About nine months ago, I asked Mayor Jerry Sanders about critics who say he focuses too much on downtown at the expense of the city’s other neighborhoods. The mayor stopped me before I finished my question.

“You mean Steve Erie?” Sanders said.

The mayor, who rarely calls out his critics by name, was referring to University of California, San Diego political science professor Steve Erie. Now, Erie has given Sanders much more to work with.

Last month, Erie and two other academics released a book on San Diego city government called “Paradise Plundered.” The book, as its name implies, takes Sanders, other city leaders and even residents to task for San Diego’s financial and governance problems.

Erie blames weak leadership, a disinterested public and, above all, low taxes as the source of San Diego’s decay. I spoke with him about the city’s financial problems, his critique of Petco Park and other major development projects and his response to Sanders’ criticism.

Erie also made a case for why corruption isn’t always the worst thing in government.

I’d like to start with the central premise of your book. You say that San Diego has a shiny exterior and crumbling underbelly, sort of a Potemkin village. Can you explain what you mean by that?

There are really two faces or sides to San Diego. There’s the San Diego the tourists see. There’s a high-tech industry that spawned the new economy by places like UCSD. That’s the public face of San Diego at least in terms of the local PR machine, which is very good at getting the San Diego image out.

The reality of San Diego is on the public sector side. I think on the first page we talk about an increasingly grim and visible civic reality, which is dry rot for public services and infrastructure. That’s still largely hidden. You get intimations of it like during the 2003 and 2007 fire when you suddenly realize we have very little fire protection.

The problem with San Diego is that the ocean and the sun are both our blessing and our curse. Obviously, it’s a wonderful place to live in if you can afford it. But the problem is, is that it induces sort of a sense of complacency that as long as the sun comes up everything is OK.

You say that San Diegans are as much to blame for the city’s problems as its politicians. So why are they, or why are we, to blame?

You have to understand history. The first thing you need to understand about San Diego is that for years it was a military town. Navy Town, USA. That meant a couple of things in terms of the willingness to pay for local services. One is military pay wasn’t all that great. Number two there was a sense that Uncle Sam would provide.

In addition to this military heritage, there’s a libertarian culture here that’s particularly anti-local government: Local government is a hot-bed of waste, fraud and corruption. You hear this not only from politicians but from voters all the time.

It’s very hard to move voters. The only thing I think in this town that will move them is really a grand coalition. It is the elected officials using the bully pulpit. And a united business community actively supporting things. And the media on board. You see that in a place like Chicago. It’s a Republican business community. It’s a Democratic machine. The Chicago Tribune has hated the Daleys for years. Yet when it comes to raising revenue and taxes for needed public services and investments they all speak with one voice.

Isn’t Chicago notorious for being the most corrupt big city in the country?

But it’s a better form of corruption than you have here in San Diego. It’s systemic corruption rather than ad hoc or personal corruption.

OK.

What I mean by that is, it’s cost plus 10 or 15 percent. You just add that on. It’s tithing on the part of the machine. And then the services get delivered.

Why should the public stand for that?

Because it works. You just pay more. It works. In San Diego, you pay less and it doesn’t work.

But if you look at Chicago’s pension situation from a pure numbers perspective, they’re in a lot worse place than San Diego is.

But a place like Chicago and a place like Los Angeles, which is also facing pension difficulties now, they tend to have sources of revenue and an ability or capability to raise revenue. Both of those things are lacking in San Diego. In Los Angeles, right, they just took money out of the Department of Water and Power. It was an ATM machine.

The deficit looks big right now, but the ability to solve it within let’s say a five to 10 year period is greater in those communities than it is here.

But how is borrowing from the Department of Water and Power or taking from the Department of Water and Power, how is that good government?

That wasn’t the question that you asked. That’s a secondary problem, right?

Is it the right way to run a government? Is it really a hidden tax on ratepayers? Yeah, it is. But that’s the way, until recently, these places have worked.

What’s interesting about San Diego is that we were just the first to get caught. Because we were an early and eager underfunder of the pension among other things. If anything I hope that this book will be read as a cautionary tale of what happens when you go down this route.

Is it fair to say you blame San Diego’s financial crisis on inadequate revenues?

On inadequate revenues, yes.

Why is that the primary cause?

San Diego is well below the average in terms of spending on a lot of metrics.

It doesn’t mean that it’s at the bottom. There are others that are at the bottom, too. But on average the other California cities they spend like today 50 percent more on basic services. They don’t have unaccredited fire departments. They don’t have the smallest police department in the nation of any big city. They don’t have roads with potholes where the deferred maintenance is such. So much of the crisis of public services and infrastructure is our unwillingness to spend money on services.

Back in 1972 we were spending just about the average. You’ll notice that the trend line begins to diverge, San Diego dropping further and further behind.

Some could say L.A. is the worst case possible. They throw money at government and public services. But, and not to say that any San Diegan would like to live in Los Angeles, but if there were a major fire where would you wanna be?

I will concede that the city has a relatively low revenue stream compared to other major cities in California. That being said, I understand some of the mistrust of government when we’re talking about revenue measures.

Let’s take November’s Proposition D sales tax campaign. The Prop. D campaign, all we heard was if we don’t get this new money, then fire and police are going to be decimated and you’ll all be at risk. Well, Prop. D fails and not much happens to police and they boost fire services.

They cried wolf. But I liken San Diego to a frog in the water where the heat is being turned up. Every year we have a structural budget deficit. Jerry Sanders says that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re still looking for that light how many years later.

All I say is, wait a few years.

But I think it’s clear the mayor is going to to declare victory over the budget deficit before he leaves office. So my question then is, what does the city look like when it has a structurally balanced budget?

And are city services adequate going forward, even if there is no structural deficit? It’s really, what kind of community do we want?

The crown jewels of San Diego are really very different than L.A. In L.A., the crown jewels are their public infrastructure investments, ports, airports, their water system. In San Diego the crown jewels have been our ocean, our parks. It’s really the quality of life. We’ve moved on this trajectory for the last 100 years. The question is, will we be able to maintain the parks?

You critically re-evaluate in the book projects that are generally taken to be successes in the city’s history. I’m talking about Petco Park, Liberty Station, other major development projects, particularly those that are springing from public-private partnerships. I’m curious if there have been any big projects, or public-private partnerships in your mind that have worked out for the city.

I’d have to think about that one for a while. These are heralded as the big ones in the modern era, in the last 10 to 15 years. Think about Petco Park, the so-called downtown renaissance. It is hailed as an iconic model for other places to emulate. All that we’re pointing out is that its public benefits are not as great as the supporters have ballyhooed and the public costs have been substantial.

A lot of it is that we have a history of poorly crafted public-private partnerships and poorly monitored public-private partnerships. Remember who’s at the table when these agreements are set up. There’s the city people and then the top lawyers that they fly in from New York City. It’s no contest.

The mayor mentioned you when I asked him once about critics who say that he focuses on downtown at the expense of other city neighborhoods. He told me: “I’ve had one conversation with Steve Erie over the past six years, so how he professes to be such an expert about me, I really have no clue.”

Is that correct? That you’ve only talked to the mayor once?

I’ve only talked to the mayor once in the last six years. That is correct.

How would you respond to him?

I talk to people who talk to him all the time. It may be second hand, partly because I’m up here trying to build a program and write books. Let me tell you, I talk to people who are really on the inside. It’s not for attribution. I’m not going to name names.

By the way, I’ve been as, if not more, critical of Los Angeles mayors. I don’t get nearly this thin-skinned reaction from Los Angeles people. If you go to Los Angeles you’re expected to criticize. Down here, and maybe it’s our military past. It breeds sort of an authoritarian, command and control, father knows best culture, where dissent becomes a punishable offense.

Of any of the four major candidates for mayor, do you think any of them are in any way in a position to reverse some of the trends that you’ve talked about?

I think Bob Filner is more positioned to reverse some of these trends than the others.

Why’s that?

He would probably find ways to raise revenues. He opposes this comprehensive (pension) reform act, which at this point given the public polling is kind of a courageous thing. But he only has to get into the runoff. What’s Carl DeMaio going to do if he’s elected? Managed competition in a town where we have such a very poor track record of public oversight of private contracts and partnerships, it makes you wonder.

So Bob Filner because he’s against the pension initiative? Or Bob Filner because he’s a Democrat?

Not necessarily that he’s a Democrat, but he’s more willing to see the problem also as lack of revenue. Maybe that’s because he’s a Democrat. Certainly the others, none of them, are going to admit that. They’re going to take the existing level of public services as a given. And then figure a way to squeeze costs and of course the 800-pound gorilla is the pension system.

As you well know, the benefits are backloaded even in terms of the [five-year salary freeze that’s included in the pension initiative]. If you look out 30 years, it’s going to take a while before you see any serious savings. The short-term salvation, and certainly for this mayor who I haven’t spoken to in seven years, is if investments pay off. The problem is that he may have said that before the last month. Because it looks like we may be going off the cliff again.

But he’ll be out of office by the time that matters.

Of course.

Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who can be reached at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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