Thursday, June 8, 2006 | We attended a civic event last weekend. Others at our table offered conviviality right off the bat, which was fun. Their introductions and subsequent conversation identified them as card-carrying civic leaders. Naturally, in these times, their stature invited our questions. They answered politely but politically, with only the occasional “no comment.” They were not pointedly prideful, or too full of themselves, but they were confident in their positions and earnest in their regard for the city. As the evening went by, it became apparent that these people were the kinds of civic leaders who, every time, would put the city first, and themselves second.

We talked about the airport, the pension fund scandal, the 50th District election, the fire chief’s retirement, the Chargers, Petco Park, sewers, streets, Jerry Sanders, city government, the cross, the media and city planning.

Mostly, we talked about money. All the topics sooner or later turned out to be about money. Talking about Pete Wilson took us back to 1972 and the “lost convention,” when the GOP moved its presidential nominating convention from San Diego to Miami, and that took us to the 1996 convention and memories of the huge party on the Embarcadero with its spectacular fireworks show. The San Diego Union-Tribune hosted that party, but the burden on the city – preparation, vendors, insurance, police, fire, clean-up – were enormous.

And of course that convention was the pin pulled out of the grenade in the pension fund mess. The city borrowed money from the pension fund to help cover 1996 GOP Convention expenses.

One of the people at our table became thoughtful, placed his fingertips on the table and moved them around, as if trying to rearrange pieces. “This city is in the trouble it’s in,” he said, quietly, “because the people in charge are good at managing money. They come in, and they say, okay, we’ve got this much money. They move this money around for a few years, and when they leave – they’re always looking to move up – they say, look what a good job I did with your money.

“But moving money around is easy. Anybody can do that. What they should be doing is not managing money, but managing the city.”

Managing the city. The whole city. From the streets up. Street, safety, shelter, water, sewer, power, sanitation, maintenance, police, fire, law enforcement, schools, libraries, parks, recreation.

Occasionally, something big happens on the street that draws attention to managing the city. The Cedar Fire was one such event, and huge, catastrophic. Once that fire was under way, in those winds, there was no way to stop it, until the wind died. The destruction in Scripps Ranch made clear the needs of the local fire department. The chief, Jeff Bowman, identified those needs and translated them into a plan. But last month, two and a half years after the fire, Jeff Bowman quit. Loved the people, won’t miss the job, he said. Not enough money to do the job. As he retired, he told the City Council: “The plans are in place for you to have a world-class fire department. When you get the money, please build the house.”

One couple at our table was from Scripps Ranch. They lost their home in the Cedar Fire. Nothing except God’s own fire department could have saved it, but the wind died too late. Since the event, I have been thinking about that couple. They have rebuilt, in the same place. I can’t imagine anyone more sensitive to a city’s obligation to provide fire protection. What did they think, when they read Bowman’s words to the City Council?

A few days later, after millions of dollars of research, an advisory committee announced on Monday that it recommends the city of San Diego build a new airport at Miramar Marine Air Station. Estimated cost: $7 to $8 billion. What must a couple think, of a city that pays so much attention to an airport, when it doesn’t have enough money to build an adequate fire house?

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, write a letter to the editor.

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