Friday, Sept. 29, 2006 | This is a transcription of Neil Morgan’s remarks at the Helen Edison lecture series presentation held at UCSD Sept. 26.

A century ago, tonight’s inquiry into our choices about San Diego’s future might have been announced as simply smokestacks versus geraniums.

That phrase was used in those years to describe the startling contrasts in goals that city leaders sought for San Diego. In part, as you can tell by driving around the city, geraniums won. Nobody then seemed to consider scientific research, high tech and higher education.

And oddly, tonight when we ask “onward to where?” we are still quite uncertain of who we are in San Diego or what we may become. Yet, now the stakes are desperately higher.

Is San Diego a place, a city, a county or a dream?

And, however you view it, how do we correct and survive the insidious financial scandal at City Hall, which can cripple this city for years to come?

Our answers may be more important to this city than all our discussions of lifestyle, of goals, of reputation and of the economy of our region.

San Diego is our very own city, to help guide and to run, whether into showplace or slum.

What we do – or fail to do – can determine whether San Diego grows up as an intellectual oasis or a border sprawl or remains a pleasant, pricey place to live – and too bad about the waterfront.

Judith and I recently joined some friends to visit the regal Russian city of St. Petersburg, which looked as crisp and tidy as if it where dressed for a party. It had been, actually. We arrived just after George W. Bush and Tony Blair and the Group of Eight summit had disbanded, along with its accompanying army of media, which gave the city worldwide television exposure.

Streets were washed nightly for the occasion and church icons polished. Borders had been closed and traffic had been kept out of the heart of town. We learned that city officials had gathered up a few thousand homeless residents and bussed them to the countryside, providing them food and shelter until the VIPs departed.

Well, that’s one way to handle a city’s problems.

Putin, the host president, is a proud native of St. Petersburg.

One of our companions let loose a cry: “It’s a Potemkin Village. The Russians are still doing it!”

During the long reign of Catherine the Great, one of her unctuous lackeys, Grigori Potemkin, was so eager to please his boss that he built elaborate fake villages along the routes that the Empress would travel through the Ukraine and Crimea.

This was one of history’s more massive con jobs!

A Potemkin village appears impressive, but in fact lacks substance. It is an empty stage set. There’s nobody there.

Here in San Diego, we watch our own versions of Potemkin villages without noticing them.

Such casual misuse now threatens that glorious 15 acres of harbor front at the foot of Broadway. It is a site that we should insist on making this city’s landmark for the world. As Sydney did its opera house. It should be the site of something that has always eluded this city: an identifying icon.

Timing is critical. The fate of these acres is being decided right now by Centre City Development Corp.

But along our bayfront, mediocre taste and greed threaten to fill any empty space. Just look at the foot of Broadway proposal that has the upper hand.

And standing by, wrapping himself in the flag is the hyperactive developer Doug Manchester, who is always ready to step forward and help out on civic issues if the money is right.

Manchester says his plan for the foot of Broadway would return more income to the city – and to him, of course – but other, better plans are on the boards. Widely favored by architects and environmentalists and certainly by me.

These plans do not reek of greed. They seek a people’s plaza that could help us to define San Diego. Think of San Francisco’s Embarcadero, or Seattle’s Harbor Front.

This is San Diego’s signature property, as precious in the psyche of this big city as La Jolla Cove is to La Jollans. Go look at this marvelous site while it’s still there.

Too often, we have awakened too late to win land-use battles that shape our city.

The most recent and tragic instance was the debacle by the developer Corky McMillin at the Naval Training Center. We lost the chance to create a Balboa Park on the water, beside that historic old base.

Mayor Susan Golding had appointed a committee of citizens to make the choice of a developer. The committee unanimously chose Lennar, a national corporation with long experience in military base conversion.

But politics intervened.

I was angry enough that I spent a long afternoon pacing the corridors of City Hall, watching the perversion of government.

As the council met, McMillin and his staff summoned each council member into the hallway to do and say whatever they needed to get and hold their votes. It was ugly. Such scenes destroy faith in government. But they can serve as lessons!

With a chance to have created another great city park, this time beside the bay, we turned over the job to a housing developer. It happened just as it does in the movies, in those secret huddles outside City Council chambers at City Hall.

Have we learned anything from such debacles, or will we laidback San Diegans still be standing aloof, as we so often do, and allowing another Potemkin village to define this city’s image?

While we’re looking around for leadership, let me suggest a second generation Tijuanan named Ascan Lutteroth, who is as courageous as they come. As businessmen and others were being extorted and even kidnapped, he founded a citizen’s group called Transparencia. It continues to monitor city government and undertakes to hold Tijuana City Hall to account. Even the Tijuana media now report on the findings of Transparencia.

