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2008 will be a pivotal election year for the future of the city of San Diego. After years of financial mismanagement, ethical lapses, service cuts and neglecting community infrastructure, it is time for bold change at City Hall.

Across all the local races this year, there is one candidate who best epitomizes and is identified with the grassroots movement to reform city hall.

That candidate is Carl DeMaio — who I am strongly supporting for District 5 City Council.

Carl DeMaio: The Guy Who Got the “Reform” Movement Going

“Change” and “reform” are the big buzz words at City Hall these days — and every candidate running for city office is telling the public they are the true reformer in their race.

But it wasn’t always that way. In fact I can remember a time when DeMaio was one of the only voices pushing for “change” and “reform” at City Hall.

In 2003, DeMaio conceived of and led a landmark review of the city’s budget, financials, and management practices. Known as the “San Diego Citizens Budget Project,” the project unearthed mind-boggling evidence of mismanagement, financial improprieties, and waste at City Hall. When DeMaio alerted then-Mayor Dick Murphy and the City Council of the problems, they rejected his findings outright and denied there were any problems at City Hall.

So DeMaio took the truth to the public — through the infamous public comment periods at City Council meetings, briefing the media, issuing email advisories, publishing white papers and organizing town hall forums.

I first met DeMaio at one of the public town hall forums he conducted as part of the project. Until that point, I and many in the audience had no reason to suspect the city’s finances were anything but healthy. In fact, until DeMaio started poking around City Hall’s books and releasing his findings, the average San Diegan — and indeed the nation — thought San Diego was one of the best managed cities in the country.

DeMaio walked us through a series of slides detailing the city’s annual operating budget deficit, pointing out accounting gimmicks used to cover up deficits, questioning suspicious transfers from the water and sewer funds, describing the outrageous level of pension benefits given to city workers and the associated multi-billion pension deficit, and on and on. DeMaio ended by rolling out a 10-Point Reform Plan — along with grades he had given city politicians on each reform.

I and others in attendance walked out numb — realizing that things were not as rosy as city politicians wanted us in the public to believe. Moreover, we knew that “reform” was desperately needed at City Hall.

Carl DeMaio: Standing Up to the Special Interests

Soon there was a buzz all around town. Frightened politicians, labor bosses, and members of the San Diego establishment quickly reacted by denying there was a financial crisis and attacking DeMaio personally.

Fortunately, DeMaio stood his ground and continued to speak up. By the end of the summer of 2004 the public — and federal authorities and credit rating firms — had awakened to the city’s problems.

Carl DeMaio: Putting Ideas into Action

Some watchdogs point out only problems, without offering solutions. DeMaio has offered a laundry list of potential solutions to the city’s problems. Even more impressive, many of DeMaio’s ideas are now driving the debate at City Hall and several of the biggest reforms he has suggested have been implemented.

In 2004, DeMaio asked the city to study more than 220 cost saving options that if implemented could save the city $120 million. Many of these ideas are now being examined as part of the Mayor’s Business Process Re-Engineering efforts.

A number of the ideas contained in his 10-Point Reform Plan have been adopted, including requiring transparency on “vacancies” in the city budget, creating an oversight board to watchdog the water and sewer fees we pay, and reorganizing city management functions for greater efficiency.

Recently the mayor embraced two more of DeMaio’s ideas, including using Centre City Development Corp. monies to pay a significant portion of the Ballpark Bonds and the elimination of the notorious DROP Pension Perk that allows city employees to “double dip” to receive a salary and a pension simultaneously.

In addition to being able to work within the system, DeMaio knows when it is time to take issues directly to the people. In 2006, DeMaio co-authored and co-chaired the campaign to pass Proposition B (Pension Reform) and Proposition C (Managed Competition). Both passed overwhelmingly by the public with 70 percent and 60 percent respectively.

For not being an elected official, DeMaio already has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in reforming City Hall. Imagine how much more progress can be made on fixing the city’s financial problems and improving neighborhood services if DeMaio has an opportunity to push reform from the perch of a council member.

Carl DeMaio: A Watchdog on City Council

If history is any guide, Carl DeMaio will be the taxpayers’ watchdog on the City Council. As our watchdog on City Council, DeMaio will continue what he started in 2003 — researching and analyzing what is going on at City Hall and letting the public know the real truth. As he has done throughout the entire battle to reform City Hall, DeMaio will continue to stand up to the special interests and speak truth to power.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the wealth of other experience that DeMaio will bring to the City Council that will be handy in fixing the city’s problems.

Editor’s note: The “Supporters Debate” will run from now to Election Day with supporters of each of the City Council, city attorney, and mayoral candidates represented by a resident. The supporters will have one day each to make the case for their candidate, or the case against their rival. Then there will be a day for rebuttals. So, for instance, this week, Mr. Holstein will host Monday. A supporter of George George, Frank DeClercque the vice president of the firefighters union, will host Tuesday. They each will have the opportunity to follow up on Wednesday.

We will make every attempt to contact the campaigns and invite them to help find supporters. If they can’t help, we’ll find them ourselves.

Finally, we want this to be a productive experience. Reader feedback in the comments section of the Supporters Debate is welcome — and the hosts will use it to guide the discussion — but personal attacks with no conceivable relevance to the substance of the topic being discussed will not be approved.

— ALEX HOLSTEIN

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