The Morning Report
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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 | Recently, Councilman Jim Madaffer found himself apologizing to a constituent. She had sent him a highly critical e-mail and he knew that she worked for a developer who did business with the city occasionally. Madaffer decided he would try to have her boss reprimand her or, potentially, do something harsher.
He apologized to her only after the weekly newspaper CityBeat uncovered a few interesting e-mails and asked him about them.
Taken on its own, this is not that big of a deal. It’s a story about a public official who made a bad decision and was forced to make it right by a newspaper.
But it’s yet another in a long line of bad decisions by Madaffer – such a long line, in fact, that when you take it all in, you can’t help but be disgusted. This latest story provided a window into his petty vindictiveness. Like many pivotal displays by public figures in the past, this one was interesting because it seems to capture perfectly a much larger story about the man than simply a questionable e-mail.
Stories like this about Madaffer have broken slowly for years. Never once has any of them individually been enough to force serious contemplation about whether he is fit for office. Each of them seems to come and go – far enough spaced from each other to prevent anyone from adding them all up.
The latest story came on the heels of another revealing series of reports about Madaffer: that he had overspent his allotted budget for last year by $176,000. To make up the difference, the city was going to have to raid the infrastructure fund set aside for Madaffer’s district.
Why did Madaffer’s office need to spend so much more money than the other offices of members of the City Council? Because he hired the former press secretary of former Mayor Dick Murphy. He put her in the post of director of the Grantville redevelopment area.
Madaffer has no apparent authority to appoint the leader of the Grantville redevelopment area unilaterally. But he has a characteristic way of being oblivious to legal checks on his power and resources. He hired his new director anyway. He said new revenue from the redevelopment district would pay for the position – but the district hasn’t even been validated yet.
So Madaffer’s office is once again projected to overspend its budget by a similar amount this year. It appears that Madaffer does not plan to reduce the number of employees he has. Instead, current plans show he would force them to take what amounts to an average of 10 weeks of unpaid leave.
This would cost them each about $15,000. But get this: His staffers all earn an average of $15,000 more than the employees in other council offices. In other words, his staff will receive the same compensation as other City Council staff, but they would deliver 10 fewer weeks of service to the city and Madaffer’s district.
This sort of mismanagement should not be surprising to anyone. Madaffer filed for personal bankruptcy twice before winning elected office. And many will remember Madaffer’s particular troubles a couple of years ago that provoked the city’s Water Department to turn off the water to his home and put a padlock on it.
Interpret all of this in the context of what’s happening to the city of San Diego right now. Madaffer has made all of the same decisions that former Mayor Dick Murphy made. The city, of course, pushed Murphy into an early retirement. Madaffer, like others on the Council, scoffed at his duty to oversee financial disclosures or to consider the fiscal impact of his pension promises to city workers. Now, he vacillates between expressing concern and regret for his actions and blithely denying that there’s a pension problem at all.
Then, the kicker. Last fall, reporter Andrew Donohue uncovered a series of documents that showed Madaffer deliberately bullying city attorneys and staffers to secure approval of a special retirement benefit for former City Councilman Mike Gotch, who had been out of office for a decade. In other words, despite objections by city lawyers, Madaffer eventually handed Gotch and 17 other former elected officials a healthy boost to their pensions. Even though their service to the city had long been finished, Madaffer’s priority was to send them more money.
Why would Madaffer make such a special effort to get money into the pocket of a former city official? Madaffer was lobbying Gotch – then an aide to former Gov. Gray Davis – to persuade the state to help San Diego purchase parkland in Madaffer’s district.
Pensions are supposed to be increased as a way of attracting and retaining quality employees, not as a tool for paying off political pals.
Madaffer, like other city leaders, treated the city’s pension fund like a vast reservoir of petty cash propped up by the stock market boom.
When the stock market collapsed, and the pension fund drained like a parched reservoir, all the damage that city leaders had done was revealed.
Yet Madaffer has shown no willingness to support serious reform as the city continues to slog through a financial crisis. He has shown no desire to cut the city’s liabilities and instead – as demonstrated by his own budget – he’s acted time and time again as though the city has a bottomless pit of taxpayer resources to spend.
The list goes on and it will continue to grow. How can we expect Madaffer to improve? He has no record to indicate he can handle money at all yet there is no more important responsibility for an elected officeholder.
Madaffer’s long history reveals the traits we least want in our elected officials: fiscal irresponsibility, questionable ethics, petty vindictiveness and an overall tendency to put his own interests in front of the greater good. In a City Hall that has seen a good deal of scrubbing in the last year, the councilman’s presence in city affairs is testament to the stark reality that wholesale change still escapes us.
Not long ago, Madaffer came unhinged when San Diego State University decided to take over one of the largest developments in the College Area: the Paseo. Many speculated that the university had taken over the project because of the involvement in it of a controversial figure in the city’s pension crisis: Frederick W. Pierce, IV. Pierce had guided the city’s pension board through the worst of its decisions.
Nevertheless, Madaffer was incensed with the university and he vowed to fight it to protect Pierce’s project.
“This is jihad for my constituents. This is the equivalent of holy war. I am going to forever stick up for my constituents,” Madaffer said.
If he does intend to stick up for his constituents, the greatest public service Madaffer could do now is to take leave of his office and give them a chance to find better representation.