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Monday, Oct. 8, 2007 | I read with interest on Friday Evan McLaughlin’s article (“In Mayor’s Office, Politics is Take-It or Leave-It“) which explained how executives from other fields of endeavor have not made it in this mayoral administration, in large part “as a result of their apparent inability or distaste for political maneuvering.” DUH!
While I concede that politics is a tough game, since when is “politics” the primary consideration in the management of municipal government? The question is rhetorical, but, the answer is specific: December 2005. That is when Fred Sainz and Kris Michell became additions once again to city employment in Mayor Jerry Sanders’ administration.
Now, they will have you believe our woes are due to the new strong mayor form of government, that it is different, and, that we haven’t learned how to do it yet. However, I do not believe that is the problem at all. There is a mix of strong mayor and city manager forms of government all over the United States that do not operate in the kind of chaos that we accept here in San Diego.
Here is what I think: Jerry Sanders is a decent man, but he has been the victim of some appallingly bad “political” advice. This advice — dispensed by re-tread political operatives from the Susan Golding Administration — has both driven talented people out of the Mayor’s Office and caused the mayor’s once-promising administration to careen wildly off-course.
At the core of the advice handed out by these political hacks is one central thought: The mayor should appease wild man City Attorney Mike Aguirre, avoid tackling hard issues like the airport, the long-term structural budget deficit, and the Chargers, and generally remain above the fray as he coasts to an easy re-election in 2008.
In hindsight, of course, the staggeringly poor quality of this advice is obvious. The attempt to appease Aguirre, which went on for almost two years, has resulted in Aguirre embarrassing the mayor time and again and allowed the city attorney to behave on most days as if he, not Sanders, is mayor. Most people understand that the only way to deal with a bully is to punch him hard in the nose, but the people who understand this apparently do not include the go-along-to-get-along political advisors who are guiding the mayor.
In addition, the mayor’s relentless ducking of many of the other difficult issues facing the city has not served him well. Instead of being seen as the aggressive, proactive leader that he should be, the mayor is now seen by many as an indecisive leader, willing to allow hard problems to fester rather than risking political capital to solve them.
If Jerry Sanders used his instincts, the ones he had when he went into office, this would become a much better city. If he was driven by what he believed was important when he first embarked on his endeavor to become mayor, we would all be better served. Instead, we have a city being inundated by 10-second sound bites and public relations e-mails of questionable substance, written by people who couldn’t read a financial statement if their life depended on it. They don’t know the difference between a POB and an ATM, but, they tell us how the numbers work?
It is offensive! And, it should be embarrassing to the mayor, but, he doesn’t seem to notice. We now have an administration where public relations people attend budget meetings so they can “clear” the information before it gets disseminated. People with finance and budget experience must get clearance from the political hacks to let the public know what is going on, ostensibly because we are not smart enough to understand the information ourselves. For example, the PR people call this year’s budget a “full frontal attack” on inefficiency (KPBS). They claim more than 670 permanent job cuts — WOW! What an accomplishment. But, they don’t bother to detail the fact that those 670 jobs were mostly vacant positions anyway and added no new cash savings to the city (Patton would be impressed with that kind of frontal attack — of course, we would still be in North Africa today).
Thus, as their story goes, our problems are getting solved as “they” keep us properly informed, not those horrible finance professionals, who don’t know how to properly explain numbers to the public.
Additionally, in the Sainz/Michell administration, job security is determined not by experience, not by education, not by a particular skill set, it is determined by how political you are. So in exit interviews it is now acceptable to tell people that there was nothing wrong with the work they did, they just “weren’t political enough.”
Rear Admiral Ronnie Froman, with a wealth of administrative and bureaucratic experience, is gone. Private sector land-use attorney Jim Waring, with a wealth of practical experience, wasn’t suited to the job (Land Use and Economic Development Chief) because he doesn’t have the right kind of experience (read political experience). Marcella Escobar-Eck, Rick Reynolds, Lance Wade: all gone for “political” mistakes, or, for not being political enough.
The incompetence at City Hall is not a result of the professional managers trying to navigate through difficult circumstances. It is due to political hacks trying to manage municipal government based solely on 10-second sound bites, feeding the public a steady diet of B.S. where the numbers will never add up properly, then getting rid of the professionals for not standing firmly with them when the inexplicable is simply inexplicable.
And, as we lose all of the professional and institutional experience for our city, how do we compensate to make sure government still functions well? We double the size of the public relations staff to crank out more 10-second sound bites and mayoral e-mails.
No, the chaos in San Diego is not because of the strong mayor form of government that we are learning how to work with as they would have us believe, it is the because of the strong political hack form of government we are learning how to work with (and accept) that is the real problem.
Jerry, get rid of the hacks! Put some responsible people in place who can make a few mistakes (and survive) while helping you to put together the kind of municipal government we all want. Enough is enough.
Dan Shea is the owner of Donovan’s Steakhouse and co-founder of the Fans, Taxpayers and Business Alliance. voiceofsandiego.org considers all op-eds concerning local issues for publication. If you’d like to submit one, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter.