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Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007 | When Jerry Sanders ran for mayor, he trumpeted a new, appealing vision for the post. He asked San Diegans to imagine a senior statesman jetting to Sacramento and D.C. and coming home with rewards and agreements.

He was invoking that feeling many of us may have perceived — that there was something peculiarly provincial about San Diego’s leadership. Few City Hall types exuded the kind of gravitas and charisma that inspire big change.

He claimed he would do that. That would be his full-time job, in fact. Behind him, running the day-to-day operations of the city, his longtime friend Ronne Froman and other managers with experience in the business world would lend their particular expertise to the unenviable task of reforming city government department by department.

But Ronne Froman left months ago, claiming her job there was done. Jim Waring — tasked with streamlining the city’s construction permitting process that, as a candidate, Sanders had declared was an “obstacle” to solving the affordable housing crisis — is also gone.

Sanders admits Waring did not succeed in that task and that he underestimated how difficult an undertaking it was. An intense search to replace Froman has not produced anyone in the three months since she resigned. Much of the managing of the city’s day-to-day operations has fallen on the shoulders of Jay Goldstone, who as acting chief operating officer also is the city’s chief financial officer and auditor.

In my latest conversation with the mayor, I asked him what had happened to the idea of the senior statesman. I mean, it looks like it just dissolved.

“I think what you said is a valid criticism,” Sanders said.

And then he said something very interesting: This idea he had, that government could be run by people who gained their experience in the private sector or in other pursuits was just not working, Sanders said.

“I think that what we learned is that government, especially city government, is very different than business, and it’s very different than the military,” Sanders said.

The answer for his administration — the antidote that would allow him to become the senior statesman he dreams about — is to recruit to government executives from other agencies and cities. Businesspeople can apply elsewhere.

“I think if you brought in, perhaps, people who have been in municipal government or county government before, they understand the pacing a little more. They understand the processes a little more. I think I underestimated them. And so, as we’re retrenching, we’re looking for a lot of those things,” he said.

Even the name of the post — COO — might have been a mistake. And this explains his overture to Maureen Stapleton, the general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority for the “day-to-day manager” post at City Hall.

Sanders said he’s hoping to have a new team in place by the end of the year. Until then, he said, he’s found himself involved in the city’s operations and he’d like to get away from that.

“I would like to go back to providing the leadership of the senior statesman,” Sanders said.

But how involved has he been? Sanders has endured some stinging criticism recently. His handling of the Sunroad controversy has come under intense scrutiny and he’s anxious to put it behind him. But one particular question about the mess has endured. At one point, during the height of the tension, Sanders and his staff denied that they had borrowed an official from the airport authority to help them negotiate something with the Federal Aviation Administration that would preserve Sunroad Enterprises’ tower in Kearny Mesa that had been declared a hazard.

Yet it wasn’t long before a letter surfaced showing that, in fact, Sanders had personally asked for the airport authority official to do just that. It was an amazing contradiction. Either Sanders had lied or he didn’t know he signed the letter. Either way he looked terrible. He was blasted on the radio, on the Internet, and in the paper.

I grabbed a copy of a recent column by Gerry Braun in the Union-Tribune and read it to the mayor. (Sanders said he doesn’t read Braun’s columns “very often.”)

Braun implied that if you accept the mayor at his word, you’d conclude he was an “oaf who signs things he doesn’t understand and is clueless about what’s going on in his own office.”

I asked the mayor if he was an oaf.

Sanders said it’s perfectly plausible that someone (he hinted that it was Waring) put the letter in front of him to sign and he didn’t know what it was about, yet he signed it.

“I think you can sign things, and I sign a lot of things. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an oaf,” he said.

“When whoever put that letter in front of me — and I’m not positive it was Jim or whoever — I literally wasn’t paying that much attention to it,” he said. “I obviously was not as careful as I should have been. I don’t know, but I don’t consider myself an oaf.”

He said if he were lying about it, he’d make up a better story.

Someone with more experience in city governments might just have been able to give him one.

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

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