Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2006 | At the climax of a sweet, sparkling summer in San Diego, the kind that ConVis markets so deftly to the world, our home town has this one overriding problem that won’t stop hurting and isn’t going away:
San Diego government is drowning in misfeasance.
The argument for the defense against that charge is this: “People everywhere are doing it. Just look at Washington! Right.
Even the Marine Corps has been charged with cooking the books – in the current case, withholding documents concerning the number of American deaths in Iraq. The honor of high-ranked officers was put at stake.
And here at San Diego City Hall, honor is at stake in the ongoing, still explosive probe of pension-fund corruption at San Diego’s once proud City Hall.
The laidback San Diegan’s answer to that charge is: “Pension funds everywhere are in trouble. It’s no different here.”
But it is different here. Many pension funds in many cities, corporate and public, face bankruptcy. Our situation is even more ominous: Underlying the issue in San Diego has been the betrayal of public trust by our elected city officials. It’s worse than the monetary loss. It is as though we were sinking a city government’s pilings into muck.
In San Diego, we have reason to suspect conspiracy that led federal authorities to name city officials right on up to the former mayor, who had been a Superior Court judge. The scandal of bad faith continues to envelop and implicate public figures. Who would have thought that, on the pension matter, Councilwoman Donna Frye was right from the start and Mayor Murphy and the rest of the Council were wrong?
Yet the case itself is not the whole problem.
The most intriguing puzzle of the moment is how the public regards this case and how public reaction will or will not affect future city policy.
Not even scandal can hold public attention forever. The commotion might soon be behind us. But our sacrifices and compromises lie ahead. No city has escaped this kind of deficit without some form of additional taxation, and invariably a diminution of public services. (Maybe it’s started already. The city refuse truck sailed past our street on Monday.)
The facts of this city’s plight are familiar and easily summarized: City management has been slipshod. Public oversight has been deficient. Civic involvement is more and more often dominated by special interests. The mayor and City Council have lost their chartered initiative in local affairs as they await the next moves by the public attorneys, Carol Lam and Mike Aguirre.
But isn’t this mess over? Far from it. The public hunger for details may have been satiated. But it will take years of strong financial management at City Hall to recover the city’s bond rating. New York City faced a similar crisis almost 50 years ago; for the next five years, that city was busy trying to pay off its creditors, maintain public services, and regain a credible city audit. A similar recovery period was required in the bankruptcy of Orange County.
Yet the San Diego public is following this issue with diminishing interest. Even scandal stories get old and boring.
Months ago, I thought that the scope of allegations and charges against city officials might put San Diegans into a civic funk, or some expression of community shame and outrage. Two former mayors – Susan Golding and Dick Murphy – are named on the current suspect list. The major headlines may be past, but this tangle is far from settled and may yet become far more embarrassing.
With the sordid fall of Rep. Duke Cunningham, we were reminded that corruption is commonplace. Yet instead of sensing embarrassment or anger in the current crisis, many San Diegans seem to me to be taking shelter in the sense of titillation that such news brings: “It’s their problem they got caught. They deserve it.”
At the gym one recent morning, the first question I heard was: “Who’s going to get it next?” Might my sweaty colleagues have been inquiring about the next installment of “Deadwood?”
Even the numerous detractors of City Attorney Mike Aguirre realize they can’t blame this dismal state of affairs on the arrogance of a brilliant prosecutor. Federal investigators were already swarming City Hall before Aguirre came along. Allegations from Aguirre may not raise the same level of terror among suspected miscreants as those from the relatively secretive U.S. attorney, Carol Lam, which may be yet to come.
We owe it to Enron and Kenneth Lay, among many others in business and in government, that we show less surprise and perhaps even less anger at the lapses of our leaders, both public and private. New corporate scandals n involving smaller companies, usually, and thus lesser news – are reported with unnerving frequency in the Wall Street Journal, where they quickly become old news. In The New York Times, week after week, Gretchen Morgenson hammers away at the seven- and eight-figure salaries and bonuses that corporate boards of directors bestow on corporate officers, rather than sharing those profits with public shareholders, which has long been the American way. And Ms. Morgenson might well wonder: Is there a chance we can get any help on this issue from this Congress and this administration?
Is all this unfolding because citizens and media have become more insistent on public disclosure and more wary of what they are told? I believe that is a factor. Most of the media that I follow, often prodded by the example of the bellwether Times, are growing past the old practice of protecting “sacred cows” that so long deterred honest newspaper reporting, and linger to this day in San Diego.
There may always be scoundrels in government, but that does not forgive our ignoring their offenses. Corruption is a growing national concern. It will remain so in coming elections. In memory of “America’s Finest City,” we should demand that City Hall play an open hand.
In tidying up City Hall, we would demand more frankness, more earnestness and alacrity among city officials. It would be true to his campaign promises if Mayor Jerry Sanders, the ex-cop, roused his department heads to set examples for an ethically energized San Diego. We should scrap the ironic “America’s Finest City” hype long enough for citizen groups to join strengths in reforming corruption. It has occurred in other cities. Their models are in the record for San Diego citizens’ groups to study.