Thursday, July 07, 2005 | Jerry Sanders says he knows when to pick his time to leave. Six years into his tenure as chief of police in San Diego, his wife, Rana Simpson, told him it was time to close out his 26-year tenure with the department.
“I said, ‘Why? Everything’s perfect,’” Sanders recalls. “She said, ‘Exactly. That’s the point.’”
The message: Get out while things are going really well.
Now the easy going, jovial ex-cop is doing the opposite. He’s jumping in while things are going really bad.
Sanders wants to be the mayor who leads San Diego from its daunting distress. He points to his leadership at the police department and two troubled nonprofits, the United Way and the Red Cross, as examples of his turnaround success.
In this breakneck campaign, he’s shown a light wit in debates, found a pocket of supporters amongst the City Hall regulars, picked up the issues on the fly and taken grief from his competition for the slow-drip release of his sometimes-vague, chapter-by-chapter plan for saving San Diego. (Even he had to be reminded Wednesday what chapter he was announcing before a press conference. For the record: Chapter 6.)
As voters push to comprehend the individual — although in many ways similar — financial plans of the candidates, Sanders also offers a simpler message: you know him already.
“I’ve got a record. Anybody can look at it,” he says. “My career is pretty much an open book.”
Voice: What’s the most critical thing the new mayor needs to accomplish and within what time frame?
Sanders: I see the new job as being the leader of the city. Somebody who is going to make sure that the city functions in a way that produces an output that citizens want. I think that the most critical component is getting the audits out. The second thing is actually going back and getting the city’s bond rating back up so that we can issue pension obligation bonds. We can’t do this until the pension board waives attorney-client privilege, clearing the way for the city’s 2003 and 2004 audited financial statement to be released. And I think that requires a team of people who can show a plan to Wall Street. And the third one is the pension issue/city structure issues.
Tell us in your experience and your career, what’s the most comparable success you’ve had to doing the job of mayor?
I worked within the city Police Department. When I went in, we had been experiencing large increases in crime. We had customers — citizens — who weren’t happy with the output, with the way the Police Department interacted with them. And we had a system based on a reactive model, where you waited for a radio call. You went and handled it, and then you went and did your next thing. What I did was put into place a group of individuals within the department and the community, who helped to decide what it should look like, if we had a completely different model that was based on community input. The group came forward with 42 recommendations, and we looked at those as a command staff. For a large part we set those recommendations, and we changed the structure of the Police Department. We literally changed the roles of individuals who come to the department. It was a huge change in the way we had done business.
So, tell us specifically about how you were able to have such a monumental change happen within the Police Department? Please be specific about what you did?
I had a very clear vision of what I thought we should be doing as a police department. So I laid out the broad guidelines of what I wanted, and then I let this group start developing what they thought was needed to flesh that out. And I sat in on meetings from time to time. But they updated me fairly frequently on where they were going, and I would tell them, I don’t want to go in that direction, I want to go in this direction.
And we were able to produce that plan that then led to pilot projects in each of two very different parts of the city. We took Rancho Bernardo and San Ysidro, and you could not find two more different communities in San Diego. We had staff out there working on this, training the officers, in what we wanted to do. Literally working with the community in those areas. And then making changes as we saw the need to make changes. And then we went to two more stations.
And then we went to the rest. And that produced the 49-percent drop in crime over that six-year period. The community started to direct the officers in what they wanted to see changed in their communities. And let me give you a quick example. Logan Heights, a community we normally had not had great relationships in because it was heavily Latino, and our officers didn’t speak Spanish. We had an adversarial relationship there for some time, so we formed a committee made up of the community and told them they would run the meetings, and we would have officers come in, and they would give us the priorities for the next two weeks. We said you have to prioritize. We fed back to them at the end of two weeks, what we actually had done. In the past, we never fed back to our community what we had done.
You get very different information from a community than you get from a police officer. It’s exactly what’s going on in the city right now. You go in for customer service, you’re getting customer service based on the way they think you want it. Or based on the way they want to give it. That’s not the way it should be. You bring in people who use that service, and you figure out what the end product should like, based on what you want, and on what you can do reasonably, what you can do lawfully, and then we change the structure around now, behind it.
Can you help us understand the link between your experiences with the Police Department and how you hit the ground running there, with the challenge and the circumstances that you face here in the city?
