I like Mayor Jerry Sanders. He’s a nice man. I’m almost certain he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Well, I mean that figuratively. I’m sure Sanders can swat those little buzzing beasties with the best of ’em.
But I’m growing increasingly concerned about his administration. I recently wrote an editorial called “Pioneer or bully?” in which I expressed alarm over the way Sanders overtly threatened any members of the City Council who dared to oppose any of the recommendations in the infamous Kroll report, which the mayor supported in toto. He was essentially telling them that he wouldn’t hesitate to use his considerable popularity to damage them publicly and politically. This is how Sanders put it in a speech:
I don’t anticipate any problems, but I will not hesitate to speak out if I think that anyone is holding up the implementation of any of these reform efforts. The public expects us to work as a team to fulfill their long-awaited expectations of reform.
I’m not big on threats, particularly when they’re used to quash open debate over public policy.
That leads me to something that occurred earlier this week as CityBeat associate editor Kelly Davis was working on a story about how the mayor’s office had unilaterally cut funding for two programs and sparked complaints from Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin over process and power.
Kelly called the city’s Environmental Services Department for comment on the story, and the folks there said they couldn’t talk until getting authorization from the Mayor’s Office. Our news writer, Eric Wolff, had a similar experience with the Planning Department and the Auditor’s office. Kelly then obtained a memo sent by Sanders on Aug. 4 to all city department heads and public-information officers saying no one was to talk to the media without first coordinating with his press people. Here are some excerpts from the memo:
If is true [sic] that as strong mayor, I am responsible for the operations and policies of City government, then it should follow that employees in mayoral departments should reflect the opinions of my administration when speaking with the news media. It is my strongly held belief that our City must speak with one voice at least with respect to the departments under my command.
As part of the policy planning process, I welcome a hearty and robust debate among staff. I tell staff members every day that they should tell me what I need to hear not what I want to hear. But when those private conversations end and I have made my judgment, I expect that all mayoral department employees will unify behind my decision and carry out the policies of my administration.
I understand the thinking: He’s the boss, and he’s accountable to the public. But this is dangerous stuff. It made me think of a story a while back that I believe was first reported by the Voice‘s Evan McLaughlin. It involved the Housing Commission staff having, apparently, been pressured by the mayor’s office to change their recommendation on a proposed settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Building Industry Association against the city over an affordable housing ordinance. The implication there was that the City Council was not benefiting from the Housing Commission staff’s true professional judgment.
Look, the only one who benefits from this kind of thing is the mayor. The public always loses when open debate is stifled. It’s inevitable that genuine professional judgment will be smothered in favor of the mayor’s political considerations. Part of the reason San Diego’s in the mess it’s in is because healthy public debate was discouraged.
And it causes me to appreciate even more Andrea Tevlin’s arrival on the scene. Check out Eric Wolff’s profile of Tevlin in this week’s CityBeat. She seems to relish her role as a check on mayoral power. And to that I say, more power to her.