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Donna Frye joined the City Council almost a decade ago as an unpolished activist, quickly became its head rabble-rouser and rode San Diego’s at-times-comical municipal calamity to national prominence. And, for a few days in between, it even looked like she was going to be San Diego’s next mayor.
Now, after nine and a half years on the City Council, Frye will pack up the last of a forest of artificial plants and flowers that crowd her City Hall office and return to her surf shop in a matter of days.
In between giving away those plants and the hordes of knickknacks that a politician gathers, Frye sat down with me to talk about her political future, the burdens of being her party’s big-name draw and what San Diego would look like if she’d been mayor.
She did, however, refuse to talk about her legacy.
“Screw the legacy,” she said.
I asked people last night what they want to ask you and the most obvious one was, “Are you going to run for office again?”
I don’t know. I really don’t know. The way I plan is not your normal way of planning.
So what is your way of planning?
Where the spirit moves me. I’ll know. And right now I don’t know.
Would mayor in 2012 sound like something that would move you?
It doesn’t sound very good right now, let me tell you. Today it sounds really awful. But I can change my mind.
Why doesn’t it sound very good?
(A very long laugh.) Where shall I begin? Let’s see, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports are going to be late; the muni bond market is tanking; the computer systems are all fouled up so that you can’t close out the books for the end of the year. We don’t have a lot of new revenue coming in, you know.
I’m tired of crisis management.
To varying degrees those were all problems in 2004 and 2005 when you ran for mayor.
Right, but time has passed. In 2005 when I originally brought forward my now-infamous AAA financial plan, who can forget that? (Laughs.) It’s quite forgettable.
Yeah, well you and I are probably the only two. Had I been able to get in five years ago and make the changes that I believe were necessary, we’d be in a much different situation. Each year we get further and further behind and at some point it’s … (laughs) … it’s just not something I want to do right now.
Since we’re talking about runs for mayor. Do you reflect on the 2004 run for mayor much? Do you feel you should be mayor? That it was stolen from you in any way?
No. It’s just like everything. Things happen for a reason. I’m pretty pragmatic. I’m a realist. And probably a bit of a cynic. Things happen for a reason and I can accept that. I don’t know all the reasons why things happen.
We put on one of the most amazing campaigns probably in the history of the United States for a write-in candidate. We fought hard. We worked hard. We laughed hard. We had a wonderful, wonderful time and gave people hope.
It was dashed of course by I believe it was Judge Brenner’s ruling that people who didn’t fill in the ovals were only augmenting the ballots.
There was obviously so much energy behind the 2004 campaign. What happened in 2005?
I think some people that voted for me didn’t vote so much for me but against (Dick) Murphy and (Ron) Roberts.
I was just the one who happened to be in that particular position in that particular point in time. Sometimes destiny just places you somewhere. And so I understand that. I don’t run around believing that some of those people liked me all that much, they just liked me better than the other two.
So when there was a choice to what they saw as probably the safe father figure who was going to come in and take care of them, and that was Jerry Sanders, all they had to do was show up and vote and he would take care of the problem for them, that was probably very appealing.
My message probably wasn’t all that appealing, which is we’re in big, big trouble, we’re going to have to make sacrifices, everybody’s got to participate and no one is going to get to sit on the sidelines. Not a good nurturing mother message. When I would go into different campaign events, you know, everyone’s really happy to see me until two minutes into the speech. Then it was like a morgue. It was not happiness and light.
So my message was not uplifting.
What would this city look like if Donna Frye had been elected mayor?
I believe because of the timing of it I think that we would’ve been able to make changes that would’ve put us in a better situation than we have today.
Well, pension reform. We would’ve been able to put together something that was comprehensive. Not something that was a little here, a little there. A ballot measure here, a ballot measure there. It would’ve been bankruptcy light.
(Laughs.) That’s what you would’ve gotten.
