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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006 | At long last, City Hall is facing up to the inevitable penalties of our years of misgovernance. There is talk of charter reform, but straightforward openness and admissions about the events of recent years would be a welcome first step.

The presently favored process of recovery may seem quite a bit like bankruptcy. It would create an auditor general, an audit committee and a monitor.

At this phase, the vital question to ask of City Hall is a blunt one: Whom, if anyone, are we still trying to protect? The final actions of federal and local public attorneys may still lie ahead.

We have tentative agreement among infighting factions – mayor, city attorney, council members – that the city needs outside counsel in finally seeking to cleanse its image.

But as City Attorney Mike Aguirre argues, we need to remember how to get it right ourselves.

This civic cleanup needs to be led from both inside and outside the snake pit. It would have come sooner if, a year or more ago, we had heeded the advice of our best former mayor, Pete Wilson, and declared bankruptcy, with a court-appointed trustee taking charge.

But the word bankruptcy carries the stigma of misdeeds, and at the time it seemed too ugly for City Council and mayor to utter the word. It rouses national headline writers and civic historians. Its onus does not soon pass.

Yet the presently favored process will seem quite a lot like bankruptcy. It creates an auditor general, an audit committee and a monitor. An outsider may serve as the ultimate controller for debt repayment and budget reform. This time, let’s splurge and get a fresh face.

Might there be a more experienced tutor in restructuring the future of City Hall? Kroll has already cost us millions. Within this city of successful corporate chieftains, might we not find modern models for administering City Hall?

Mayor Jerry Sanders could ensure that it’s put back together properly. He must first be bold enough to lead an earnest search around the nation for counsel that can remain untainted by the political cronyism that casts its fog over City Hall.

One factor in our favor is that Mayor Sanders, City Attorney Aguirre – and even City Council – seem resigned this time to accepting such counsel from the outside. If these three can agree, it must be the right course. We have reasonable managers and good staffs at City Hall, and we would do well to knock those three top heads together until all three units of city government work together in preventing future corruption. It’s time we stop leaving such work up to lobbyists.

Of course without Aguirre’s often offensive nagging, we might not have come this far in reform. San Diego civic history is pocked by similar instances, when intramural feuding at City Hall has taken precedence over the public good. This time, at least, a purging seems close at hand.

One has this image of Mayor Sanders, always amiable but now chastened, agreeing to follow any reform path except one set by Aguirre … but, in the end, seeing scant alternative. In the usual unsavory way, this city has once more followed its own trail of financial chaos. Before this happens again, let’s remember that it’s not a political game … it’s our own city, and our own money.

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