Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 | Mayor Jerry Sanders’ “we’re-in-a-pickle” speech Tuesday produced two main themes.

The first is his allusion to his own hygienic habits with this line from the speech:

“I’m trying to lead by example, also. I’m using one-third less water than I did a year ago by making my home more water-efficient and modifying my behavior in small but significant ways. I found I can save several gallons each day by shaving over a sink instead of in the shower. Think of it as just another one of my common-sense reforms.”

I wasn’t able to go to the speech but I’m told the shaving-in-the-shower-line brought uproarious laughter. I ran into one prominent community member Wednesday who said he didn’t get the joke.

I guess jolly naked mayors make for guaranteed giggles.

But there’s no laughing about the second theme. We were all a bit surprised that the mayor wanted to hype a speech the way he did this time. He’s always talking at various events and panels. He wanted attention on this one.

He said San Diego should brace for a major revenue shortfall as a result of the dramatic reductions in the money coming in from property and sales taxes and tourism. To be sure, he pegged gap between the amount of money the city has and the amount it is planning to spend at $43 million. And he pledged to bridge the gap without the shell games, which have characterized budgets past.

This is somewhat of a hollow promise because it’s not like he’s got much choice. All the games that could be played have been. As Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone offered the other day: All the low-hanging fruit has been picked.

In fact, you know it’s a troubling time when Council President Scott Peters sends out an alarmist press release. This is the guy who argued relentlessly that there was nothing worth worrying about with the city’s endless list of liabilities. He played the role of the booster for the boosters — the apologist for the apologists.

Now he pretends that none of this could have been foreseen. The devious “market” has backhanded us this awful blow, he said in the worry and sympathy-filled statement.

“San Diego has been a leader in responding to fiscal challenges in the past and we will continue to show that leadership. … Thanks to efforts by Council President Pro Tem Jim Madaffer at the League of California Cities, the governor did not take from the City budget.  Now, however, the markets have, and the economy has,” Peters said.

This is how San Diego leaders have always explained the fiscal mess they’ve created: We’re awesome — my buddy over there, he’s just wickedly awesome — and we’ll continue to be awesome. Because of our awesomeness, this could be a lot worse. But even though we’re awesome, we can’t control those crazy stock markets.

His Awesomeness went on:

“I pledge to deal with this deficit in a sensitive manner, respectful of the likelihood that there will be people who will lose their jobs,” he wrote.

For all his hedging, it’s the first time in years he’s come at something like this without simply denying there’s a problem or accusing us crazies of freaking out about it too much.

That’s progress San Diego-style.

So what about the mayor?

His speech conveyed worry, yes.

And here’s what he offered as reassurance:

“Soon, I will bring before the Budget and Finance Committee an amendment to this year’s budget that addresses this problem without damage to our city’s core services. At this moment, I can’t speak to its content, but I will attest to its character: It will meet the problem head-on. It will tell the public the truth. It won’t flinch from the tough decisions before us,” the mayor said in his speech.

What does that even mean? The mayor has a plan to deal with this shortfall but he “can’t speak to its content” only its “character?” Again, only in San Diego does an honest — though secret — budget amendment deserve praise for its character.

The fact is, this is the ride we’ve all been bracing for (or should have been). The booming housing market; the money people pulled out of their homes and spent on cars and dinners and niceties; and the massive loans cities and citizens saddled themselves with — they all provided a cushion for City Hall’s structural budget deficit. It protected the city from feeling the true burden of the liabilities it had incurred without raising revenues to meet them.

Now the cushion has been pulled out from under us.

And the mayor says he has a plan. He’s just keeping it close.

He should change that quick.

Why? His silence on this point, even during a long speech, sucks the air out of the room. And the mayor has rivals out there willing to pump it full of their own.

Carl DeMaio, the newly elected City Council member just dying to get into office already, fired off a press release with his own potential cuts.

The cuts he proposes include a brutal slashing of the Ethics Commission. He’s been butting heads with that group for a long time.

But the point is this: The mayor wisely saw the need to set the tone of what was going to be a difficult discussion. But if he is going to make a speech loaded with alarm about the budget, and he wants to reassure us that he’s going to lead us out of it, he needs to show his plan.

Otherwise he leaves the discussion open for others to define.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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