Now I can’t predict whether that would’ve been successful. But if it had we’d be in much better shape. And I don’t think we’d be going through this yearly agony of the budget, because it’s not an effective way to run a government.
You would still have had to go to ask voters for a tax increase.
I don’t know. Again, that was my last resort. Bankruptcy was not my last resort. My last resort was a tax increase. And I said very clearly if you assumed the deficit on an annual basis was $255 million, here’s how you get to that. So I may well have, but I don’t know. It’s hard to know.
And I could’ve been a complete, utter failure and have been recalled and kicked out of office. I mean, who knows?
Would the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, Centre City Development Corp., still exist?
Probably not. (Laughs.) Or SEDC. Not in their current form. What I would’ve done is I would have rolled them into the Redevelopment Agency, under that umbrella, and empowered the community groups. So that they would’ve been more than a community group but certainly not thinking that they were in charge of us.
If you hadn’t run in 2004, decided five weeks out to run …
Ron Roberts would’ve won.
… there would’ve been no Democratic candidate. There’s no Democratic candidate in 2008.
You were the only hope up until the last second for a Democrat to run against Ron Roberts in 2010. Stephen Whitburn wanted you to run …
Well everybody did. Except Ron. Maybe Tom Shepard.
… and he got in at the last second once you decided not to. Why does the Democratic Party not have more people to run and do you feel a burden to be the only person people look to for these sorts of things? This is a Democratic-majority city.
I just don’t think about it much quite honestly.
It’s not a burden. But it is, it’s a lot of responsibility because I don’t — I probably see myself differently than a lot of people see me.
What do you mean? How do a lot of people see you?
I just think, “Isn’t there someone else?” Certainly I’m a hard worker, but you know …
How do you think people see you?
As the one willing to go down and kick in the doors and they can sit back and watch. And some days I’m not into door-kicking. I’m into problem solving and you know, kind of a more mellow peaceful type of life.
It’s hard to get up every day and do battle. It’s not my nature. I mean I certainly won’t run from it and I certainly will rise to the occasion, but my nature is to be, I don’t know, it’s, it’s, it depends on what day of the week it is what my nature is.
Are you then looking forward greatly to not being in office?
Yes, but for reasons that are maybe different than people might think. I love doing public service. That’s in my blood. Some sort of activist role, advocacy, changing things. Making things better for people who can’t stand up for themselves.
What I won’t miss is getting my homework assignment (she pounds on a many-inches-thick binder of documents that her foot rests on) on Friday from the Mayor’s Office and being told what I’m going to be working on that week. I want to work on what I want to work on when I’m going to work on it.
I want that freedom to be able to focus on those issues that are really important to me. Not that these aren’t important. But they’re not ones I chose. I’m ready to choose where I go and what I work on. And reading financial documents is probably way down on my list right now.
Let’s go back to when you ran for City Council the first time. In your arc as an activist was it something you were always interested in doing?
No. It was something people always wanted me to do but I wasn’t interested.
Then why did you do it?
I think part of it is because I used to come to City Council a lot and get ignored and get treated badly. They didn’t care about the fact that people were getting sick from polluted water and they didn’t care that people’s lives were being affected, and there seemed to be resistance to that reasoning. They cared more about the tourism industry than people’s health.
And it was only for 18 months. So I thought if I didn’t like it, I really wasn’t committed for more than 18 months. And if the public didn’t like me, they only had to suffer through me for 18 months. So it was sort of a good situation for both sides.
You replaced a council member who had to leave because of conflicts of interest. You get into office. A couple of years later we have three council members indicted. One dies. One is convicted. And one has his conviction thrown out. You have a mayor resign. You have six pension officials charged by the D.A. Five by the U.S. attorney. Five more by the SEC with civil charges. Um. I don’t know that that’s a question. Any reaction to everything you saw?
It was worse than I thought when I first ran. It was truly shocking to watch all that. To come up in my office and there’s FBI agents in the hallway.
Was there a sick political culture here?
There still is.
Has it changed?