It is hard to find any stronger efforts at reform in San Diego.

Mayor Jerry Sanders is a decent, honest man. That’s great, but it’s not enough for this crisis. He needs to be out front, leading; talking directly to us.

I’d like to hear more from Sanders and less from City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Why isn’t the mayor making this talk here tonight? Why isn’t he confiding in us in the same way that Franklin D. Roosevelt talked this nation through the Depression with his fireside chats on the radio?

Jerry doesn’t need to sound like an orator; he needs only to sound like someone who is wise and concerned, and can lead us in the next step.

Your Honor! That is absolutely vital. Tell us precisely how bad the mess is, and how you propose that we cure it.

Our city’s reputation and our credit rating remain in dark shadow. We need a detailed program of remedy and reform in city government, and now in the county, and all our suburban city halls and everywhere else that the faith of the voters has been put at risk.

You will find the Miramar air station on your ballot in the latest chapter of our airport legend.

Back in the 1950’s, the Navy was ready to sell Miramar back to the city for almost nothing. And then City Council voted that Miramar was too far out of town. Believe me, that’s how their vote came down!

Maybe we don’t need a new airport. I don’t hear the airlines asking for one. One of Mayor Murphy’s gravest blunders was to reject the use of the city’s Brown Field as an air freight terminal. It had all the important federal zoning for airport use. It could have absorbed enough of Lindbergh’s traffic to give us another decade or two of use. Instead, for God’s sake, Murphy and City Council sold it to a sub-divider for tract homes.

We need also to prove something big to the agencies that have dumped on our city’s credit rating. We must prove that we are busy making San Diego an honest city that is run like a business, not a laidback haven of sunshine and surf.

Most of the people we have recently elected to City Hall are trying to deal with the inevitable casualties of years of misgovernance.

I trust Mayor Jerry Sanders, and I absolutely revere Ronne Froman, the lady Admiral who serves as his chief of staff.

But as Ronne said after she’d been at City Hall for just one week, the mess was even worse than she expected. There has been huge financial damage to the city and serious human damage.

There is, as we all know, a man who was highly respected as a Superior Court Judge, who then became mayor of San Diego, and now has become invisible. Yet Dick Murphy’s fate is better than that of some of his colleagues. Congressman Cunningham is locked up.

Old habits of city government are in disgrace, but they remain entrenched and on the books. We look back more than 20 years to the last strong and successful mayor: Pete Wilson.

This city desperately needs a reformation. We need continuing, hard-nosed analysis of city management … and reassurance that the people at City Hall are working for voters who are watching them.

There’s one last, big problem; a problem that overrides many others.

It’s the media.

I served many good years reporting for a succession of three San Diego daily newspapers. We have won our Pulitzers. But most San Diego media have tiptoed with too shallow coverage of city affairs. A small town buddy system still poisons the air and it stunts our efforts to become a functionally successful city.

The loaded question at City Hall is blunt: Who, if anyone, are we still trying to protect?

If the answer is no one, let’s get on with reform.

The courts are concerned and are certain to answer some of these questions for us. We should all be seeking answers.

We would be farther along had we heeded Pete Wilson’s advice, a year ago, that the city declare bankruptcy. That word carries the stigma of misdeeds, and it seemed too ugly a word for City Council and mayor to concede. Yet the proposed reform process will seem quite a lot like bankruptcy.

It creates an auditor general, an audit committee, and a monitor of city finances.

An outsider may serve as the ultimate controller for debt repayment and budget reform.

One more thing we need urgently is an experienced tutor in reenergizing City Hall. The milquetoast counsel of the Kroll company has been nothing more than a bandage and it has cost millions. A citizen’s committee could have done as well. Within this city of famously successful corporate chieftains and throughout the private sector, why in the world aren’t we calling on them to help manage city reform?

I challenge the mayor and council to set up a civic consulting group. Maybe Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs could be persuaded to form a citizen’s panel to get our bearings and plot our future. I’d like to see Pat Shea or Diann Shipione on that panel.

Diann especially proves to us that one person can make a difference. Years ago, she had to fight for months to get anybody to listen to her report on the disorderly business conduct of the city pension board. Then she had to scrap for months to get anything about it into the newspaper beyond the Neil Morgan column.

I’d like to see an economist on that panel, and a sociologist, and representatives of every major group in San Diego. The years are past when such a committee would be conducted by the towering and fearless Roger Revelle, the Father of UCSD. Since his death, no one has come along to step into his size 15 shoes.

So let’s teach ourselves that City Hall politics is not a spectator sport. This is our city and this is our money.

What’s even more important, it’s our future, and our children’s future. Let’s get involved and watch more closely.

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