Thursday, May 10, 2007 | Not long ago I tried to paint a funny little picture of the mayor playing a game of computer solitaire while parrying some supposedly tough questions on the phone from radio talk-show host Roger Hedgecock.

This time, when I met with Mayor Jerry Sanders for our second “Conversation with the Mayor,” he laughed about it. Hedgecock had later given him grief for the revelation that the mayor doesn’t give his full attention to their regular on-air interviews.

But we didn’t joke around for long. I had a list of questions I wanted to get in. And I had about 27 minutes.

First off, I had solicited questions from readers for the mayor and many of the ones I asked were culled from your responses. Much thanks.

The mayor defended the spending priorities and salaries at the city’s Centre City Development Corp., or CCDC. He said it would be wrong to direct funds away from the development subsidiary of the city to fund City Hall’s other needs. He told me he didn’t even know you could elect a charter review commission to revamp the city’s governing laws. Obviously then, he never considered allowing voters to empanel the commission before he appointed the one that just recently began its work.

He said he thinks that the City Council needs to either add between one and three new members or eliminate a member. But it can’t continue with eight.

The mayor supports a bid from the city’s hoteliers that would allow them to tax their visitors and spend the money promoting San Diego and their hotels as a destination for the world’s travelers and conventioneers. But, he said, he wouldn’t necessarily cut the city’s existing expenditures on that mission. That leaves open, of course, the question of what benefit it would have for taxpayers.

He said he would not support the city attorney’s push to get subpoena power and that he still supports construction of a new main library downtown.

But then, my time was up. City Councilwoman Toni Atkins was waiting in the other room to speak to Sanders.

Rather than try to interpret the conversation for you, I thought I’d pull a couple of snippets as a transcript. Here were my questions to the mayor regarding CCDC:

Scott Lewis: CCDC recently gave its director a $65,000 bonus. Yet the operation is really no more than a department of the city. In essence, you’re the executive director of the redevelopment corporation and the City Council is its board. It would be unthinkable, though, for you to give one of your managers a bonus like that. And the City Council has rejected raises of its own. Some people like Donna Frye and Peter Q. Davis have said they think that CCDC should have to start to pay down some of the debt on the ballpark and take over some of those obligations. Yet you’ve been sort of deaf to those concerns — at least, you’ve ignored them.
Mayor Jerry Sanders: Ignored, that’s a strong statement. I’d say I’ve actively opposed.

SL: Why?
Mayor: If we go back and look at what CCDC was developed for, we see it’s doing exactly what we’ve asked it to do. It was developed in the 1970s to turn downtown from a place that nobody would go to after dark to a place that is now one of the most vibrant places in San Diego. We asked it to turn into a place that would take the housing overload from other communities in San Diego and that’s exactly what it’s done. It’s starting to produce and been producing a lot of cash for the city: the sales tax, [transient occupancy taxes], jobs, housing units. It’s done all of those things. The reason you go outside the city to do something like that instead — part of redevelopment we manage inside the city and those people are paid inside the city’s pay scale but when you’re doing a CCDC-type thing — which requires vision and the skill to manage complex issues — you want to get the best people you can. So you take it outside the city’s bureaucracy so that you can do that.

And then you’re judged on your performance. I think we have probably one of the best downtowns around right now. A lot of places have tried to redevelop their downtowns and failed. We tried and succeeded beyond belief.

SL: Are you saying then you are unwilling to ask them to sacrifice any of those?
Mayor: For every dollar we might take out of CCDC, we would lose about $7 dollars in leverage. I’m unwilling to now — when we have to put ourselves back on sound financial footing — I’m unwilling to take money out of a long-term investment. As far as I’m concerned, that’s like talking money out of your IRA. I don’t think we have to do that, as long we’re willing to adopt the budget like the one we have and we’re willing to hold the line.

SL: Does that mean you support construction of a new main library?
Mayor: I do support it but not with general fund money. I’m helping with the fundraising effort. I’d love to see a new library down there but it can’t be with general fund money.

SL: The cost of the pedestrian bridge CCDC is trying to build down there has doubled because of construction costs and yet they haven’t done any new estimates for the library.
Mayor: They did a new estimate on it about a year and a half ago. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we have to make a decision on whether we can raise the additional money for that or not. If we can’t, then we need to release that $80 million back to CCDC for projects.

SL: But not to the city?
Mayor: That’s not the city’s money at this point.

