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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 | John Hartley regularly exhibited erratic behavior during his one term on the San Diego City Council two decades ago, making his office a chaotic, sometimes unbearable place to work, say some of his former staffers.

And though they do not remember Hartley engaging in any lewd conduct during his term, which ran from 1989 to 1993, the former staffers said they were not necessarily shocked after reading about his arrest Thursday in Kensington on charges of indecent exposure.

“My first thought was ‘I’m not surprised — he did a lot of unusual things,’” said Fred Scholl, an aide to Hartley during the final two years of his term. “The thing of it is … when he was in one of his manic periods anything could go.”

Another said irregular behavior was typical. “If (Council President) Scott Peters were found peeing in a cup on a street in Kensington I would be shocked,” said the former staffer, who requested anonymity. “But not John.”

Hartley’s heart was in the right place, say those who knew him during his term in office. And he was hard-working and passionate about issues he believed in. But he was also often moody, they said, and had a penchant for suddenly reversing course on decisions and blaming his staff for the fallout. As a result, the turnover in his office was the highest on the City Council.

San Diego police arrested Hartley, 65, on Thursday afternoon after a Kensington resident reported that he was urinating into a cup and masturbating in his truck that was parked in the 4600 block of Vista Street. Hartley was booked on one count of indecent exposure and one count of soliciting a lewd act.

Despite the arrest, Hartley, a Democrat, has said through his political consultant that he will continue running for the District 3 seat that Toni Atkins will be termed out of at the end of the year. Others running in the June 3 primary are Democrats Todd Gloria and Stephen Whitburn, Republicans Robert E. Lee and James Hartline, and Libertarian Paul Broadway.

“[The accusations] are totally out of character, and we hope his supporters will give him the presumption of innocence,” said Larry Remer, a longtime political consultant who is running Hartley’s campaign. Hartley has offered no further comment or explanation for the arrest.

Hartley has had a long political career. His involvement in San Diego politics dates back to the mid-1980s when he was among the leaders in the drive for district elections, which came to pass in 1988.

In 1989, the 46-year-old who had worked as a real estate agent and educator jumped into the race for the newly created District 3 seat against Gloria McColl, a well-funded incumbent Republican.

He overcame a 3-to-1 fundraising disadvantage and scored an upset victory over McColl by waging a grass-roots campaign characterized by his indefatigable walking of the district, which includes Kensington, Normal Heights, Hillcrest and City Heights.

“When he won in 1989 it was a shock to everyone,” said political consultant Tom Shepard, who ran the 1989 campaign, but has not worked with Hartley since the early 1990s. “His opponent had relied on big TV and mail campaigns, he won by walking the district.”

Hartley also won despite a last-minute campaign ad by McColl that highlighted the fact that he had changed his name from Bill Terry Glendenning to John Terry Hartley. Hartley said he made the name change in honor of his maternal grandfather.

Once on the City Council, Hartley quickly established himself as an active reformer. Dubbed the “Tasmanian devil” of San Diego politics, he fought simultaneously to provide shelter for homeless people and to rid the city of prostitution. In one well-publicized 1992 incident, a prostitute hit him over the head with her purse after he confronted her on El Cajon Boulevard.

He was also one of the so-called “Gang of Five,” a progressive group of council members, including Abbe Wolfsheimer, Linda Bernardt, Bob Filner and Wes Pratt, who joined together on several issues, including a contentious redistricting battle.

But for all his action, Hartley was considered inconsistent, even “scatterbrained,” when it came to the nuts and bolts of his job, say longtime political observers.

“He was very passionate about his work,” said lobbyist Richard Ledford. “But I can’t say he was very strong on the policy side of things.”

The former staffer said, “He actually had a lot of good ideas that were later implemented by at least one mayor.”

By many accounts, including his own, Hartley was not a good manager and one former aide, Scholl, characterized him as an ogre who hired and fired with abandon. His office had the highest turnover on City Council, with at least 40 people churning through his office during his tenure, say former staffers.

His moods were unpredictable, and many times harsh, say his former subordinates. He would veer from high-octane manic states to near immobile depressions. Often, decisions made during one extreme would be reversed when he hit another.

“Often he would take it out on his own staff — or city staff — when he perceived things were going wrong,” said the former staffer.

Scholl was more pointed in his description of the atmosphere created by Hartley.

“If you talk with anyone who worked for him, he was without a doubt the most scatterbrained idiot that ever was,” Scholl said. “He had very serious emotional problems.”

Scholl said staffers kept an informal tally of tenures inside the office. One aide lasted only two weeks, another, after talking to people about Hartley, never showed up for work, Scholl said.

Shepard, the political consultant, said Hartley had a tendency to “cast about” from issue to issue, and grew increasingly dissatisfied as time wore on.

“It was obvious for a long time that he was very, very frustrated with the way city government worked,” Shepard said.

Nonetheless, Hartley’s decision not to seek re-election in 1993 came as a shock to both those inside his office and throughout the political establishment. Especially given that he had set up a campaign staff and began fundraising.

When he heard of the decision, Scholl remembers urging him to think about it for a week or so before making it official.

“I figured he was in his depressive stage, and a week later he would be in a manic stage and want to undo the decision,” Scholl said.

But he didn’t wait, saying he never promised to stay longer than one term. And in his final months, Hartley acknowledged that he was a difficult boss. “I think I can be a son of a gun to work with,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune as he was leaving office. “I’m very demanding of myself, and I think I’m demanding of other people.”

Hartley eventually regained his thirst for politics, running unsuccessfully for the District 3 seat in both 2000 and 2004. And this year he was running in his usual style, seemingly spending more money on shoe leather than TV spots or mailers.

Conventional wisdom among political handicappers had Hartley running a close third behind Gloria and Whitburn, with a good chance at making the November runoff — before last week’s incident. His chances, most say, have dimmed considerably since.

“Whatever the issue was, the perception is a killer,” said Ledford, referring to the incident.

Vista Street resident Evelyn Ketchum, who has received two visits from Hartley in recent months, says she is withholding judgment.

“He was just as nice as anyone else,” said Ketchum, who lives across the street from where the incident allegedly took place. “I would have never expected anything unruly from him.”

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

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