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In 2006, political consultant Tom Shepard wrote on this site that some “cynics” have suggested that the Chargers didn’t want to stay in San Diego at all. And even though the team had a contract that allowed them to move out of San Diego pretty much whenever they’d like, the team might still have some reason for at least pretending to work on a new stadium locally.

One possible explanation is that NFL rules require approval of such a move by a super-majority of league owners. That might lead some to think what we’re really watching is a campaign by the team to convince other NFL owners that they’ve done everything they can to stay in San Diego, but have been left with no choice but to seek a new home.

He wrote then also that he thought the best move for the city right now would be to give the Chargers a proposal and force the team to respond to it.

You might see a hint of that below.

There are very few people in San Diego with as clear a grasp of the reality of this community than Shepard. You can argue about what he chooses to do with that knowledge and acumen. You can, legitimately, make the case that it’s not always in support of the kinds of things you want for San Diego. But you have to admit he has it.

Otherwise, if you face off with him, you’ll lose.

Below you’ll see him long for the days when the city of San Diego was known as a well run place. Since he is the architect behind the careers of so many of the people who have, and do, run the city, you have to wonder if he’s at all criticizing himself.

Here were my questions and his answers about what he’s looking at in 2010.

You were a major thinker and strategist behind San Diego’s switch to the strong-mayor form of government. As voters prepare to decide whether it should be permanent, can you describe something that happened because of the strong mayor form of government that wouldn’t have happened with the previous organization?

Since the mayor-council reform went into effect, there has been an open and vigorous debate over the city’s finances and budget. The checks and balances built into the new system encourage debate between the executive and legislative branches, and the public is the beneficiary. The other major change is that the city’s chief executive — the mayor — is directly accountable to voters.

As a result, management-level employees are slowly adjusting to the concept that they too are accountable to the public for their performance.

What do you think about the push for term limits at the county?

The California state legislature is the poster child for term limits. Anyone who thinks the state legislature functions more effectively now than it did before term limits should be required to take a remedial course in state government.

You once wrote that you thought the Chargers were performing an elaborate dance out of town. Do you think that’s still true?

The test of the intentions of Chargers ownership will come when a reasonable proposal for a downtown stadium is presented to them. I suspect such a proposal will not be as lucrative for them as the Roski stadium in the city of Industry, so they will have to make a choice.

What one thing do you want to see happen before you retire? The city of San Diego was once regarded as among the best-run major cities in the country. I think it has the potential to overcome current challenges and regain that reputation, providing a road map for other municipalities that are just now struggling with the problems we’ve been confronting for the past decade.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

It’s not a single decision, but my primary concern over the next year will be the series of decisions confronting the San Diego city council (and possibly the voters) to further stabilize the city’s long-term finances.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

Since I work for several who might be considered for that designation, I believe I have a conflict.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

I’m looking forward to competitive political campaigns throughout the region.

Shepard’s ranking of major projects I listed:

My priorities are based on what can realistically move forward in an environment of constrained public finances:

  • An Expanded Convention Center: Assuming most or all financing will come from those who directly benefit from expansion, this is a crucial investment in strengthening our local economy.
  • A New Stadium: Like the ballpark, this will only work if tax revenue generated by the development is adequate to cover the necessary public investment — but if it does, the time is right.
  • A New City Hall: Again, it’s only viable if it results in reduced facility costs for the city, but if it does there will never be a better time in terms of construction costs.
  • A Different Airport Infrastructure: Rather than pouring more money into Harbor Drive infrastructure, now is the time to start moving passenger facilities closer to the freeway and integrating the airport into a regional transportation system.
  • A New Wastewater Recycling System: The city should proceed with the pilot project, and if it’s successful move forward with a more ambitious program.

Rank these local civic problems by how much they will worry you in the coming year — most worrisome at the top:

All of these issues lead back to an underlying problem regarding local government finance. Part of the solution depends on statewide changes that would return revenue and decision-making authority to local districts, but the San Diego community will also have to make some tough choices to preserve desired facilities and services.

— SCOTT LEWIS

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