Friday, Oct. 5, 2007 | The Mayor’s Office continues to struggle to find its way in the new strong-mayor form of government, as a parade of top officials have exited in recent months.

In each instance, officials left either as a result of the collision between their decisions and the calculated political stance made by Mayor Jerry Sanders’ administration, or for their general dislike for having to consider those calculations on such a frequent basis.

When Sanders compiled the leadership team that would be the one to finally turn City Hall around, he tapped individuals from the private sector, the military and other bureaucracies.

But several of those recruits have departed, including a close friend who was well regarded by the region’s business elite, a businessman with vast real estate experience who served as the administration’s bulldog on development issues and the manager who headed the streamlining and privatization efforts that Sanders predicted would land the city on safe financial ground.

“What you have here are people without a lot of municipal government experience who were brought in to manage city government that was in chaos financially,” San Diego State University professor emeritus Glenn Sparrow said. “I’m not sure they understood the complete scope of the task.”

The aides were brought on by Sanders for their management and business experience before leaving as a result of their apparent inability or distaste for political maneuvering.

Friday’s departures of Assistant Chief Operating Officer Rick Reynolds, the management guru hired to oversee the mayor’s overhaul of the city bureaucracy, and Purchasing and Contracting Director Lance Wade were just the latest symptoms of mayoral administration wrestling with the new “strong mayor” era.

They join an exodus of officials who have left an administration grappling to balance its newly inherited responsibility of steering the entire, 10,500-employee city government with keeping up appearances with voters ahead of the 2008 election.

The scope of Sanders’ duties — and power — increased dramatically with the city’s changeover in 2006 to a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor was removed from the City Council and put in charge of the entire city bureaucracy. As the city’s top executive, he is accountable for providing a range of municipal functions, from policing the streets and operating public libraries to collecting trash curbside and processing the permits for new buildings.

With the expanded responsibility comes a wider target on the back of the mayor, who has pledged to be accountable for his failings as well as his accomplishments. That could either be a boon or a bust for Sanders when he seeks reelection next June, depending on how much leeway voters give him for handling a situation the administration admits was much more difficult that it expected.

But the marketability of the mayor’s performance to voters will hinge in part on the political repercussions of the decisions, actions and statements made by his top administrators.

“It’s expected in a strong mayor’s office that the executives are going to be a major part of the campaign. Some of these people, when they get to close to it, don’t want to go down that road,” said Richard Ledford, a lobbyist who served as former Mayor Susan Golding’s chief of staff in the 1990s. “But it’s part of life in a strong mayor’s office, which is something we haven’t had to deal with before.”

It’s a dynamic Sanders said he didn’t anticipate when filling the roster of administration.

“Our staff was not hired for their political savvy, they were hired for their skill sets,” Sanders said. “I think a lot of us didn’t know there would be political ramifications for everything single thing that we do in city government.”

Several of the professionals with backgrounds in the military, business world and less-politicized bureaucracies that Sanders brought on board have failed — or refused — to adapt to the realities of working for an elected official. As a result, many have left the administration.

Before Reynolds and Wade’s sendoff last week, land use chief Jim Waring and Development Services Director Marcela Escobar-Eck were forced out after the Sunroad controversy enveloped the Mayor’s Office in a political disaster.

In July, Chief Operating Officer Ronne Froman stepped down after expressing her distaste for City Hall’s political nature. An ex-admiral who was touted by Sanders as a running mate during the 2005 mayor’s race, Froman was tapped to help restructure the city bureaucracy that Sanders labeled inefficient. But she left discouraged that decisions over the operation of the city had to be constantly run through a political filter, sources say.

Froman’s replacement, Jay Goldstone, the chief financial officer, is seen by many sources around the Mayor’s Office as capable of straddling the line between politics and the operations of the city, where Froman did not. Goldstone was one of the few initially hired by Sanders who had experience in municipal government, most recently serving in Pasadena.

And although he wasn’t hired by Sanders, former Auditor & Comptroller John Torell left in January. Torell yearned for more independence for the city’s watchdog department, a move that would separate Sanders from overseeing the office that could potentially criticize his management of city services and financial matters.

The “clash of cultures” was a consequence Sparrow said he saw coming when he helped the Sanders transition team, led by Froman, map out a roster for the Mayor’s Office before Sanders was installed.

“They brought in private sector people who just didn’t realize what a fishbowl they’re living in,” Sparrow said. “They didn’t realize that what they’d be doing was going to appear in the newspaper. That’s a lot of pressure for someone to jump into.”

Froman was engaged in the reorganization of the municipal government, the overarching campaign pledge of Sanders on the campaign trail. Sanders peddled his experience “turning around troubled organizations” as his credentials for taking over a city government rife with financial deficits, mismanagement and corruption allegations.

Froman was a large part of the sales pitch, as he flaunted her reputation as an administrator with the Navy, the local Red Cross and the San Diego Unified School District as proof that, together, they could steer the city of San Diego to fiscal health and improved efficiency.

To administer the city and to implement the cost-cutting initiatives that the mayor preferred to raising taxes, Froman looked outside of the officials who remained from former City Manager Lamont Ewell’s administration.

But noticeably missing from the organization being drawn up were the political advisers, who would help Sanders maneuver public opinion in order to further his agenda.

“We advised there was a political side to this, that there should have been a chief of staff or something of that nature to be responsible for the political side of the office,” Sparrow said. “This was kind of ignored, as far as I can tell.”

But since Sanders’ inauguration, the vacuum for that political expertise has been filled very visibly by Kris Michell, the director of community and legislative services, and Fred Sainz, the mayor’s communications director.

The two have helped Sanders vet the administration’s policies through a political lens. The Mayor’s Office coordinates the release of information for all of the departments it oversees, a method that helps the mayor put his brand on the message the public receives but that also smacks of the power consolidation that several administrators said they felt was impractical for a government of San Diego’s size.

“Somehow he’s supposed to know what 10,000 people in city government are doing. It’s ridiculous, it’s impossible,” Escobar-Eck said.

Sanders said he anticipates his administration will continue learning more about how to manage under the new form of government. Voters will be allowed their ideas on whether it’s working, as the five-year experiment of the strong-mayor structure could be made permanent in a ballot measure slated to go before San Diegans in the June 2008 election at the same time they consider reelecting Sanders.

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

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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