Monday, June 18, 2007 | After Jerry Sanders won election in the fall of 2005, his transition team sat down to draw up the new structure of the Mayor’s Office. Sanders’ running mate and his second in command, Ronne Froman, ran the meetings and sketched out her ideas.
Those with political experience in the room were struck by what Froman’s organizational chart lacked: political people. One particular position familiar to nearly all political offices was absent: the chief of staff.
“There were three or four of us who kept saying there’s a political thing you’ve got to understand,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University, a member of the mayor’s transition team.
Eventually, the political element was added to the employee roster. But Froman’s dislike for politics never dissipated in her year-and-a-half tenure at City Hall, and the Mayor’s Office searched throughout that time for the right mix for its vast organizational goals and its aggressive political activities as it undertook an ambitious financial recovery effort under intense public scrutiny.
Twice in its first 18 months atop City Hall, the Sanders administration redrew its organizational chart to first bring its political functions under Froman’s purview and then, four months ago, to remove them.
Now, Froman is on her way out. Interviews with more than a dozen sources inside and around the Mayor’s Office suggest that, while Froman wasn’t expected to remain throughout Sanders’ full tenure, her abridged stay at the mayor’s side was complicated by the one thing she didn’t care for — politics.
The former Navy rear admiral said in an interview Friday that she originally thought the Mayor’s Office could make its decisions based solely on its operations and management. She said she learned quickly that every decision had to be made through a political filter.
“I’m asking myself, ‘Can you run a city like a business when there’s so many agendas that are swirling around?’ ” she said. “When you run something business-like, you run it calm. I’m not sure that this political environment wants things calmed down.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from. I can’t define it. There’s some reason to keep this churning.”
Neither Froman nor Sanders had ever held elected office before 2005, though both had decades of experience in government — Froman in the Navy and Sanders in the Police Department. To handle his political organization, Sanders brought in two veterans from former Mayor Susan Golding’s office, Kris Michell as director of community and legislative affairs and Fred Sainz as communications director.
Froman chose not to create a chief of staff position traditional to most political offices. Instead she gave herself a title more commonly found in the business world: chief operating officer.
It seemed natural. By all accounts, politics aren’t in Froman’s blood. She’s a meat-and-potatoes manager and rarely stepped outside of the bureaucracy for public appearances or media interviews.
Politics do, however, flow thick through the corridors of City Hall.
Froman’s counterparts at the other end of the Mayor’s Office have a reputation for a cutthroat brand of politics, and during her tenure there have been enduring reports of tensions between the two wings — something both Froman and Michell quickly dismiss.
Froman said she accomplished her three-year plan in 18 months and put the structures in place to accomplish the mayor’s financial reform efforts. She said she’s leaving because she sets organizations up for change — but doesn’t run them for the long haul.
Yet, as she declared her work accomplished, Froman also lamented not being able to run the city the way she had hoped because of politics.
“I think it’s a lot … stronger than we originally had envisioned,” Froman said.
And even the timing of her exit, in a way, was political. She said she knew that leaving any closer to the 2008 election could be a political hit for her boss. “I don’t want to hurt Jerry in any way,” Froman said. “I love the man and he’s doing an incredible job.”
Staffers said the office structure caused some confusion about Froman and Michell’s roles and, at times, the management and political wings offered conflicting directions.
While some observers thought Froman should’ve been out communicating more with the public, others said she wasn’t compatible with the office’s penchant for spin.
That Froman left before Sanders’ last day as mayor wasn’t a surprise to many familiar with local politics — but the fact that she is exiting after a year-and-a-half is.
“Looking back on it, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. She doesn’t seem to stay a long time in places. I think she got burned out. And I think she got pushed by the political people,” Sparrow said. “I think with the election coming up, the political people are going to be in even greater control than they are now.”
He called bringing in Froman “the best thing Sanders has done.”
Her resignation dominated San Diego’s political world last week. The woman whose immense popularity with the region’s business and political elite made her a choice running mate won’t be around to complete the mayor’s financial plan or highlight his 2008 reelection campaign.
Froman’s 31 years in the Navy, including a stint as San Diego’s “Navy mayor,” and high level positions at the San Diego Unified School District and the local Red Cross earned her respect of the city’s elite as an agent of change. It was Froman’s presence that had reportedly tipped the scales for some of the big money campaign contributors who supported Sanders.
She said she’s become used to moving from place to place rather rapidly, something the Navy taught her.
But that style also gave renewed voice to critics who questioned whether she left organizations without fulfilling their goals. At City Hall, a management team has been put in place, the mayor’s streamlining process has begun, a five-year financial plan has been adopted and two of the city’s long-delayed audits have been released.
But, with the ink still drying on the 2008 budget, it remains to be seen whether the systems in place will facilitate Sanders’ plan to pay down the city’s massive long-term debts without cutting city services or raising taxes.
“This is who I am,” Froman said. “Staying and running something is not something I wanted to do.”
Alan Bersin, the airport authority chairman who hired Froman while he was school superintendent, said she accomplished their goals in her short tenure at as chief of business operations at San Diego Unified.
“She was terrific in every respect, as a leader and a colleague,” he said.
Still, some questioned whether Froman the manager was prepared for life at City Hall.
“From the beginning Ronne was in over her head at the city and because of her popularity with the downtown establishment she remained despite lacking the skills necessary to effectively to run the city bureaucracy,” said a source close to the situation who was granted anonymity in order to be able speak freely. “To suggest that it was an internal struggle that lead to the departure is certainly a lot easier than the mayor admitting, ‘Whoops we may have brought in the wrong person for the job at the beginning.’”
Froman isn’t the first in the Sanders administration to exit a high-level post earlier than expected.
When he was hired in 2005, former Auditor John Torell promised the City Council he’d stay on for between three and five years to help revamp a financial-reporting structure that had left the city the target of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.
But in January, Torell left the Mayor’s Office after less than two years on the job, saying the office favored spin over substance.
The mayor’s chief financial officer, Jay Goldstone, has since taken over that post on an interim basis; the Mayor’s Office hopes to have a new auditor by September. Now, with Froman leaving, Goldstone will also take over the post of chief operating officer in the interim. Froman recommended that he take over her role permanently, but the Mayor’s Office has said it will indeed search for a replacement for Froman.