There are moments. There are moments. It’s sort of like Alice down the rabbit hole. There are moments when you think, OK, like when I boycotted closed session for three weeks and after three weeks got the permanent rules of council changed. I don’t think we saw anything ever happen so quickly in government.
What about the council itself? When I first got here and was first watching it there was very little questioning, very little analysis. It appeared that very few people had done any homework.
Like read the docket. Yeah, I know.
You watch last night, for example, and there was a lot of critical questioning from the city attorney, council members, very public criticism. Has that changed on the council?
I think certain issues lend themselves to more questioning. I think the more public attention is being paid to an issue. I think you’ll find that if the media is paying closer attention to an issue, the council will pay more attention and ask more questions.
So yeah, to some extent it’s changed, but I think there are certain dynamics that drive that. What I am concerned about is the full council, some of the lack of questioning relating to preliminary official statements, the bond offering documents, the annual financial reports. Even signing them at all. I would never vouch for any of the financial information coming out of the city.
Because I don’t believe what they tell me.
Do you believe they’re being purposefully deceptive?
Let me put it this way. Maybe there are different views of the world. Let’s say (there’s) a preliminary official statement, and I find something things in there that are not quite presented in a way that I think should be presented — and again, I’m somewhat cynical — so I sort of take that with a grain of salt.
But at the same point in time, do I think that things are presented in a way that leads you to a more favorable opinion about the way things are? Yes. Is that illegal? No.
So is it on par with what was happening before when the city was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission or is it more subtle?
No, it’s not on par with what was happening before because everyone has to sign these disclosure documents, I mean you have their name, rank and security number.
You’ve been here for nine and a half years. How do you assess your effectiveness in your time here?
There’s a lot good that we’ve done. As far as the disclosures, changing the permanent rules of council, as far as passing a ballot measure to make it easier for the public and the media to get access to government information, which is now in the city charter, the indirect potable reuse, the conservation measures, the reduced sewage spills, the dedication of public park land, the mandatory recycling. I’ve done a lot of stuff. Runoff reduction. Water conservation.
So a lot of your …
It’s been environmental. And I’ve prevented a lot of bad stuff that people will never know about and that’s OK too.
Like you’ll never know.
Now’s a good time to tell me.
There’s no reason to tell.
What do you think your place is in San Diego history?
(Sighs.) Someone that did her homework. Told the truth. Whether people liked it or not. Was decent to people. Courteous. Treated people with courtesy and respect. And tried to solve problems, not create them.
And we can talk about a legacy after I’m dead. (Laugh). I hate that word. “Is this your legacy project?” No it’s not. Screw the legacy.
What didn’t you get accomplished?
We haven’t solved the city’s financial crisis. That is ongoing. We haven’t addressed the contracting issues. Those are abysmal. They’re shameful.
And that’s minority contracting?
Absolutely. Minority, women, etc. Contract management. Those have not been addressed. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues. The homeless, I’m pretty happy about that. I think we’re moving in the right direction. Affordable housing, we’re doing better on. CEQA, significant thresholds, I don’t think we’re doing all that well on but no one will care probably except me.
And there’s probably other things. I would’ve liked to have a permanent fire station in Mission Valley. I would’ve liked to have a big public park in Mission Valley. There’s a lot of things. I could nitpick to death but I think we did a good job and I think like I said, I hope we gave folks their money’s worth.
So what are you going to do on Dec. 6?
I’m going to clean.
Clean your house?
Whatever needs cleaning.
OK. For how long?
For the rest of my life. I will be part of the cleaning crew.
So sometimes when you see things that all of the sudden got cleaned, you will say how did that happen? (Laughs.) Is that cryptic enough?
If there weren’t term limits would you be staying on the council?
Probably. I probably would’ve served another term. Just because I think we could’ve actually gotten closer to solving the financial problem. And also because Carl (DeMaio) needs smacking around once and a while.
Interview conducted and edited by Andrew Donohue. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0526. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDonohue.