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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 | Their biographies differ, and they come from varying points on the political spectrum. But most of the candidates for San Diego City Council are sending the same message to voters: I will reform City Hall.

Tough reform talk permeates through candidates’ sound bytes, websites and campaign mailers as the election year enters its homestretch toward November.

District 7 Republican April Boling will do it as a steely-eyed accountant; District 7 Democrat Marti Emerald as a take-no-prisoners investigative journalist; District 1 Republican Phil Thalheimer as a disciplined businessman; District 3 Democrat Stephen Whtiburn as a David to Goliath downtown developers.

“It’s no secret that City Hall politicians are usually too afraid of special interests to suggest any real reform. As an accountant, my career has been based upon an understanding of what is right and what is wrong,” says Boling on her website.

On hers, Emerald says: “There will be no backroom deals on the Troubleshooter’s watch!”

Yet when asked for specifics, the candidates are more inclined to offer incremental changes in the law, or enhancements to remedies already underway, rather than any new, large-scale reform initiatives.

There are both practical and political reasons for this approach.

First, a good number of obvious reforms have already either been approved by voters or implemented by the city bureaucracy. Since San Diego’s pension-related financial problems became national news in 2004, the city has, among other things, created the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst, embarked on a privatization effort, revamped the internal auditing function, budgeted for more auditors and put in place safeguards for future pension increases.

“What is the fiscal reform will they do that isn’t being done already?” said John Kern, a Republican campaign consultant, and former chief of staff for Mayor Dick Murphy.

And Kern and other political consultants will invariably caution the candidates against making specific promises that could potentially either confuse voters or come back to haunt the candidate after he or she wins office.

“Everyone who is running as a reformer is basically saying ‘I’m not going to do what was done,’” said Democratic consultant Christopher Crotty. “If they get any more specific than that, they open themselves up to criticism and contradictions.”

The most common suggestions revolve around increasing the number of audits of city departments and moving more quickly on Mayor Jerry Sanders’ privatization plan.

“I will demand a public audit of every department to eliminate waste and mismanagement,” says Thalheimer on his website.

When pressed for specifics on what he means by a “public audit,” Thalheimer says he is not advocating an entirely separate auditing apparatus than what already exists. Rather, he would ask that audits and other reviews done by city staff be made available to outside experts who would essentially evaluate the work being done by the city.

“I want to take this information outside and get it peer-reviewed,” Thalheimer said, but didn’t offer much more in the way of details.

Emerald often repeats the mantra “follow the money,” but, like Thalheimer, does not propose significant changes to the city’s audit structure. When asked for specifics, she said she wants the city to finish the department-by-department audits that were part of the city’s “business process re-engineering” streamlining effort.

Boling said her reform efforts would largely consist of putting her accountant’s eye on the city’s books. Specifically, she wants to push hard to implement Sanders’ privatization program, managed competition.

“I am certainly looking at the delays in managed competition,” Boling said.

Whitburn’s call for reform revolves largely around curbing the influence of developers. He wants, for example, to pass a law that expands the notification area when a developer is proposing a project. Currently, only residents and businesses within a 300-foot radius of a proposed project are notified.

“We need to expand that radius,” Whitburn said in a recent interview. Although he said he would want more public input before deciding on how much wider the radius should be.

Such reform proposals illustrate the fine line candidates walk as they try to be specific, but not too specific with voters, Crotty said. Offering promises that may not be able to be kept, is a big no-no. But the candidate has to offer something.

“It is difficult for the voter to understand who is really the reform candidate if they don’t offer some specifics,” Crotty said. “It’s really a conundrum.”

Kern says that establishing at least some reform credentials is important, much like establishing pro-police/anti-crime credentials. But he said making reform the centerpiece of a city council race is overrated.

“My reaction is, ‘So what?’” Kern said. “Do you know anyone running on corruption?”

Democrats Todd Gloria in District 3, and Sherri Lightner in District 1 seem to subscribe to the Kern school when it comes to this issue. Both pay heed to reform, but have focused their campaigns on their experiences in government and knowledge of neighborhood issues.

“Everyone supports reform, no one is opposed to that,” Gloria said. “(But) what will it look like, and how will you implement it?”

Said Lightner: “I focus on awareness — that people understand how a city should work.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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