I have some bad news for those hoping that the “historic” deal the City Council decided to ask voters to approve will fix the city.

It won’t.

First of all, it didn’t actually do anything. It was a notable compromise on what question the city should ask voters to consider in November. Nothing changed last week and nothing will change if voters reject it.

But it was historic. Not because a package of reforms was laid out as a pre-requisite to a half-cent sales tax increase. Not because Mayor Jerry Sanders hugged his one-time rival Councilwoman Donna Frye. Not because T.J. Zane, the leader of the Republican Lincoln Club who, disgusted with the plan, acknowledged he actually agrees with former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who believes the city should dodge and head straight for bankruptcy court.

It was historic because a historic discussion is about to begin. One that was unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

To gain voter approval, Sanders, Frye and its backers will have to make the case for this measure. They’ll have to crunch the numbers and respond to the ones critics bring to the match. They’ll have to lay out a vision of the city and see how it stacks up against the alternatives.

None of us have crunched the numbers fully on the package. I’m not sure how much the city will save by outsourcing the Miramar Landfill or how much we’ll be able to force the city’s labor unions to concede on retiree health care costs.

I’m not certain whether the sales tax hike will lead people to stop eating at local restaurants or buy more of their products in Poway.

What we do know is that, by the city’s own admission last week, the new revenue from a sales tax increase will not cover the expected jump in the payment taxpayers have to make to the city’s pension fund. This monster is insatiable and it will hang like an anchor around the neck of municipal government for many, many years to come.

That’s how big the commitments were. That’s why the so-called “pension crisis” has defined San Diego politics now for so long.

Does this deal fix it? Again, no.

But something happened last week that I think we all need to understand. For the first time in my recollection, the city began to collectively discuss just how bad things had gotten. And the mayor and City Council — and the leaders of the city’s employee unions — began to realize they were leading City Hall to a meltdown.

Their worries led them to an unexpected position. They needed six votes. For the first time in many years, they needed Donna Frye. The light shined on her centrism and complaints like it never had before.

And finally, our questions about what she could do if it settled on her shoulders to lead were answered.

She can do a lot. After years of enduring the ridicule of colleagues who complained that she could not build consensus, that she could not lead, that she was a surfer chick, an extreme leftist to the one side or a traitor to labor on the other, Frye’s view of the world prevailed.

We were familiar with her perspective. She’s a frustrating centrist to a political system dominated by special interests. For years, she was arguably the most fiscally conservative member of the City Council. But she is a passionate environmentalist, a consummate critic of redevelopment and a thorn in the side of a visitor industry. Everyone found reason to like her at some point. And they found reason to fire invective at her during other moments.

She ran for mayor in 2005 on a platform modeled around her central thesis: The city was challenging the basic laws of finance and those laws bend for no man. She said then that only a package of reforms paired with revenue increases would have a chance of putting the city back in concert with those laws of expenses versus revenue. And that there are only a few things you can do like this outside of bankruptcy court.

This view was ridiculed by the man and establishment that beat her in that race: Mayor Jerry Sanders, who just gave her a huge hug after agreeing to sign on to her plan.

Critics led by Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Carl DeMaio have panned this plan with two main complaints: One, that it does not solve the whole problem. It does not go far enough. And two, that its reforms are not specific enough and the language leaves too much room for interpretation.

These are legitimate worries. But they are also exactly why the package should have gone forward, in my mind: It has set up exactly the civic conversation this city needs to have. Over the next three months, we’ll witness a historic debate about the city’s finances, its future, its promise and its challenges.

It is a contest between two different trains of thought: One that believes, like Donna Frye does, that we should do our best to progress within our current political environment. And the political reality right now is that, in order to get a tax approved by voters, it would have to come with reforms and in order to get reforms, you have to bring the labor unions along.

The other side believes this step would only delay a true reckoning by the city and increase taxes along the way. The crisis, to them, is an opportunity to force more concessions from city workers. Alleviate the crisis and you alleviate the employees’ willingness to concede more — to more broadly overhaul if not completely revise city government.

I’m not sure which is the correct view, and that is why I’m so excited to watch the argument proceed.

I do believe that if critics think this only delays San Diego’s reckoning, and that we need a complete overhaul of our financial organization, you can only get there under the management of a federal bankruptcy proceeding. As we’ve watched over the last several years, state law is written to protect employee benefits. We need only look at the obscene news that came out of the small city of Bell to see just how powerful these laws are. These laws tripped up Aguirre’s own crusade to have pension boosts declared illegal and they would surely step in the way of a new one.

I also believe that if we go forward with this new plan from the City Council and mayor, our leaders could become experts at applying this template for deal after deal that might come in the future to achieve total recovery — and a thriving municipality.

So, yes, I am happy about what happened last week because now we get to have this conversation. The ugliest symptoms of the city’s chronic illness will be brought into the open. Supporters will be forced to outline what they will do when those symptoms flare up again, despite this intervention. Critics will be able to describe their vision for the city in more detail, to outline a hopeful alternative and to overcome the perception they are obstructionists motivated by short-term political calculations.

It’s the debate residents deserve after years of watching politicians put it off or deny it needed to be had.

Let the side with the best plan for our infrastructure, our parks, our quality of life and our safety win.


Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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