be-finalized stadium and development package for the Qualcomm Stadium site.
When asked if he would support voting reforms, such as all-mail ballots and instant runoff voting, Sanders said he would be reluctant to be a trailblazer in these areas because of potential tampering. Frye supported both ideas, the latter of which does away with the need for a primary and runoff election because voters are allowed to rank their preferred candidates.
When asked about the trend of condo conversions and the affordable housing crisis,
Sanders proposed streamlining the city’s handling of development in order to add more apartments and housing and ease the housing crisis.
And in the wake of the hurricanes that have pounded the Gulf Coast, candidates were asked how they would handle disaster preparedness.
Sanders stressed that the tough decisions he had made as police chief had prepared him for an event such as an earthquake or fire. He said communication and cooperation between different levels of government agencies is vital.
Frye said natural disasters are made worse by poor planning practices. She said cities need to learn to plan intelligently, outside of floodplains or other dangerous areas.
“If you build in the middle of the San Diego River, you’re probably going to get wet,” Frye said.
In the end, both candidates went back to their past public actions as proof why they should be the mayor chosen to lead San Diego from its troubled days.
Sanders pointed to his role in turning around the Police Department and the local arms of two national charitable organizations. He promised to bring a new culture to city government.
“We need to change the ethic at City Hall,” he said.
Frye said she was the candidate voters could trust to have courage and stand up in tough times.
She called the pension crisis her defining moment. “Because it was only myself and (pension whistleblower) Diann Shipione who said that there are problems and that something needs to be done,” Frye said.
California Common Cause, the League of Woman Voters and the University of California, San Diego jointly hosted the debate. It can be viewed at www.ucsd.tv and will also run regularly on UCSD-TV until the Nov. 8 election.
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at