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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007In January 2006, when I shared with friends that San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and COO Ronne Froman had offered me the job of Chief Operating Officer for Land Use and Economic Development, the usual reaction was surprise that I would want to work in government in general and the dysfunctional government of San Diego in particular. Why put up with the hassle to work in a system where, if history is a guide, nothing could actually get done?
This reaction surprised me. The commitment was only for 34 months, until the next mayor came into office in December 2008. Why not try to serve the city during a time of upheaval and crisis? Frankly, I thought the job would be a great challenge, satisfying and fun.
Yet, by May 2007, only 15 months into the term, I had decided to leave. The only question was when. The discussions were that I would continue to work until the Council’s August recess and submit my resignation at the end of August, before Council reconvened after Labor Day. Jay Goldstone and I had worked out the final details prior to my leaving for an August vacation.
What happened in 15 short and incredibly busy months that transformed the job from the best, and in many ways most satisfying one I had ever had, into something I was leaving with 14 months to go? Firstly, it wasn’t Sunroad, which I’ll discuss later. And, I want to emphasize, it wasn’t because of a conflict with Mayor Sanders.
The operational premise of the team the mayor and COO assembled in early 2006 was that we would do as much as possible until December 2008 to arrest San Diego’s then continuing decline, to reorganize the city’s operations to increase efficiency and to begin what we quickly recognized would be a multiple administration process of restoring the city’s finances. If successful, the city and its citizens would begin to regain a sense of confidence and to feel good about our city’s potential.
The process was extraordinarily intense. There were so many problems and so much to learn. The short 34 month timeline created its own pressure to “move, move, move.”
But there was also a sense of optimism. The primary source of my own optimism was the great city staff I inherited. Although I was an outsider with no government experience, I was warmly welcomed and supported from the first day. Once staff realized that I would support decisions and take responsibility for the tough issues, morale improved and the enthusiasm became contagious. Sure, there are exceptions. But by and large the women and men I had the opportunity to work beside were superb people who wanted to do their best, often under difficult circumstances and in the face of unrelenting criticism for things they had nothing to do with.
What changed during those 15 months was a gradual transition from an operations-driven focus to an increasingly political filter for all decisions and actions. Looking back, I realize that once the decision was made that the mayor would seek a second term, the opportunity for bold action or change in my areas of operation was gone. Real estate and land use issues are so toxic and controversial that the conventional political wisdom, repeated endlessly to the mayor by the political “experts,” is to avoid them during election cycles. These issues generally lack the urgency of budgets, or labor negotiations or public safety. They are best avoided.
Personally, I disagree with this perspective. If it were up to me, the political consultants would not be allowed into the building!
Since I never, ever was going to be in city government for a second term, and had come into government to move issues through the system for public debate and legislative action, if the “action items” were going to be deferred until after the election, there was no reason to stay.
If we as voters are honest with ourselves, it is we who support this conventional political wisdom. We may from time to time criticize inaction by our elected officials; but that criticism is a whisper compared to the screams and ranting that follow an unpopular action. We say we want change, or at least dialogue about possible change.
But I can tell you from the inside that that sentiment doesn’t hold up in reality. Change necessitates bold action. Bold action inevitably includes some real or perceived failures, which are then, especially in San Diego today, turned into a loud and vicious inquisition.
The political world is the only place I have worked where mistakes are not viewed as an inevitable part of human endeavor, but rather are automatically labeled to be the result of evil intention or some perceived political quid pro quo. If we as citizens would allow the elected officials some latitude or at least a little benefit of the doubt, the political consultants, who have never run a department or actually done anything tangible in their careers, would be ignored. Then maybe we could work collectively with open minds and flexible positions to maximize our community’s potential, rather than engaging in unproductive attacks and conflicts.