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Friday, July 15, 2005 | Donna Frye does a lot of her shopping from catalogue nowadays.

Her recognition and popularity have demanded it ever since her write-in campaign in November’s mayoral election grabbed gobs of local and national media attention while a court decided the outcome in the tightest of three-way races. 

What used to take 10 minutes at the drug store now takes an hour.

“The thing that is probably most amazing to me is how many children recognize me. I mean young,” she says.

Today, the city watches to see if the star power that vaulted Frye to the front of the mayoral class within seconds of Mayor Dick Murphy’s announced resignation in April is enough to take her beyond her core followers and to a majority of voters — either in the July 26 primary or a November runoff.

She’s the rarest of all front-runners, as she struggles to keep up in the fundraising department and will be the only candidate of the six frontrunners not to air a television ad. But the style fits with her grassroots beginnings.

The clean-water activist-turned-councilwoman preaches open government and community involvement. And it’s a message that resonates with her cult-like following, but Frye’s run into staunch opposition from a business community that worries she’ll be anti-development and anti-anything.

She counters critics that wonder if she’s got the financial acumen handle San Diego’s daunting fiscal turnaround, noting that she’s run a business (a surf shop) and was oftentimes the only councilmember voting against today’s most criticized plans.

There are a lot of things that people don’t understand about Donna Frye beyond the stereotypes, she says. For one, the surfer girl really isn’t that good at surfing.

“You fear me because you don’t know me,” Frye told a group of downtown business leaders last month. “And to know me is to love me.’

Voice: What do you think the most critical thing is that the new mayor needs to accomplish?

Frye: Restoring the public trust. Without restoring the public trust we’re not going to go very far as a city, and I think right now it’s in shambles. To me, the thing that makes government work and makes it effective is the public involvement and the public’s excitement, enthusiasm and optimism and wanting to come down and do things and be on boards and commissions. Right now, I think that it’s just the same old, same old. It’s the same old people being appointed to the same old boards and commissions and just rotated around.

The other thing I think is that people won’t give up any of their money, any of their taxes, or much of their time. They’re going to be very unwilling to help solve the problem until they feel that that trust is restored. And then I think they will gladly give because I think that people in San Diego are generous, at least the people I talk to. The public that I know, and the public that I see in the San Diego I’ve grown up in is a very generous, giving community. It always has been, but people also don’t like being taken advantage of. And I think that’s how they feel right now. I really do.

Tell us something in your background that you’ve done that you think is most comparable to being the mayor of San Diego.

What’s comparable? The most comparable would be when people were becoming sick and were facing great health risks. People were coming to me and saying we have a problem, we don’t know what it is, we’re getting sick, we all have similar symptoms and we need to do something about it. And so I started investigating. First of all, I didn’t believe them at first because I thought maybe they were just playing hooky because they were surfing. So I learned to trust what people were telling me. When someone walked into my office and said I’m sick and I really don’t feel well, my first reaction at that point in time was a bit of disbelief.

And I learned that maybe I should have listened a little more immediately. But once I was convinced that there was a problem, then I went out and did the science. I got the numbers, got the hard data and the real numbers from the Department of Environmental Health Services and used their data. They did water quality tests which showed high levels of contamination.

And then the next step, I mean we had to take this step-by-step and put together a plan on how we were going to be able to not only get people to believe us, but then to admit there was a problem, because most people were in denial. ConVis [San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau] and a lot of the folks didn’t really want people to know that this was going on, and so they kept it hidden from the public. They thought what they don’t know can’t hurt them. But in fact it was hurting them.

Then we went about it very methodically with the press and built up a relationship with the community and with the media because I had to rely on the media to get my message out because I didn’t have a lot of money. And then I started working with the legislators and forming a coalition — community activists, legislators and the media. The surfing community in general is not a normally involved community. And I got them to come together, which took many, many years, and we worked with the city.

Finally, we got the City Council and the county and then we went to the state Legislature. That culminated in the passage of uniform, state-wide monitoring standards that protected every beachgoer in the state, which then led to the enactment of federal water monitoring standards. I had to go lobbying in Washington. I had to go to Sacramento. In other words, I had to keep doing outreach, convincing people that there was a problem, but there was also a solution and getting people to come together and a very odd diversity of groups.