I think it’s exactly the same process. It’s broken and it’s not working. Obviously the first things that are going to happen are with the pension plan. You bring experts in to help you with that plan. And there are lot’s of people who want to help in San Diego. Ronne Froman [who has agreed to serve as Sanders’ chief of staff if he is elected] is excellent. She has restructured the Navy, she has restructured the city schools and she’ll restructure City Hall. You start talking to employees, you start talking to customers, and you start figuring out, you know, what is a reasonable amount of time for accomplishing something. If you come down to the city, and you want to get an answer, what things can be answered right there? Not what the answer is there right now, but what things should be able to be answered by the person that comes to the front desk? On the more difficult issues, you start building a process behind it. You figure out what customers want and need, and what employees can give. And then figure out what they need to support that. And it’s not going to be several layers of bureaucracy. Instead you need to flatten dramatically. So you got the decision-makers on the line level. So it’s only an exception that has to go very high in the organization, and it shouldn’t be too high, because it should be so flat, you really don’t need it to go high.
Politicians often talk about the first 100 days. What do your first 100 days look like? And how long before you would have a marked impact?
I think in the first 100 days we’ll see the audits out, if they’re not out already. Second thing is we’d already be back to Wall Street, and we’ll have the bond rating reestablished. Wall Street will be able to see a team in place, which is going to have a dramatic impact on the bond rate. The third thing is, the pension issue. Obviously that is going to include calling the city employees back together to help out. And it’s to their benefit to be part of the solution. It is also going to reflect a new pension system for new people. And then we see the first 100 days also, so we can stop the impact this has long-term. The third thing is you start the structural engineering. That’s not something that occurs overnight.
What’s your vision of the city at the end of your term? If you’re elected, how will we know that you’ve been successful?
You’ll see a pension system that is back in synch. You’ll see a city that has a structural budget that no longer has plugs in it. I think you’ll see citizens starting to look at whether they would like to see revenue increases in the terms of very specific, focused, targeted tax increases. Citizens will decide whether that’s what they want to see in a government that they now trust, because one, they see the budgeting and they see that they have an opportunity to make a difference in very targeted areas that they select. I think you’ll also see a city staff that feels good about their job and that feels like they’re being treated as professionals no matter what level in the organization they’re in. And I think you’ll find a city where the confidence is back. And we also have a very focused start on the housing issues, so that we can provide an affordable San Diego for our children and for other people.
Is America’s Finest City an outdated paradigm? If so, what is our new story?
That’s always been a goal. That’s just like America’s Finest Police Department, on the police cars. I was in on those discussions. I was a captain in the Police Department and someone said, we need a new motto on our police cars. We need something that sells the Police Department. It used to be “Your Safety Is Our Business.” And someone said, “Let’s say ‘America’s finest’.” And some of the other people at the table said, “Well, you know, we’re not America’s finest. I mean who are we to say we’re America’s finest?” What are we supposed to say? We’re in the top one-third? Or America’s second finest? Being America’s finest is something to strive for.
Jerry, you’ve touched upon the need for solutions to problems, and it seems there is a lot to do with culture, leadership and communication. Can you tell us more about the challenge that you see there?
Absolutely. Right now, the city employees’ morale is absolutely in the tank. Right now, Chula Vista has a hiring bonus out, for any San Diego cop that wants to come there. What we did in the Police Department and what I think is absolutely critical for the rest of the city is we created values for the department. We had a vision for what we wanted the San Diego Police Department to be, which included our respect for the community, our respect for our employees. We had 10 values, and we had a mission statement. We laminated that, put it on a card that every single employee in the Police Department got, whether you were a garage mechanic or a police officer or a clerk. They carried those laminated cards with them at all times. Every sergeant and above on the Police Department, whether it’s the supervisor or a sworn supervisor, got an 8-by-10 gold frame of those visions of values. People were really proud of having it on their desks, and then we mounted them in the lobby, and we mounted them in the line-up rooms where people went to work. We put them everywhere we thought our employees would see them. And we held ourselves accountable to them. And I can’t tell you how many times I had an officer come into my office, because I had an open-door policy, and said, “I was not treated according to this value of being honest.” I thought that made a bigger difference on the Police Department that I ever could imagine because we all held each other accountable, and it allowed us to treat the community in exactly the same way. And we made budgeting decisions based on those values.
If you’re elected, imagine the headlines two years from now. What would you like them to say?
I’d like them to say he kept his promise. He promised that we would work on the pension problem, and he’d be honest about it. And that we would have a solution in hand. I’d like them to say that the customer service has never been better in City Hall. I’d like them to say there has been a very honest discussion about housing and we’re starting to address those issues as a community. Because our future depends on that. I’d like them to say he has been out in the community more than any other mayor we’ve ever seen — talking to people in their community groups, at their houses and at their street fairs. Not them coming up to the office to see the mayor. If somebody has to pass through a metal detector, come up in the elevator to the 11th floor, and then come into your office and kind of walk real quietly, then you’re not getting the input.
