Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | As if a certain handsome (but quickly aging) reporter needed another thing to chase around town. A high school English and history teacher from a town of 50,000 in the state of Washington announced his intent to launch a recall campaign against City Councilman Michael Zucchet on Tuesday in the parking lot of Les Girls gentleman’s club in Midway.
Chris Clifford, accompanied by his wife’s cell phone, a 5 o’clock shadow and homemade posters taped to the club’s gaudy pink walls, used the scandalous backdrop to poke at Zucchet’s federal criminal corruption trial next month. He said he is a partial owner of a property that falls in a Midway-area redevelopment zone. The zone, classified by the city as blighted, is populated largely by light industrial properties and a few flesh joints. Local property owner and engineer Bill Kenton floated a 124-condominum redevelopment project for the area in December, which has sparked concerns from businesses and property owners in the area worried about displacement and eminent domain.
Zucchet has stated that he believes the area is blighted and should be redeveloped to put an attractive face on the entry way to Point Loma.
Though Clifford didn’t seem to know much about his property — including the street address and the current tenant’s name — county records show the property is owned by the Norris family trust and Washington State Sen. Pam Roach, a Republican. He refused to discuss his financial stake in the property. He said Roach is part of the Norris family trust, and he has known her for about 20 years. Clifford owned night clubs before entering the education world a few years ago and unsuccessfully ran for the Renton, Wash., City Council in 2001.
“It’s not just about redevelopment,” said Clifford, who dressed like a high school history teacher. As other reasons for the recall, he listed Zucchet’s purchasing of controversial pension credits and his criminal indictment for allegedly receiving clandestine campaign contributions in exchange for reversing the no-touch rule at strip clubs.
Recall is an instrument that’s often wielded and rarely swung in San Diego. In recent history, recall talk has surfaced surrounding City Councilman Scott Peters, former city council members Barbara Warden and Harry Mathis, and former city attorney Casey Gwinn. None of them ever came to fruition. A recall attempt directed at Zucchet’s predecessor, Byron Wear, also never made it to the ballot.
“It’s very difficult, you really have to have a lot of community support to do a recall,” said Joyce Lane, assistant city clerk. Clifford would have to publicly post his intent to recall Zucchet in a newspaper and pay for Zucchet’s response. He would also need to collect signatures from at least 15 percent of the more than 108,000 people who voted in the last election in District 2; that means more than 16,000 signatures. He didn’t discuss his budgetary expectations or capabilities.
If Clifford were to be successful, that would make it two federal investigations, two federally-indicted sitting councilmen, one district attorney criminal investigation, no audits for the fiscal years 2003 and 2004, still no self-investigation into possible illegal acts by city officials, one growing $1.37 billion deficit and a recall. And one vacation, please, boss?
Zucchet dismissed the recall attempt. “Mr. Clifford thinks Les Girls is an appropriate landmark for the entryway to Point Loma,” he said in a prepared statement. “I disagree and will continue to work to ensure that the site will be redeveloped.”
More on the DA’s investigation. As District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis embarks on her investigation of conflicts in city of San Diego politics, she might not need to look any further than her own office.
Dumanis entered into a criminal investigation of City Hall and its pension board two weeks ago; what wasn’t disclosed were her own personal ties to the man that ran City Hall at the time the possible misdeeds she’s investigating occurred. John Kern, who until last week was Mayor Dick Murphy’s chief of staff, ran Dumanis’ judge campaigns as a political consultant in 1994 and 1998.
Through a spokeswoman, Dumanis said she considers Kern a friend. And his protégé, Jennifer Tierney, led Dumanis’ successful campaign for district attorney in 2002 and is running her 2006 campaign that held a fundraising event in Mission Valley just last night. Tierney was also a consultant on Murphy’s 2004 campaign.
To be sure, Dumanis’ investigation at the moment appears to be fixed on conflicts of interest of certain pension board members who saw benefit increases as a result of their decision to allow the city to expand its historical underfunding of the pension plan. The big question that remains to be answered is if the planning behind the now-controversial Manager’s Proposal II, which further aggravated the crippling pension deficit by lowering payments and increasing benefits, stretched to the highest reaches of city leadership.
Dumanis attended Kern’s going away party Thursday at China Camp on Pacific Highway, a shindig reportedly attended by Ron Saathoff, president of the Local 145 firefighters union, and developer Fred Pierce IV. Both are former members of the pension board under investigation by Dumanis’ office, and Saathoff was named specifically in her office’s document requests. The board has been at the center of the city’s fiscal and legal woes, as it battles with a $1.37 billion pension deficit and the consequences of failing to accurately report the debt to potential investors. A host of city management figures caught up in the financial and legal issues that could fall under the purview of an investigation into City Hall also reportedly attended the gathering.
Through a spokeswoman, Dumanis said she attended the party because of her friendship with Kern, and she had no way of knowing who would be on the guest list. Her spokewoman quickly dismissed the question of whether the attendance of such a party created any perception problems. But such is the political climate now in San Diego where perception prevails in a land sparse with solid facts. The dark dots created by questions, concerns and theories are freely connected.
In this small political world of San Diego, the party likely would’ve fallen by the wayside until Dumanis nudged herself deeper into the city’s political wars Tuesday with a surprise performance in front of City Council. The situation got murkier when it was revealed that she’d invited at least one council member to a Thursday night fundraiser. At the council meeting this week, she suggested that the council give her office the City Attorney’s Office’s criminal division, a move that set off an unprepared City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Dumanis said by reducing overlap, she could trim a staff of what is now 160 to 92 and cut $2 million from a city budget already at least $50 million in the red.
If the DA’s investigation were to go beyond the pension board and further into the city’s guts, it could be forwarded to the state Attorney General’s Office. Aguirre has already made the suggestion in light of this week’s imbroglio.
Speaking of perception … Monday will be named “San Diego Union-Tribune Day and San Diego Charger Day” at City Council.
— By ANDREW DONOHUE, Voice Political Writer
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at