Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006 | A year after taking control of a city browbeaten by scandal and deepening financial woes, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders sized up the first year of his tenure Tuesday by marking off a long list of his advertised accomplishments and declaring that the city’s troubles won’t be solved for at least half a decade.
Sanders described his efforts as a “work in progress” considering the situation he inherited from former Mayor Dick Murphy, who resigned in the face of financial troubles that drew the attention of Wall Street, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Sanders acknowledged that everything he’s tried to accomplish has taken longer than he expected since taking control of City Hall. The former police chief also said he believed his previous post as top cop was hard, but that his new job is “a much tougher one.”
“Some days we make major breakthroughs, other days we make mistakes,” Sanders said, adding: “I only hope I make more of the former than the latter.”
A press release issued before the speech displayed a long list of accomplishments, including the announcement of a five-year financial recovery plan, the November passage of two ballot propositions, the depositing of a $100 million loan into the pension system and an ongoing overhaul of the bureaucratic structure.
At the same time, the mayor struck a more self-effacing tone during his press conference on Harbor Island, offering to take responsibility for those things he said hadn’t gone as well – such as the delays that plagued the eventual August release of an investigative report by private consultants from Kroll Inc. and the continuing postponement of the city’s return to financial credibility on Wall Street.
The mayor said City Hall still had major financial problems that would persist well beyond his first term, which expires in 2008, and would require sacrifice by all. “It can’t be avoided. All I can promise is that the sacrifice will be shared equitably and fairly,” he said.
Sanders also claimed that much work remained in order to change the city’s culture and restore public trust. “We have yet to fully adjust the culture and mindset of the institution,” he said. “But we have made a start at addressing our problems honestly and forthrightly.”
If the mayor believes his first year to have been tough, his second year could prove barbaric.
He has enjoyed immense public popularity since last year’s election and as City Hall shifted back to normalcy after nearly two years of salacious headlines and damning revelations.
Investigations into the city by the Kroll consultants and the SEC have drawn to a close on Sanders’ watch. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has shown little movement since indicting five mid-level pension officials in January, tamping expectations that the prosecutors would go after elected officials.
In his first budget cycle, he benefited from a budget that was unusually robust – a quirk that isn’t forecasted to repeat in the coming years. Few cuts were seen for city services and the major prescriptions for the fiscal ills were put off until the upcoming budget cycle.
On the whole, he has been able to balance working relationships with both City Attorney Mike Aguirre and most of the City Council. The two sides have often been at war – especially during the half-year during which San Diego was without an elected mayor – and Aguirre’s stinging rebukes of Murphy, at the very least, hastened the former mayor’s exit.
At the same time, Sanders has drawn criticism from some of his supporters in the business community for not more aggressively attacking the city’s financial troubles through cuts or tax increases. Although many of those critics have been willing to cut Sanders slack as he puts his team in place and learns the ins and outs of City Hall, that leeway has an expiration date.
Sanders’ five-year financial plan acknowledged officially for the first time the true depth and width of the city’s financial holes, forecasting budget gaps ranging from $87.4 million in 2008 to $178.3 million in 2012.
The forecast envisions eliminating more than 700 positions to help fill the gap. But there is a catch: the forecast still doesn’t offer a solution on how to cover the remaining $24.6 million gap.
Former political consultant Scott Barnett said he gives the mayor a B or B-minus for his first year in office because of his openness, but said there should be a plan in place by now on how to fill the budget holes.
“It’s nice to see a mayor who says, ‘Look, I’m in charge and it’s my responsibility.’ But now it’s time to ask, ‘Where’s the plan?’” said Barnett, president of taxpayersadvocate.org.
Closing that gap will almost certainly require thick cuts to a wide range of services, meaning that city residents will begin to increasingly feel first-hand the impacts of the budget woes inherited by Sanders.
The mayor listed the filling of the budget gap as one of his priorities for the coming year, as well as getting started on a deferred maintenance backlog that’s estimated to be between $800 million and $900 million and eliminating the 700 positions citywide. He said he expects his office to know how it will close the gap by March 1. Its budget is due to the City Council by April 15.
At the same time, the Republican mayor is likely to faced continued opposition from police officers as they battle for their first raise in years and continue to mount a public-relations campaign in response to what they see as an exodus of officers.
The mayor’s public popularity could also be tested by his proposal to increase water and wastewater fees by as much as 35 percent – something that has been opposed by some of his supporters – and by any further delays in the release of the long-delayed audits and the city’s return to Wall Street.
Many attribute the renewed sense of tranquility at City Hall to the mayor. “Jerry Sanders is a much better leader than we’ve had in recent history,” said Andrew Berg, a centrist Democrat and director of governmental relations for the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Berg said Sanders is still receiving the benefit of a doubt from a hopeful public as he “sweeps up after the hangover.” “What happens six months from now is anyone’s guess,” he said.
Donald Cohen, executive director of Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank that advocates for labor issues and the working poor, has butted heads with the new administration on a number of issues as the mayor has sought to largely cure the city’s ills by cutting jobs and other payroll expenses.
He thinks the honeymoon will end. “It won’t be long before that people realize the roads still have potholes, the libraries are still closed on Sundays and the police are still leaving,” he said.