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Monday, July 10, 2006 | A couple of weeks ago, I actually found myself leaving the office for once to catch a press conference the mayor was having at the Balboa Park Golf Course.

It was nice to get out.

The mayor is holding a lot of press conferences these days. His total number of gaggles in fact, must be starting to rival the number City Attorney Mike Aguirre accumulated in his first several months in office – and that’s no minor accomplishment.

Sanders is trying to run the press cycle and force journalists to pay attention to little updates on every single new development. And, to a large extent, it works. Former Mayor Dick Murphy had a reactive press-conference philosophy – except when he was campaigning.

That didn’t work so well.

Anyway, I went to the press conference at the park because I’ve become interested in the major decisions of our mayor. I’ve wanted to add them up – to detect a pattern in them and try to understand our first strong mayor as well as anyone.

I had heard that Sanders was going to really anger a bunch of golfers the other day. I thought that might qualify as a major decision and help my project along. I’m still not sure whether local Joe Golfers did end up getting a raw egg in Mayor Sanders’ five-year plan for city-owned golf courses – including the fabled Torrey Pines – but he did torpedo the Torrey Pines Men’s and Women’s Clubs. Some people call those clubs the nasty sounding “special interests.” Others call them what they appear to be: “groups of golfers.” Again though, this saga is more complicated than the city’s sprawling pension debt, I’ll take some time over the week in the Scott Lewis on Politics, or SLOP, Blog to delve further into it.

But make no mistake about it, Jerry Sanders made one of his big decisions when he decided to challenge the Torrey Pines Men’s Club. There he was out on the golf course announcing that he was not going to support a settlement in a major lawsuit the club has leveled against the city and that he was going to, in effect, cut the Men’s Club’s access to Torrey Pines by about half if not more.

So we’ve had a bit more than six months of this strong mayor, in what other areas has he decided to put his strength? And, more importantly sometimes, in what areas has he decided to avoid flexing any muscle at all?

  • Major Decision No. 1: To Bomb the Pension Board (and Misfire)
    Mayor Sanders’ first major move was to make an amazing State of the City speech and to demand in it that the volunteer members of the pension board resign and be replaced by Sanders’ appointees – who would also appoint Aguirre as the pension board’s lawyer. The mayor, of course, was completely rebuffed. The pension board acted as though he had cut them off in the freeway’s fast lane and then it gave him the appropriate hand gesture to recognize such an intrusion.
    Decision’s Courage Factor (1 being “chicken,”10 being “lion”): 10
    Decision’s Merit (1 being “ridiculous,” 10 being “genius”: 8
    Comment: He should have known the pension board would react like that and had a Plan B to counter their rebuff. His failure to get done what he wanted made him look weak and he hasn’t followed up on it at all.
  • Major Decision No. 2: Push Ballot Measures (Reforms?)
    Sanders successfully lobbied the City Council to put two City Charter amendments on the November Ballot to: a) allow private companies the chance to bid for city contracts to do city services; and b) explicitly require that citizens should vote on enhancements to the city employee pension benefits.
    Decision’s Courage Factor: 5
    Decision’s Merit: 6
    Comment: Loyal readers know that I believe voters should have had the chance to weigh in on pension benefits in the past (because enhancing pensions almost always increases a city’s debt and a city can’t go into big debt without the taxpayers’ approval). So this shows that Sanders doesn’t necessarily trust in my and City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s legal theory on this matter. Probably the right idea because I have absolutely no qualifications as a lawyer (except that I love to hear myself talk). As for the managed competition (don’t dare call it “privatization of city services!”), I’m not sold on it being much of a reform.
  • Major Decision 3: To Attack the Pension Problem with Loans
    Facing only a few short months before his budget was due, Sanders decided not to make any tough decisions – no cuts, nothing. Instead, he announced his support for a vast borrowing plan that would exchange one debt (in the pension system) for a new one (on the city’s books).
    Decision’s Courage Factor: 1
    Decision’s Merit: 1
    Comment: Readers already know how I feel about this. Sanders came into office with a chance to really change the course his predecessor had set. Instead, he made a commitment to pay down even less of the city’s pension debt than former Mayor Dick Murphy had planned. And he backed away from campaign promises to pay as much as $200 million or more into the pension system. Like his promises to use bankruptcy to bludgeon the unions into submission, this decision showed that he merely said whatever he needed to during the campaign. I was really disillusioned by this.

I believe, as I always say, there are two ways to deal with the city’s massive pension debt and other looming liabilities: Either raise revenues (taxes) at the same time you cut services or eliminate debt (bankruptcy and/or difficult targeted legal actions). Sanders thinks there’s a third way. There’s no third way that doesn’t translate into “pass on the tough decisions to future generations.” And to pass on those decisions, you have to do something creative that will create even more of a mess for future taxpayers.

  • Major Decision No. 4: To Allow the Chargers to Talk with Other San Diego County Cities About Potentially Moving the Team
    The Chargers got a contract revision in 2004 that allows them to talk to other cities anywhere in the country in January. Sanders decided to let them talk to people outside the city, but still local, before then.
    Decision’s Courage Factor: 8
    Decision’s Merit: 9
    Comment: Great move. One that made sense to the Chargers, to Sanders, to us, to Chargers’ fans and taxpayer advocates. It took a lot of courage for Sanders to say, frankly, that the city was in no position to try to work out a new stadium deal with the football team. The only people who didn’t like the decision were the members of the editorial board of the Union-Tribune who opined that Sanders’ move showed a lack of leadership. What a joke. It showed very much the opposite.
  • Major Decision No. 5: To Not Take a Position on the Airport Ballot Measure
    Sanders said a bunch of things about how hard the airport authority worked to study possible airports and how he likes the choice of Miramar but only if the Marines leave on their own terms. He plainly declined to say whether he thinks it’s right that voters approve what could be a hugely significant ballot measure in November. If passed, the ballot measure would require the airport authority to “work to obtain” a chunk of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for a new commercial airport.
    Decision’s Courage Factor: 1
    Decision’s Merit: 3
    Comment: Why such a high score on Merit? Because even though it followed a long tradition in San Diego to avoid tough decisions like this, it made political sense for him to waffle. He would have risked alienating the North City voters if he had come out wholeheartedly in support and it would have upset his business friends too much had he panned it.

But this is no excuse. This is an important issue and the mayor should be out in front of it. If he thinks the airport authority came up with a bad proposal he should call for their heads and oppose the measure. If he thinks it’s a good proposal, he should say so. To not do either is weak.

  • Major Decision No. 6: To Kick the Torrey Pines Men’s Club Down.
    I only include this in the “major decisions” because Sanders made such a big deal about it. He personally showed up at City Council and other important meetings to push his five-year plan for city-owned golf courses. As the city eagerly prepares for the 2008 U.S. Open, there Sanders was getting politely heckled by golfers – all of whom were wearing collared shirts, hats and short socks, of course.
    Decision’s Courage Factor: Unknown
    Decision’s Merit: Unknown
    Comment: As I said, I still don’t quite get it, but I’m going to try to understand why this became such a big deal for the mayor and I’ll take you along for the ride if you want to join me this week at SLOP.

I can’t see the pattern. Can you? After looking at this list, it’s hard to tell why Sanders is willing to stick his neck out – and face the heat – on certain issues, but not on others.

I’m only guessing here, but I bet he could drop some of the political calculations that make him hesitant to take a side on major issues without much actual political damage. Why? Because courage and leadership can be big selling points.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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