SL: It could pay for the ballpark, which the city is paying the debt on out of the general fund.
Mayor: You could have it pay a lot of things. It could pay for the North Embarcadero project. There are a lot of uses for it potentially.

Now you see what the mayor’s doing here. Right now the city of San Diego’s general fund has to fork over the annual debt payments on the downtown ballpark. But the ballpark is the quintessential type of redevelopment effort that CCDC claims as its mission. The mayor and City Council are essentially allowing CCDC to continue to plan for projects downtown like the new main library, the pedestrian bridge and various parks, in place of paying off the amenities that have already been built like the ballpark.

The mayor said he would never support building a new expensive library downtown if it took money away from the city’s general fund. But by giving CCDC money that could have gone to relieve the general fund of its annual debt obligations, he is in fact paying for the library with general fund money.

I also asked the mayor about his support for a so-called business-improvement district for hoteliers. The move would allow the tourist industry to levy a small fee on the people who stay in local hotel rooms. This would be in addition to the 10.5 percent of their room fee that visitors already are charged. But the additional money would not be used by the city to pay for things like roads and police and other city services. The money would go to promoting San Diego as a destination with marketing and sales campaigns.

The mayor, though, said something I thought was surprising. He said that he wouldn’t proportionately lower what the city’s already spending out of its general fund on those efforts.

I asked him why this was a good deal for the taxpayers. After all, the hotel tax would essentially increase but there’d be only a tangential benefit to the city’s bottom line. By that I mean, supposedly more tourists would come because of the great advertisements that the hoteliers would run with their new money.

The mayor pointed out that taxpayers have had their chance to do that and rejected it twice.

Here’s a short exchange we had:

Mayor: It’s not a taxpayer issue if the hotels are assessing themselves. It’s only a taxpayer issue if it becomes a tax that we vote for. So, in my estimation, this is no different than any other business-improvement district in town — the Adams Ave. Business Improvement District, the Little Italy Association — they’ve got a great business-improvement district. Taxpayers citywide don’t vote on these, the business owners in those areas do.

SL: So would you be willing to cut all of the funding for ConVis and other promotional efforts out of the city’s budget if they do get this business-improvement district?
Mayor: You know, what I’ve talked to them about is, you know, this is going to help them out. We’re going to get some money back from it. But, in the long term, we don’t spend any where near what cities like Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York spend on convention and visitor issues. We’ve got to be spending a certain amount in addition to what the [tourist maintenance district] will spend to market ourselves even more effectively.

I thought that was interesting. The mayor said that the new tourist levy would pay for things like the annual Holiday Bowl event but he didn’t think the city would cut down substantially on its own spending to promote the city as a destination.

Score one for the hoteliers.

Finally, this.

I’ve been rather passionate about the city’s need to re-examine its governing charter. Right now, the mayor has only a token veto over City Council legislation. He can veto an ordinance, but the City Council can override it with the same number of votes the council gathered to pass it. That’s just ludicrous. Either have a veto or not.

There are plenty of issues like that. A smart, diverse and engaged group of the city’s residents needs to get together to propose changes to the city charter.

The mayor has empanelled a group. He asked each of the City Council members to put up three nominees and he chose one from each of their offerings. Plus, he put up his own nominees.

It’s not a bad group. But organizations like the League of Women Voters and the labor-friendly Center on Policy Initiatives have threatened to form their own committees to get the job done. Those committees would have just as much right to propose changes as the mayor’s committee.

This could have been cleaner.

The mayor’s Charter Review Committee, as an appointed body, will only be able to propose to the City Council what changes it thinks should be made. The City Council, then, can decide to put on the ballot whatever it wants.

The last time there was a charter review committee, in 1988, the City Council disregarded virtually all of its suggestions — even after promising it would put all of them on the ballot for voters to consider.

Instead of appointing a committee at the mercy of the City Council like this, the city’s residents can themselves empanel a committee with a citywide election. This elected Charter Review Committee would make recommendations for charter changes that automatically would appear on a ballot for residents to consider.

I asked the mayor why he didn’t want to go that route.

“I guess this shows my ignorance but I’ve never heard of an elected charter commission. I’ve never seen one of those,” he said.

I did my best to explain the background. Sanders said what I described would take too long.

“I don’t think we can afford to wait to elect people to a charter commission,” he said. “Our next election is in 2008. That means nothing would go on the ballot until 2010. I think that’s too long to wait for some of the things that need to be done.”

Thing is, though, if the mayor’s process disenfranchises too many people, we’ll end up waiting a whole lot longer for real reform.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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