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The motion San Diego City Councilman Tony Young made late last November rejected many of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget proposals to close a then-historic $43 million mid-year budget gap.
The motion Young made last week adopted nearly every word of Sanders’ plan to close a new gap more than four times as large.
In between, the mayor’s strategy shifted: He became the great communicator. This fall, Young said he spoke with Sanders and his deputies constantly as the mayor’s team prepared a plan to close the new $200 million gap. Last year, Young and other council members struggled to determine details as simple as whether library or recreation center in their districts would close if the mayor’s package passed. And everyone, from Young’s colleagues to the public, yelled about it.
This time, Sanders and the council didn’t fight. Police and fire unions didn’t protest. City residents were quieter, too. They didn’t launch high-profile demonstrations in front of libraries, recreation centers or fire stations.
In just 70 days this fall, the city went from being nine figures in the red to having balanced books — at least until July 2011.
Sanders and his team took a kinder and gentler approach toward City Council and also gained key support of police and fire unions before unveiling cuts. The plans didn’t close any of city libraries or recreation centers, likely neutralizing some public opposition.
That doesn’t mean everyone likes the mayor’s plan. His own fiscal task force says the budget relies on too many gimmicks, instead of long-term solutions. And the Municipal Employees Association, which represents white-collar city workers, fought the layoffs of almost all civilian staff in the police department.
Sanders “obviously learned from last year,” said Democratic political consultant Chris Crotty. “He handled it politically as it must be handled. He did a much better selling job to the council before it came to the public.”
For the difference, look at Sanders’ rapport with Young, who is also chairman of the council’s budget committee.
A year ago, Young was one of Sanders’ main critics, calling the mayor’s proposals “unimaginative” and decrying Sanders’ lack of justification for some cuts.
This year, Young stood by the mayor’s side at budget press conferences. Sanders, in turn, has spoken at each of Young’s community budget roadshows called, “San Diego Speaks.” In separate interviews, both heaped praise on each other’s efforts.
“He’s done a really good job working with the council on this,” Young said of Sanders.
“I think Tony Young has been a tremendous leader on this council,” Sanders said of Young.
Young received a detailed briefing from the mayor on his budget proposal before Sanders unveiled them publicly. He didn’t last year. So did every other council member except for recent foe Carl DeMaio, the only one to vote against the budget. DeMaio did have a mayoral briefing after the proposal was announced publicly.
The Mayor’s Office also brought in Tevlin early. They didn’t last year, when Sanders and top deputy Jay Goldstone accused Tevlin of providing political cover for the council by making “superficial” recommendations.
What’s resulted is not only a passed budget, but council members sticking up for the mayor.
Crotty repeated the view expressed by other political observers that the council rolled over to let the mayor take responsibility for the budget.
Not true, Young said. The council owns it, too.
“It really wasn’t just ‘the mayor’s budget,’” Young said. “We really were a partner in this.”
Sanders remained willing to change parts of his proposal throughout the process. Tevlin said he avoided opposition by abandoning a plan to shutter some libraries for a few days each week in favor of reducing hours throughout the library system.
“He listened,” she said.
Though the Municipal Employees Association fought civilian layoffs, the police and fire unions expressed their support for the mayor’s proposal and then stayed on the sidelines. Neither faced any layoffs.
“Basically (Sanders) gave the finger to the municipal employees,” Crotty said. “Once you get cops and fire on board, that’s all people care about.”
While the police and fire departments did take a few lumps, they still supported the plan. A fire union official said he didn’t think the firefighters would’ve won had they challenged the plan. The police union’s president, Brian Marvel, could not be reached for comment to discuss why his union supported the budget proposal. He told the council that he had supported the cuts because none of his members were laid off.
Support for the budget from those unions was essential to its quick passage, Sanders said.
“Obviously,” he said, “that was huge.”
It also could have helped stiffen the backbones of the four council members who are up for reelection in June. It’s never a good political time to cut services.
Sanders gave council members credit for making that choice.
“I don’t think that was an easy thing for them to do,” he said. “Several of them are running for office and having to cut services in the middle of that I think is pretty tough.”
The mayor and council were so agreeable this year that the budget situation almost became paradoxical. Last time, with a $40 million shortfall, Sanders and the council could afford a fight over what to cut and what to spare. This year, the deficit was so large and the short-term answers so few that it’s unclear what open warfare would have accomplished. That got things done quickly, political observers said.
“The single most important factor,” said Tom Shepard, a political strategist who advises the mayor, “was the size of the deficit.”
Please contact Liam Dillon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.