I started in 1994, and in 1998, we had the first signs posted warning people about the pollution and in October, I believe of 1998, we got the uniform, statewide monitoring standards through. We also got the city to start diverting into the sewer system the polluted runoff at Tourmaline [Beach] and about 18 beaches.

The surfing community was empowered. They felt that they had a voice, and they got engaged in the process. They were voting, and they were speaking out and going to meetings. The city government understood that the surfing community was a force to be reckoned with. There was mutual respect gained, and we formed some very interesting coalitions. I remember we were trying to get money from the state, some of the bond money that had just been passed, so we got the Port, the city of San Diego, Environmental Health Coalition and me representing Surfers Tired of Pollution. We had people who were normally at odds with one another going up as a united group. We came back with over $2 million. I mean not that day, but we got $2 million to clean up Mission Bay. And we got more money than any other city.

How did you get these diverse groups to work together?

We talked. We started out by talking, and we also told each other the truth because that had not been done. We explained our positions, and we listened to each other. I think a lot of it was to first of all get people to understand the fact that just because I was a member of the surfing community that didn’t mean that I didn’t have a brain between my ears because there was an absolute stereotype of the surfing community, which I helped dispel.

Humor, I think, was probably my best asset as far as getting people to the table. And being honest but doing my homework. My research was impeccable. There was not one reporter that I worked with during that time that can say any document I handed them, any piece of information I released was not 100 percent researched and accurate. They never had to go back and say, “well, you told us this but it was really that.” They could rely upon what I told them. And I think once people understood that, and realized that, it really was an open kind of raucous process. It was very democratic, and it was fun.

Politicians often talk about the first 100 days. Donna, what would you hope to accomplish in your first 100 days?

My first 100 days, and hopefully it’ll be in July, is to put into place the strong-mayor form of government and actually get something done on that. There are people that I would immediately get rid of, and I’ll name one name, which would be Bruce Herring. There are some people that I have worked with in my years at City Hall, and they are the people who don’t tell me the truth. And so people that did not tell me the truth would have to leave, through civil service, or whatever process you go through.

I would make sure that appointments to boards and commissions would be a lot more diverse and that they would actually represent the communities because there will be a lot of appointments coming up in the first 100 days.

I would absolutely start with the budget process. The five-year budget forecast, I would absolutely sit down with the auditor/comptroller, and I would say this is not working. I would also be looking for a new city manager — if I decide that there’s going to be a city manager. And I’m not convinced yet. Instead, I would have a cabinet, people that would handle very specific issues. I’m doing some research on how that might work.

I would immediately get the public together, immediately have some sort of a town hall meeting. I would go out to each one of the communities as quickly as possible to talk to them, to try and understand what their needs are. I think that’s very important to educate them about what’s going on, whether it’s with the pension or the budget. And I would try and get people to understand the seriousness of the pension problem, the seriousness of the budget, some of the things we can and can’t do. Because I don’t think the public’s being brought in. And I would do it at night, or on weekends. I would do it where it’s convenient for people that actually work for a living, and make it much less formal.

I would also like to put together a group of community leaders and business leaders and academics and say, “We know we have a problem.” I would want to show a united front to give people a little more comfort that it’s going to be different, it’s not going to be the mayor sitting back and doing nothing and just sending the city manager off to talk to the rating agencies.

What would you do about the pension issue in the first 100 days?

Let’s pretend it’s tomorrow, and we’re still where we’re at. I absolutely believe we should go to court for declaratory relief and find out if certain benefits are legal or not. We have to find that out. And quite frankly I’m feeling much more strongly every day about receivership because I think they [pension fund] are badly mismanaged. I would try and figure out a way to get rid of their actuary, to get rid of their legal counsel and to get rid of their administration. I do not like the way it’s going and I’m very, very leery of relying on volunteers to run this mess because I think there are some things that are above and beyond the duties of volunteers.

What’s your vision for the city at the end of your term? And how will we know if you’ve been successful?

