Wednesday, January 11, 2006 | Because Ronne Froman is not the mayor, she is not about to be telling us anything specific about how she and Mayor Jerry Sanders will try to help City Hall rise up from the grave and walk again.

When she served as the Navy’s brisk “mayor” for San Diego, wearing a petite admiral’s uniform, an old friend took me aside. He had already spent half his lifetime deep within the concrete fortress of the 11th Naval District at the foot of Broadway. He thought he had seen it all, each new class of bureaucrats. But now his eyes grew wide as he talked about someone within that staid Navy hierarchy who had begun moving mountains that had never budged before.

Since I had served briefly within that same fortress as a terminally unmilitary lieutenant (junior grade), marking off the days as World War II ended, I was sane enough to know my friend was being sarcastic.

I grew sure it was a hoax when he said she was a diminutive lady admiral who was getting it done because she would take no crap from anybody, and she had the admiral’s stars to back it up. Yet my friend’s voice rose and his face flushed as he began telling me just which mountains she was moving.

It was at an early peak of our city’s perpetual affordable housing crisis, and, as everybody knew, from City Hall to the Pentagon, there was, in a word, no place in San Diego County that a low-rated Navy family could afford to live. But that didn’t stop the Pentagon from writing personnel transfer orders to San Diego.

She had single-handedly lobbied the Pentagon and then the Congress, going from office to office, to establish the urgency of building 4,800 low-cost housing units in San Diego. Ronne didn’t waste time lobbying. For each member of Congress and each Pentagon official, she just laid out the crisis and the solution. She proposed a public-private contract to expedite construction and to circumvent Navy paperwork and budget delays. She anticipated delaying tactics and excuses, and so she carried along firm proposals from private developers.

I had to meet this admiral to believe it. Her name was Veronica Zasadni Froman and, in 1999, she had just turned 51, and even over the phone she was able to make jokes about herself, a wise tactic for a lady admiral in a man’s Navy.

But she wouldn’t talk about herself. She talked about her team.

“My team,” she said, “runs 34 business lines or products across three states,” she said, sounding more corporate than Navy.

We arranged our first lunch conversation close by her office, at Rainwater’s. A trace of her Ohio accent rang true. She had a chic coif and wise smile. As though to assure us all that she enjoyed more than business, she wore a Mickey Mouse watch.

Poor Susan Golding was mayor of San Diego then, and civic dreams of a revitalized City Hall were withering. I wondered what we could learn from the Navy and Ronne. I wanted to know how she had got those houses built. By the time of our second meeting, I was presenting city problems to her and begging her to suggest the smartest roads out of our maze. Her roads were all different from the roads that crisscrossed City Hall then.

Pledged to protect my source, at least for a while, I began relaying some of her management tactics through my newspaper column and suggesting that they might be appropriate for Golding’s lame-duck tenure.

Golding paid no attention, of course, but six months later, back at Rainwater’s, I heard myself asking when Ronne planned to retire from the Navy, and would she be staying on in San Diego, and, God, how I wished we could put her up for mayor. No way, she said, but a couple of lunches later I sweet-talked her as far as saying: “Well, if I ever could help in a city situation, it would be more as city manager, certainly not mayor.”

So here we are. The city has voted to go out of the city manager business and adopt the strong-mayor form of government. And our new strong mayor, even before he was elected, has proven smart enough to persuade Ronne that her job as his chief operating officer would be a lot like that of a city manager.

There is no way to measure how much rejuvenation these two can accomplish in four years, but they will be quick to remind us that they can’t do it without help from their city council and the community of voters.

Mayor Jerry Sanders is the good old boy trusted by the good old boys, without whom conservative San Diegans have not yet learned to cope.

Ronne Froman, the quiet-spoken admiral who grew up in the Midwestern farm belt, honed her skills, from the Pentagon to the Navy blockhouse at the foot of Broadway, in untangling bad management. At City Hall, now, she and Mayor Sanders confront stagnated neglect and abuse of public trust. At least the culprits are finally being shown the door.

Neil Morgan is Voice’s senior editor.

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