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Monday, January 16, 2006 | I got an e-mail a few weeks ago that has been uncomfortably lodged in my brain ever since.

It was from a reader who was writing to tell me how much she liked my columns. But then she said this:

“One complaint, though: Don’t you ever have anything nice to say about something?”

So since then I’ve been waiting for that special something to catch my eye that deserved some good praise. I now have two. The first one I’ll highlight was Mayor Jerry Sanders’ speech Thursday night.

It was great.

Well, it was a little long.

To be fair, it probably wasn’t too long. It’s just that when I hear someone speak continuously for more than a few minutes I have the attention span of goldfish – and my mouth tends to do the same thing theirs do. So toward the end of Sanders’ speech I started to worry that, already underdressed for the occasion, I was entering the little imaginary world again and the mouth thing was going to start soon.

But then the speech ended. And I realized, that it was a good one. I’ve been looking over my copy now to see exactly what it is I liked about it.

It’s quite simple: It was a reality-based speech. Sure, he’s a politician, so there was a bit of empty rhetoric here and there. But he even attacked that:

“Mayors before me have offered platitudes – they have offered visions and ten-point plans. That’s not my style and that’s not what our city needs right now.”

Could you really have expected a more refreshing account of the, well, State of the City?

That is, I couldn’t have hoped for a mayor to go much further than Sanders did using his legitimacy and mandate to try to, for once, solidify several assumptions that have been objects of debate and challenge for far too long.

It cannot be overstated how important it was to hear the mayor of the city publicly say, for example, that the city employees’ pension fund was intentionally underfunded and that benefits were granted to employees even though the city knew it couldn’t afford them.

And this:

“City government has failed to tell its citizens the truth about the city’s operating budget. For years, unrealistic budgets have hidden the fact that expenditures exceeded the budget by tens of millions of dollars each year.”

I suppose you think I’m a real dork for finding prose like that exquisite. After all, although investigations and indictments have been the main themes of stories about the pension crisis, it was the pension’s effect on the budget that made it an issue to begin with.

If this mayor gives us straight budgets, the pain of the pension’s problems will never have been more acute.

And this, the most widely quoted line of the night:

“As best I can tell, the operating philosophy around City Hall involved one of these three words: delay, deny or deceive.”

Now that’s a ringing endorsement of former City Manager Lamont Ewell and the City Council. I mean, how most of the City Council didn’t flush with red and maybe slouch down in their seats a little bit when they heard Sanders say that is beyond me.

For a city that was struggling with its tendency to deny the enormity of its problems, Sanders with his speech and his mandate repositioned the parameters of the debate. Although more marginalized than before, the apologists will continue to argue that the city is not in trouble because of their actions, it was refreshing to learn Thursday night that they’ll no longer have a champion in the mayor.

In many ways, actually, what Sanders did was solidify in the public mind what Diann Shipione first laid out three years ago and has since had the patience and good will to educate the city’s opinion leaders about.

And that brings me to my second area of praise: to Ms. Shipione.

The woman is recovering from cancer surgery. Not too long ago she received the Edward L. Bernays Mark of Excellence “Diogenes Award” from the San Diego Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. It was awarded to her because she “demonstrated a remarkable and commendable understanding of the need for candor when dealing with the public and the news media regardless of any potential negative outcome from the resulting publicity.”

Without Shipione, Sanders would have never been in a position to make the kind of speech he did Thursday. His speechwriters may not even have known what an underfunded pension system was.

In fact, none of us would. And if so, how much worse would it have gotten?

Scott Lewis oversees Voice’s commentary section. Please contact him directly at

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