When you push the system sometimes, the system pushes back. How are you going to break through that?
There are a couple of places the system is going to push back. Number one, I have never found top staff in an organization that thinks change is needed. And the reason for that is, they got to where they are based on the old system. And if you come in and say we need to change, what they automatically think is, he’s saying we haven’t done a good job. That’s not true, and I go to great pains to tell people it’s not that you haven’t done a great job in the past, it simply is that, circumstances have changed. And that system doesn’t work any longer. And it’s incumbent on us to come up with a system that does account for what we want to do now. I think that we’re going to get push back from the employees. Because I don’t believe they’ve been very trusted for awhile. I think they see themselves as being the villains of this whole debacle right now, which they’re not. But I think certain people are trying to make them into villains. And I think we’re going have to work very hard at building their morale.
Do we get to a certain point where we know whether or not Chapter 9 bankruptcy is an option, and how long before we know? What is the breaking point?
You know at some point there is going to be that tipping point. What that is, I still couldn’t tell you.
In everybody’s mind, the first question is about the pension fund. Do you see it as a problem or as a symptom?
Well, it’s obviously a symptom of the problem, and it’s been going on for a long time. In the past, the city has had to borrow from the pension system. And they simply can’t do that. You have to prioritize. And I think everything the city does is important. But you know what? The city was formed for fire and police protection, they were formed for the heavy infrastructure like streets and roads. They were reformed around those very specific issues. Everything has to be prioritized.
Another part of your plan is going back to renegotiate with the union leaders. And they say we’re not renegotiating anything. Why is that still part of the plan?
That’s what they’re saying right now. I think that’s smart posturing. Why would a union go back? They feel they’ve paid their fair share. I understand their reasoning. But each of those labor unions also knows that if this goes into bankruptcy or receivership, they lose control of that pension. And they have no opportunity to make changes at that point, and their members lose pension benefits. It’s no different than United [Airlines], it’s no different than a lot of these other municipal funds or state funds that are having some tremendous problems right now. It is not in the city employee’s best interest to have a labor leader say we’re not going back in no matter what.
What is your definition of leadership, and second of all, why should people vote for you?
I have told groups you don’t need to trust anything I tell you. You can look back on my track record, and everything I said I would do, I’ve done. I did it in the Police Department, I did it at United Way and I did it at Red Cross. I’ve got a demonstrated track record for turning organizations around. I’ve got a demonstrated track record for being honest with the public or being transparent with the public. Whether it was the thousand volunteers on the Police Department. Whether it was at United Way where we cut the staff, and it’s hard to do this. It is really hard to cut people you like. But if you want an organization to survive, you have to make those decisions. At Red Cross, we fought with national so that we could put out every single bit of financial information that was requested by the press. I’m the only one with this experience of this broad sector of 35 years in the city that has done that.
One of the other things that are obvious is that the public is fed up with the whole system. You’ve drawn the support of many of Dick Murphy’s former backers, and a lot of people say you’re in the same mold as Dick Murphy, a nice guy with a long line of experience in the very public eye. Why aren’t you Dick Murphy and how can you be an agent of change in City Hall?
First of all, I can bring change because I’ve done it. Secondly, I believe change only comes with crisis. If there is no tension, there is no change. I used to say that when I was out in front of community groups, and it would be very unpopular. And I don’t mean just a little unhappy, I mean screaming and yelling. And I went to every community group meeting that they ever invited me to, no matter how angry they were. Because I felt they had a right to that.
I like people thinking about me being a nice guy. But I have made tougher decisions than anyone else running. I made decisions that affected people’s lives every day, and it affected the quality of life for the community. Nobody else has done that. A judge [Murphy was a judge] gets to consider all the information, they get to consider risks, they look in law books, they do all of that, they don’t have to make a decision on the spot in the middle of the night, and I’ve made them at critical instances where I was the only one who could make that decision. So, I want people to get rid of that notion that I’m not tough. Because that’s just absolutely wrong.
The second part of it is, you know, I got a wide range of support and I’m proud of that support. I don’t have a checkbook so I can’t write a seven-figure check. So, I’ve got to take the contributions. But if you’ll look at that list of contributions at $10, $50, $99, they’re not all $300. And I don’t have organized labor that is willing to write a check so I am out talking to every single individual I can find in San Diego. And I don’t care whether it’s the vote, whether it’s 10 bucks or whether it’s a $300 check. Everybody has the same access. Nobody buys me for 300 bucks, I can guarantee you.