Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005 | Perhaps it is merely an outburst of his year-end longings, but Mayor Jerry Sanders has resumed sprinkling his public comments with references to sunny, scarred San Diego as “America’s Finest City.”

Just as we withhold the sack of candy from an errant child, I had understood we all would strive to refrain from this misbegotten slogan until city government showed some tangible semblance of remorse and reform.

The coinage of the Finest City slogan was an act of adolescent bravado of a city that had already long been known and admired around the world. The phrase was launched and sustained by the city’s booster establishment, one rarely distinguished by subtlety or sophistication, which are the stuff of the world’s best remembered mottos.

It arrived in an era when few of us knew or cared what garbage lay beneath the savory pie crust of City Hall. Few then had ever heard the name of Diann Shipione. The naive bravado of the slogan has seemed to many to be a bush-league effort, one more likely to have been pieced together by an old boys’ back-room committee for Newark or Natchez.

There are strong and sobering aspects to its continued acceptance in San Diego. The least understood seems to be that the phrase is comforting to enough influential San Diegans that it softens public resolve to ensure that City Hall is not again mired in scandal strong enough to force a respected mayor from office and send lesser elected and appointed officials into limbo and worse.

As testimony that we are out of trouble here in America’s Finest City, we take the word of elected officials burbling the phrase as a comforting soporific. In the long payback years that lay ahead, San Diegans eager to accept that inference will be rudely startled by coming civic hardships and deficiencies. They will wonder why there is no money to repair streets and sewers. They will rebel against increased taxation.

But years of civic depression await.

Instead of relapsing into the political con game implied in the phrase “America’s Finest City,” Mayor Sanders should be acquainting San Diego city government and voters with the painful years that have followed similar corruption in other cities. They are unhappy case histories, and no politician cares to pass on bad news. This thing is not over.

The U.S. attorney’s pending indictments still hang over City Hall. City Attorney Mike Aguirre is not finished yet.

More harrowing still, for most of us in the rank-and-file, are the precedents of governmental collapse in other cities. The most familiar case for Californians is that of Orange County, where bankruptcy led to five years of hard-headed negotiations and reorganization. The San Diegan Pat Shea, an attorney in the Orange County bankruptcy, guesses it may take San Diego five years of hard-headed credit and legal negotiations and reorganization.

Nothing ranks with New York City’s harrowing brush with bankruptcy in 1975, after outside underwriters determined the city was insolvent. New York negotiated for six years with labor, banks, the state and federal governments before reestablishing credit in 1981.

What made recovery possible was the mutual interest of each group in seeing the city restored. The unprecedented coalition of labor and business was the key to sparing New York bankruptcy. No one went to jail.

San Diegans have yet to face the prospect of such years, but there is no reason to expect that we shall not. Instead of reviving the soapy phrase of America’s Finest City, Mayor Sanders should be convening hard talks with labor and business in preparation of enough common ground to allow reform efforts to go forward.

A city facing crisis cannot tolerate internecine battles. We will need to sit down at the same table with those of whom we disapprove. In preparing San Diego leadership promptly for this, Mayor Sanders could find rank among the handful of unselfish heroes that this city’s government has known.

Neil Morgan is Voice’s senior editor.

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