I was not planning on blogging on this topic today, but I was reading through Rachel Laing’s blogs and the reader comments from yesterday and I couldn’t resist. Rachel seemed surprised that reader comments to her posts were pretty negative on Jerry Sanders’ job performance thus far.

Rachel, don’t be too concerned.  I don’t think that union members with some time on their hands, an ax to grind with the mayor, and an email account speak for the vast majority of the public. 

The reality is the public (you know, the folks who actually count) overwhelmingly support this mayor. The general public sees Jerry Sanders as someone who is honest and genuinely committed to taking on the culture at City Hall and streamlining government. 

Of course the special interests who spend their days at City Hall view things differently. They’ve always been out-of-step with the public — which is one of the reasons why they have been so resoundingly defeated in the battle for reform.

Now before you go thinking the mayor is untouchable, here’s the catch. 

The mayor’s sky-high approval ratings and public goodwill is contingent on him actually solving the city’s financial problems. And soon.

Frankly, I see this budget cycle and the current labor negotiations as do-or-die for the mayor. To solve the problems, this mayor will have to make tough decisions. Really tough decisions — we’re talking pink slips, not just elimination of vacant positions. 

If he fails to make the real budget cuts this year, or if he fails to reform the pension system for both existing and new hires, he risks losing public support. And he risks seeing a conservative challenger in next year’s mayoral election who will do his or her best to educate the public on the shortcomings in the mayor’s efforts.

Folks around town should know that I’ve always been pretty tough on City Hall leaders, and I’m nothing if not gut-wrenchingly blunt and honest. 

While I recognize this mayor still has a lot of hard work to do, I give him pretty high marks thus far. And I’ll go further — I don’t believe the media and City Hall observers are giving Jerry Sanders enough credit. 

I’ve witnessed and been involved with massive change in government entities for more than a decade. What this mayor has done in one year has been remarkable — though certainly still a work in progress. 

I’ve described the situation and challenges to other city and county leaders from across the nation and they too are impressed by what they hear is happening in San Diego.

Consider some of the accomplishments:

  • Strong Mayor Transition: The mayor took office in the midst of a wholesale change in our system of governance — with virtually no preparation done for transition.  As the city’s first “Strong Mayor,” Jerry Sanders has had to invent as he goes — all the time being mindful that he’s setting precedent that will impact our city government for years to come.
  • Exodus in Senior Management: Both a blessing and a challenge, a host of senior city managers fled city government just as Sanders arrived. Granted, many of these managers participated in the mismanagement of the city’s finances and the associated “shoot-the-messenger” cover-up of the problems. Nevertheless, the impact of a mass exodus of senior managers in any organization is quite severe.  Sanders has had to create an entirely new management team. 
  • Broken Financial and Managerial Systems: Not a single number produced by City Hall could be trusted. Sanders has had to rebuild the city’s financial systems and internal controls as well as the basic management structure in each department. While we’ve seen commendable improvements, this area still needs more attention. 
  • Obstructionist City Council and Unions: Egged on by the powerful labor unions, at every turn the “Negligent Majority” on the City Council has attempted to thwart Mayor Sanders. The Council has stripped him of his budget authority, put a stop to business process re-engineering of city departments, over-rode budget cuts without identifying replacement cuts, and pushed for lower pension payments to SDCERS while refusing to significantly reform lavish pension benefits. To top it off, the “Negligent Majority” whines to the mayor that he is not giving them enough credit for helping turn the city around.

Despite all of these challenges, Sanders has managed to keep the city together and provide services to our neighborhoods — albeit still not at the level residents ought to receive. Do you honestly think that if ex-City Manager Lamont Ewell were running things over the past year we would have seen this kind of progress? 

Sure, like many others, I would have done several things differently than Mayor Sanders, e.g. deeper cuts up front, quicker reforms in the pension system, no increases in water/sewer fees, etc. Nevertheless, there can be no argument that Sanders has made progress despite significant challenges. 

But progress is not enough. The bar only gets raised from here. If the mayor doesn’t produce a FY 08 budget that actually balances and fails to offer reforms to pension benefits for existing and new employees, expect the public to change their rating of the mayor — and rightfully so.

PS: In grading the mayor, let’s not overlook the fact that Sanders has avoided being called a liar, cheat, criminal, or general evil-doer by the City Attorney. That deserves special bonus points in anyone’s grading system.

CARL DeMAIO

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