Friday, Jan. 11, 2008 | Mayor Jerry Sanders showed off a more ambitious side Thursday evening in delivering his third State of the City address, mixing in the sort of big-ticket ideas normally expected of a big city mayor with his standard meat-and-potatoes updates on city finances.

With his campaign aides preparing for a reelection campaign, the mayor dedicated the first half of his speech to updating residents on his efforts to restore City Hall’s financial health — the issue that had led to the resignation of his predecessor and dominated his first two addresses.

Going point-by-point, Sanders compared the city’s finances and other troubled spots two years ago to what they are now. It was an acknowledged attempt to remind voters, and critics, that his reform process can seem slow one day at time.

“I report progress, not perfection, but measurable progress,” Sanders said. “And therefore tonight I look to the future with great hope.”

The mayor’s first State of the City address in 2006 was a detailed cataloguing of the city’s problems, marking the first time the city’s leader had with great depth laid out all the sins that had led San Diego to a political and financial crisis. His second speech declared the state of the city “unsatisfactory.”

He used the third speech, delivered five months before the June primary, to sound an optimistic note and try to wax inspirational. San Diego’s 34th mayor declared “the state of our city is this: the era of decay and neglect is at an end.”

Sanders then bounded into new territory. The mayor announced his plan to lay the groundwork for an expansion to the Convention Center, the beginning of what he said would be a 10-year process to support the region’s tourism industry. He said he would ease border congestion by trying to add new ports of entry and convene a summit of Southern California mayors to support a state bond for water infrastructure. The mayor also announced with Supervisor Ron Roberts the creation of a committee of local politicians to form a plan for regional cooperation in fighting fires.

With the exception of a proposal to rebuild City Hall last year, the mayor’s previous speeches had been largely absent such thinking. And he’s dealt little publicly with the City Hall proposal since floating it a year ago, leaving its details to be handled by the downtown redevelopment agency.

“The mayor has been in office long enough now not to just talk about the financial issues,” said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “He has to set out his vision and plan for the future.”

Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said the mayor felt he had enough successes under his belt to branch out. Others heard the sound of the oncoming campaign in between Sanders’ words.

“This was absolutely a campaign speech,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. “It talked about vision without a true, substantive plan how to do it.”

To date, Sanders appears to face his biggest competition from within his own party from businessman Steve Francis. No prominent Democrats have declared their intentions to run.

Sanders has faced criticism for failing to enact his promised changes swiftly enough and for not taking a bolder leadership role region wide on issues such as 2006’s search for a new airport.

To that end, the mayor went through a laundry list of items he said he’d accomplished since taking office: reforming the city’s real estate department; reorganizing its contracting and purchasing departments into one department; instituting a tracking system to count city employees; fighting for funds in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento; and finding permanent savings of $50 million a year in the budget.

“However, the hard truth is our job is not yet done and our path remains challenging. To reach our goal of financial stability and restored public trust, we must stay the course,” Sanders said.

The mayor also cited the completion of three of the four outstanding audits blocking the city’s access to Wall Street.

In last year’s speech, the mayor promised it would be “a year of action.” At that point, he expected the city to have its credit rating back and return to Wall Street by summer 2007. The city remains stranded from Wall Street and that goal carried over again into this year’s speech.

With major issues like this still pending, Councilwoman Donna Frye said it wasn’t yet time for a “happy talk speech.” “There’s nothing wrong with inspiring people but that comes after you’ve addressed in a comprehensive manner the city’s financial troubles,” she said.

Likewise, the mayor talked about the implementation of the privatization measure he convinced voters to approve in 2006, known as managed competition. It has taken longer to come to fruition than expected.

The year also saw the mayor land in the first scandal of his administration, the brouhaha over Sunroad’s Kearny Mesa office tower, and the exiting of a sizable portion of the mayor’s top aides. However, the year closed on a quiet note.

Herb Johnson, CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission, said he thought the mayor had made nice progress over two years. “Confucius said not to fear slow progress but to fear no progress, and I think Jerry’s done a great job,” he said.

Sanders cited his five-year plan as a major accomplishment, saying that never before had the city had a plan for paying off its long-term debts and refurbishing its aged infrastructure. To that end, he said that he would release Friday an updated version of his five-year plan. And he would increase the amount of money set aside for those long-term obligations from $102 million in this year’s budget to $146 million in next year’s.

Notably absent in this year’s speech was the extension of an olive branch to City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Instead, he got the stick.

On numerous occasions, the mayor called out Aguirre either by name or by insinuation, with his one-time ally sitting only three seats to the mayor’s right on the stage. Sanders pointed out Aguirre’s losses in court in his pension case, blamed the city attorney for not codifying other pension concessions made by unions and rebuked Aguirre’s calls for mandatory water conservation.

Sanders’ first speech two years ago borrowed heavily from Aguirre’s playbook, joining with Aguirre on a number of controversial initiatives and looking more radical than the Sanders from the campaign trail.

With his third speech, Sanders was decidedly more mainstream — though perhaps a bit more poetic than usual from within the confines of the newly renovated Balboa Theatre in downtown. He opened his speech, given on the 50th birthday of his wife Rana Sampson, by saying the building was the “perfect metaphor for San Diego.”

“Like this great theater, our city had fallen into disrepair because of neglect and short-sighted decisions. This theater was rescued from disrepair and restored to greatness because men and women came together and applied their talents to its restoration,” he said. “In the coming year, we will continue doing the same thing for our city.”

Sanders continued: “The renovation has begun. And completion is in sight. We still have big challenges ahead. But we know our destination and we are on our way.”

For some, the theater itself was Thursday’s attraction.

“I actually came to see the theater,” said Liz Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street, the neighborhood’s business association. “We have a recently restored theater in our area.”

— Bethany Leach contributed to this report.

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

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