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Saturday, June 23, 2007 | Jim Janney, 51, was elected as Imperial Beach’s mayor last November. He is the chief diplomat for a city that finds itself viewed as both famous and infamous. The city is prominently featured in the new HBO show “John from Cincinnati.” But the county’s southernmost city was also featured recently in a Forbes magazine story on ocean water quality. Forbes described the beach near Imperial Beach as one of the country’s “Death Beaches.”

Janney has lived everywhere from Hong Kong to Switzerland. He sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about his city’s reputation, its role in the new HBO show and how he thinks the media helps propagate the city’s pollution woes. On a recent weekday, he dropped by City Hall, wearing a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and loafers. A motto on his shirt reads: No Bad Days, Imperial Beach, CA.

He is talking when the interview begins.

JANNEY: There was a (casting) call out the day before yesterday. Get this. They wanted bald people wearing suits to look like attorneys. And I said, I don’t put a suit on unless I have to. I’m on my bicycle today, so I just go by and see how things are going.

I’m curious whether you have any thoughts about what the show has done for the city — both for the people living here and the impressions of people outside.

For the people, there’s some that feel like we’ve been a little inconvenienced. But the set people, the crew have all been as accommodating as possible. I think the impression of Imperial Beach, what I’ve seen of the show, the scenic part looks very good. The storyline, that’s anybody’s opinion. I’m not going to get into the storyline part of it. Whether you want to watch it is up to you — I’m watching it to see how Imperial Beach looks. I think it looks very, very good. We have a beautiful site down there.

Do you think the show reinforces stereotypes? The New York Times’ review of the show said the show was set in Imperial Beach, a “rundown surfing community.”

I found out the way David Milch discovered Imperial Beach was from that book, Tijuana Straits. And it was written about what Imperial Beach was like in 1970. Every beach, coastal surfing community has gone through periods where they’ve gone through a lot of change. And in 1970, Imperial Beach was a lot different. But it’s a lot different today than it was. What they’re trying to portray in some of the story line is not Imperial Beach. But every community has its own unique characters that live there. We’ve always had that. People do what they feel sometimes, but everyone lives within the law.

I think in this case, HBO has a storyline to put together. That doesn’t mean it’s what the community is like.

Do you expect a boost in the city’s fame from the show?

I think it might bring a little more recognition to where Imperial Beach is. … The perception of Imperial Beach, our reputation is worse in San Diego County than it is outside. The reputation of the 1970s or before — we’ve had fantastic improvements since then.

Are you going to try to sneak in as an extra?

I have no intention of it. (He laughs.) I’m not looking for that kind of fame.

Imperial Beach has a $14.1 million budget, not a huge amount of money.

We’re always going to be a small city. Your small coastal city in California is mostly residential, so you don’t have a lot of income generators. Some cities such as Coronado have a large [hotel tax] base. Our commercial district needs to have a little improvement to bring some revenue, and the market will drive that. The government is not supposed to make a profit. … You keep some reserves, but you spend everything you bring in.

Describe this city in a word or two.

You could say it’s paradise within reach. And another way, you could say it’s very eclectic. Whether it be the people, the residential development that has occurred — we don’t have all red-tile roofs, we don’t have all beige, sand-colored buildings. It’s built out over time, so your neighbors don’t look identical to you, whether it’s the way they live, the way they act. It’s an eclectic town. But it is, it’s paradise within reach. It’s affordability within reach. And it’s a beautiful spot. I’ve always told people, it’s the same Pacific Ocean as it is in Coronado. We’ve got to deal with the fact that where we’re located affects us a little bit more, but it’s Mother Nature’s ocean out there and she does a good job maintaining it.

The pollution issue — the sewage coming down from Mexico. Do you see that as a major problem?

In my opinion, it takes one positive comment to overcome the 10 negative comments that are put out there. We have that monkey on our back because it’s something that’s so easy for the media to focus on. This whole thing with Forbes magazine that we’re a “Death Beach.” The mouth of the Tijuana River, nobody uses that as the beach to go hang out and put your towel down with the kids and picnic basket. The public beach, that wasn’t closed more than anywhere else when it was raining. When it rains anywhere in San Diego County the beach is closed. It’s so easy to pick on that one issue. It’s terrible that it’s that way, but we’re located next to a foreign country. In Mexico, the funding is not there to do as much.

You said that the beaches here were not closed more than anywhere else. But that was certainly not the case in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, the beaches were closed in Imperial Beach for 83 days.

Without having the data to look at — what I’ve seen, I’m very happy with the way the county environmental people have been. They take (water) samples and it takes a long time for them to come back. If they sample on Monday and perceive a problem and post it with a warning or a closure, come back in 72 hours — was the sample a pollution sample or did they open it back up? I’d like to challenge the number if it was 83, but I’d have to sit down with a lot of paperwork and a lot of experts and say — sure we should have been closed this many days, but not the full 83. It’s difficult because you try to be safe. … I think we’ve been more proactive to close or warn on it than other places. I think we’re looking out for everybody — the people of Imperial Beach, Imperial Beach’s reputation and the people who want to get in the water.

Is there a solution to that problem? Can you envision a day when people say: “Do you remember when the beaches here used to be closed way back when?”

It might be a lot longer than we hope. You’re talking about a massive watershed that goes way up into Mexico, and it’s going to pick up stuff when it’s wet. The thing to prevent is to not let effluent flow through the valley during the dry season. I can’t stop Mother Nature from raining.

You point to the role of the media in addressing the pollution problem. Can you expand on that?

Part of the job of the media is to present facts and tell people what really happened. The other part of the job is to sell newspapers, TV time, whatever it might be. Headlines do that a little bit. To put out there once a month that Imperial Beach is a fine, great place and the mayor thinks it’s fantastic is not going to sell. But to sit there and say we’ve got a problem, we’re a Death Beach, whatever, it sells. It’s something to read. It’s great to sell that paper but look at what’s really going on.

But the media is not causing the sewage to wash up here.

No you’re not. But to harp on that all the time is not what Imperial Beach is all about. The public beach does not get closed that much more. You’re right, it will close a little more than Coronado. … But Mother Nature is what’s running it.

You use the word harp, that the media harps on it. But I would say that the media tries to bring attention to it.

Let’s say you were going to take it on as a news story today, and you dug up the facts (about how often beaches are closed compared to how long they are actually polluted). And it really did present it that what I’m talking about is more realistic. If you discovered that, would that be something you would put out there? Is that what would be put out to explain where we’re really at? I have a hard time getting that information out. What do I do, put out a press release? There’s talks about getting some of these (water quality) samples done with results back in 24 hours. That would make a big difference at a place like Imperial Beach.

Coronado gets named as one of the best beaches in the country every year. How can we be eight miles away and there be such a difference? It’s a hard one.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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