My vision is that when you read about San Diego in the national and local papers, that people feel good about San Diego. That would be one way. And that the national media is not calling us “Enron by the Sea,” and they’re not calling us bankrupt, and there aren’t all these investigations. The investigations would be over. The people who had created the problems would be held accountable for their actions. The public would absolutely feel good and optimistic about San Diego again, and they would feel much better about their government because they would be actively participating in it.

Hopefully we’d have some public parkland in Mission Valley or at least the start of it. We’d see our credit rating restored. We would see a budget that the average person could actually read and understand. The City Council would be working on some wonderful projects, some really neat affordable housing projects, and our downtown main library would probably be started by then. Regarding industrial land, the folks that own or want to locate in San Diego would feel safe again and want to expand their businesses because they weren’t afraid that their industrial land was going to be gobbled up.

Our progress guiding general plan would be completed and updated, we’d have the environmental report, our public facilities financing plans would be updated, and we would actually have people called planners working in planning.

And we would be really working actively on the Mission Valley site, whatever we had decided, and it would include a place for public festivals and public meeting.

We would also have a whole lot more ball fields, we’d at least be in the planning stages for ball fields and soccer fields for kids because I have parents, right now coming to my office because they don’t have places for their kids to play.

For years many people have thought of San Diego, or like to think of San Diego as America’s Finest City. Do you think this is an outdated paradigm?

No. I don’t think it’s outdated. I would like to see us as America’s most ethical city. I would like to see us as America’s most honest city. I would like to see us as the cleanest city, with the most open government. I would like to be a national model for good government and be able to take that message, not just statewide but national.

And maybe we would have a good government conference, and we would invite people from all over and have the academics and the media and just people come to town and talk about how you actually make democracy work. I just think that’s really important because I think there’s all these wedge issues and “us versus them” and this ugliness and people don’t like politics. It’s our government. The people are the government. So I would like to bring them back into that process. I would just like us to be the most open and ethical government that sets a national model. That would make me so proud.

Imagine the headlines at the end of your term. What would you like the headlines to say?

“San Diego’s revenues exceed expenses” and “San Diego recognized in Time magazine as a national model for good open government.” “Democracy works” or “Got democracy? Yeah, we got it.” And I know I can do it. This might take me longer than I would like. I’m a patient person.

We’ve talked a lot about open government, and you were talking about environmental issues, those are the two things that you’re known for, and that you’ve had the most success with. Right now we’re dealing with obviously this gigantic fiscal crisis. Can you tell us how those issues that you’re known for would translate into solving this financial crisis?

First of all, you have to build trust and, you have to get people around you to trust you. For example, if we had put out numbers that the credit rating agencies could actually rely on our disclosure statements, we wouldn’t have these problems. In other words if there was honesty and openness, and we had disclosed and told people what was going on and conducted the public’s business in public, this issue would not be occurring right now. It would not have happened.

The Charger ticket guarantee would not have happened. We would not have been in the mess we’re in, and we would have saved a whole lot of money. It all revolves around being able to rely or reasonably rely upon what people are telling you, and if you can’t do that, I don’t care how great a plan you have. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, and you can’t tell the public the truth, it’s doomed from the beginning. It might take 10 years before it catches up, but you are watching exactly what happens when that kind of government exists. Everything just starts to crumble. And then no matter if you tell people the truth, they don’t believe you. And they’ll believe the worst.

Why do you think that the business community has such huge problems with you?

They really don’t know me. And I am convinced of that. I don’t think a lot of these folks have taken the time to ever sit down and talk to me, and my door’s always open. One of the things that I’ve found is when I come out of meetings with people that have actually taken half an hour to sit down and talk to me about issues, is they come out much relieved and actually quite amazed that I know what I’m talking about and that I actually understand their issues.

So I think a lot of it is just the part of the whisper campaign. Part of it is because I’m a Democrat, part of it is because I’m a woman, part of it is because I’m an environmentalist, and they perceive that as what they want to perceive it as, and part of it’s because I’m going to bust up their power structure, and they are scared to death. And that is what it’s all about. And so it’s not because they’re so fearful of me because they don’t know me. What they’re fearful of is their piggies may be removed from the trough a little bit and, and they don’t like that.

