In all this talk about the sales tax hike that wasn’t, I never imagined that it would be Ben Hueso, the City Council’s president, who would ultimately kill it.

Yes, the 5-3 vote, with him in favor, indicates he supported it. But there’s a bigger story here.

All afternoon Monday, the City Council had one of the most interesting discussions I had ever seen. It was full of frank talk about the city’s trajectory downward. It included the admission that even with a sales tax increase that brought as much as $100 million into the city’s coffers, it still wouldn’t be enough to cover the skyrocketing pension costs the city faces.

And when it came time for the City Council members to register their vote on whether the sales tax should go up by a half cent, things went as you would expect them to. For a while.

Carl DeMaio used slides to demonstrate how the reforms the city has made to the city employee pensions of new workers have done little to stave off the pension monster that is gobbling away city budgets.

Sherri Lightner dazzled me with yet another edition of a time-honored and classic city politician song “I Don’t Support This Policy So I’m Going to Allow It to Go Forward.”

After reciting a laundry list of bad things that would happen to the city if its budget deficit isn’t closed, Jay Goldstone, the mayor’s chief operating officer, responded to a question from Councilwoman Marti Emerald about what he would recommend she do. He responded with another prizewinner in the mayor’s collection of principled leadership stands.

“I don’t know that I have a recommendation,” he said (and then Hueso cut him off).

Hueso did the obligatory “we don’t get enough credit for what we have achieved” speech. It’s a common complaint.

They spend a long time listening to how bad things are and then wonder why they don’t get credit for the progress they made. Sorry. Great job on cutting people’s compensation two years ago, guys!

And then came Donna Frye — the woman whose campaign for mayor was trashed in 2005 when she proposed a half-cent sales tax increase along with a package of reforms and pledges. She made it clear she wouldn’t support the tax increase unless it came accompanied with reforms.

It didn’t. And guess what? She voted against it.

But unlike thousands of times she’s stood against a crowd, this time they needed her.

The city is broke and it’s broken. If recovery means some kind of tax increase has to get on the ballot for November, it has to happen now. As in this week. Even if you believe, as I do, that only a combination of tough-to-swallow reforms packaged with revenue increases can put the city on a different trajectory, then this is a crucial week.

It’s the deadline in a decade-long march toward municipal decay.

So they needed Frye. And after the vote, they started to talk. What did she need to support the tax? She started to say.

The city attorney started to ponder whether they could do something more ambitious. DeMaio jumped in.

“I think conversation needs to happen. I think that perhaps this is the first time that it actually might,” Frye said.

She continued: “If you’re really serious, we’re going to get the Chamber of Commerce and all of these people here opposed to it, get them in a room with the people that are in favor of it and sit down and figure it out and get serious about it and then it could happen.”

I have never seen anything like it. Though public meeting laws demand that discussions happen in public, this was one of the first negotiations I had ever seen erupt in public about such a big issue. For years, many of the rational things Donna Frye would complain about were ignored, but now, because of the bind the city faced, light shined on her complaints and her colleagues were forced to deal with them.

The light annoyed Hueso, though.

“We’re going to move on with the calendar, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. And that was it.

Later Michelle Ganon, his spokeswoman, told me that Hueso, Frye, DeMaio and Jan Goldsmith, the city attorney, met in a room to continue talking. We don’t know what was said there. Because it wasn’t public.

Hueso either didn’t know that a compromise was possible, or he did know, and the reforms that Frye wanted attached to a tax hike were just not something he could support. Either way, he felt he had to squash the talk.

And, either way, it was one of the most disappointing things I’d ever seen. For once, we were watching politics live, for all to see. We were watching the city’s leaders grapple intimately, for the first time, with the ghosts that have haunted it since the days when handing out pension benefits were treated as routinely as permission for a curb cut.

Of course they cut it off. Of course they took it to a back room. And of course they failed to come up with something there.

I wouldn’t expect anything better.

— SCOTT LEWIS

P.S. I highly recommend watching the video of the discussion and vote.

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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