What you are seeing is a transformation, and the transformation began in earnest last election when over 160,000 people had enough faith in a four-week time span to say I’m going to write her name in. I’ve been doing elections for a long time and working on campaigns and registering voters, I’ve been doing it since the early 70s, and I’ve got to tell you most of the time people will say, “You know, I really like Sarah better than Bob or Mike, but I don’t think she can win and so I don’t want to waste my vote.” That didn’t happen. That in itself said there’s faith. And see, I have great faith in the public. I think they’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and I rely upon them. And they haven’t let me down.

You’re one of the candidates who hasn’t taken bankruptcy off the table, but you …

Correct. And I won’t.

But you think it’s avoidable?

Yes, I do.

So, how long do we have here once you get into office before we know if your plan is going to work or if we need to go bankrupt?

Well, it depends how quickly we can get in. I mean, if I have to wait until November, I have no idea what is going to happen. I can’t predict. But I think we’ll be in terrible shape, and I’m very scared. I’m very frightened.

Is there a certain breaking point? Is there a certain point that you see that once we’re at that point that it’s inevitable and that we’re going to have to go into bankruptcy?

I hit one breaking point, when [the pension fund board] didn’t waive the attorney-client privilege, and there was that moment when I was trying to work on my plan and write it all out, the way they wanted it written out, and I was struggling. It was about 2 a.m. and finally, I just knew that wasn’t going to work, and that we had to be more drastic. And so I guess the point is when we have to continually keep cutting services, when we can’t balance our budget. I’ll just know. I don’t know how to describe it yet. You just intuitively know. And there will be warning signs. When maybe we can’t pay our bills or we end up with one police officer per 1,000 citizens. In other words, when it puts the public health and safety at risk. And it’s coming fast, it’s coming very fast.

Do you view the pension plan as the problem we have or do you view it as a section of a larger problem?

I think it’s a consequence of a variety of things. I think one of them is the culture of secrecy. How did it start, what are the roots that grew this problem? And I think a lot of it started with secrecy, closed meetings, behind the scenes, everybody working their deals, and it never really saw the light of day and so it never really got to be discussed, and people weren’t really sure what was going on.

The misinformation, the disinformation, the growth and development. No one ever sat down, and said if we build a new fire station, we build a new park or whatever we happen to build, how are we going to pay for those services? How are we going to pay for the staff of the libraries? In other words, it was always deferred. We’re not going to answer that, and so that debt was building up. The Chargers stadium, the Republican Convention, there were a lot of projects, pet projects for people where they needed money, but they weren’t sure where to get it. And they had political ambition to move on to a higher office, but not raise anyone’s taxes. So a lot of those things and just plain lying. Lying and being deceitful and becoming arrogant. I think there was a lot of arrogance on the part of elected officials. Like we know what’s better for you, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. And you don’t need to know because you’re just getting in our way.

Union leaders, or at least a couple of them, have already said there’s no way we’re going back to the negotiating table.

That’s right.

But that is part of your plan?

No. It is, and it isn’t. I’d push for declaratory relief tomorrow. I’d go into court. I wouldn’t think twice about it, and I think it needs to be done so we can find out if [the benefits] are legal or illegal. I believe that you’re going to find some of those benefits such as purchasing the service credits, the multiplier, the retroactivity of that, I believe the court would say you didn’t have the money to pay it, you can’t do it, it’s not a valid contract, and then I think [the unions would] be back at the table.

It’s the art of negotiation, and no one really wants to get tough, you know. They just want to talk about it. Let’s go to court. Fine. There’s the declaratory relief action. We’re going. And watch what happens. I think they’d be back at the table pretty fast. Maybe, maybe not one or two of them, but the others could be there, and I believe if we’d been able to talk about those issues, about the retroactive benefits, the purchase of service credits, getting some additional revenues from the employees, having to contribute a little more. I think they would have done it. I really believe that. It’s just that they said we couldn’t talk about it.

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