August 29, 2005 - From the August, 2005 issue

San Diego's ‘Calm Before the Storm': Steve Erie Awaits Mayoral Race Between Frye & Sanders

The past year has brought crisis after crisis to the City of San Diego, and residents and observers alike are wondering when it with either implode or right itself for good. The November mayoral election, itself a product of former mayor Dick Muphy's unexpected resignation, will determine a part of the city's fate, and the winner will have to contend with a budget crisis, a dysfunctional city council, and murmurs of slow leaks in the area's much-discussed real estate "bubble." At the same time, the city is beginning a transition to a form of government that gives more power to the mayor, whoever it may be. UC-San Diego political science professor Steve Erie has witnessed his city's turmoil, and in this interview with MIR, Professor Erie explains a few of the issues at stake in California's second-largest city.

Steve Erie

Steve, we have had series of conversations over the last six months about the meltdown of city government in San Diego, a city that was once listed as one of the best-managed cities in the United States. Give us an up-to-date read on the status of the City of San Diego's politics today.

In terms of electoral politics, we are now poised for the main event. We have two candidates for a November runoff: Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police chief Jerry Sanders. With the summer doldrums, this is the calm before the storm as the candidates raise money, seek endorsements, and work on strategies. So, we are not going to probably hear much until the real election season starts after Labor Day. But in the meantime, every day the soap opera at City Hall proceeds. Now the police officers association has sued the city attorney and demanded that he be removed from office on the basis of an alleged bribery offer with respect to their pension benefits. This is opera buffo at its finest or worst.

San Diego is the second-largest city in California. Will the city's upcoming election have important ramifications for the city? The state?

There is a lot at stake here. City services are deteriorating; police officers and other critical city personnel are leaving; and the city is now facing a cash flow problem in addition to the huge pension debt. Who will do a better job of reversing these alarming trends? Donna Frye, in terms of what she may do policy-wise-bankruptcy, taxes, or whatever-is still an unknown quantity. Some feel that there is a risk that things could go south with her at the helm. At the same time, she may be the one who is best prepared to make the hard choices needed. Jerry Sanders is steady, but is not a risk taker. Further, he is surrounded by the standpatters-the supporters of former mayors Golding and Murphy. I think that you are going to see him hew to the center and not do anything dramatic unless events force him to do so.

Allow MIR to press you a little more, Professor. What is at stake socially and economically for the City of San Diego when this election is held in November?

If Donna wins, I think it will signify that this city is on its way to becoming another Los Angeles or San Francisco-a Democratic city. There have been moderate Democratic mayors here in the past, and the number of Democratic-leaning voters continues to grow. In 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry handily beat Bush in the city. Most of the city councilmembers now are Democrats. But understand that this was a Republican city for a long, long time and the old guard is prepared to fight. But the political bandwidth is slowly shifting from center right to center left. To win, Republicans need to unite behind moderate, not conservative, mayoral candidates. Jerry Sanders fits this centrist mold.

As a distinguished political science professor at UC San Diego and the Chair of its Urban Studies department, what, if anything, does center-left or center-right mean in terms of public policies, practices, and even taxation?

What it means is that Frye doesn't rule out going to the voters and asking for tax increases. Since Propositions 13 and 218, increasingly you must secure voter approval for new revenues. Because of attacks from the right, Jerry Sanders waffled considerably on the tax issue in the primary campaign. Much of our fiscal problem is that San Diego is a longstanding anti-tax haven. Unlike other big California cities, San Diego didn't diversify its revenue portfolio after Proposition 13 with utility user taxes, higher hotel occupancy fees and the like. This town needs a frank dialogue about the relation between taxes and services. Donna Frye is more prepared to initiate that conversation than Jerry Sanders. If you want your potholes repaired, you may have to pay more taxes. Yet with a generation of San Diego voters believing that they could get something for nothing, there is real political risk in raising the issue of higher taxes.

Steven, as MIR has documented in a series of interviews with civic leaders that we have done in the last year, the City of San Diego not only is having an electoral meltdown, but it is changing its form of government-eliminating the position of city manager. And in the office of city attorney is a rather provocative fellow. With this mix of challenges, can you reframe the governance issues in the city for our readers?

In January 2006 San Diego will launch a 5-year experiment with L.A.-style mayor/council government. Both mayoral candidates opposed the change, and favored maintaining the council-manager system. Interestingly, now they can almost grasp the prize, they both see the value of a strong mayor system. Both have indicated they want to assist the governance transition. This is a hopeful sign. But with a new mayor installed in mid-November, and the new system implemented on January 1st, there is not a lot of time for preparation. In terms of transition planning so far, the weak link has been on the executive branch side. Departing Mayor Murphy dropped the ball and did nothing to assist the transition. On the legislative side, the city council is moving toward L.A.-style government with a budget analyst/legislative analyst office, and new power for a presiding officer.

I understand that there have been conversations between San Diego and Los Angeles officials about things like the L.A. legislative analyst's office, duties and staffing. Combative City Attorney Mike Aguirre will be playing a key transition role in terms of rule writing and charter interpretation. Given Aguirre's battles with the former mayor, city manager (who is leaving in December) and the city council, many question how constructive his role will be. I am pleased to report that so far his office has been playing a constructive and productive role in transition planning.

Political science is viewed in the university as a different discipline than economics, but clearly the housing prices in San Diego are both an economic and a political issue. If the City's housing stock is beyond the reach of most of the city's working class, will the self-described "surfer girl," the councilwoman who has never voted for a development project while on the council, be able to successsfully confront burgeoning growth in the city?

In the campaign, you are hearing Donna Frye talking about affordable housing and the need to deal with the housing issue. Maybe she will get religion with respect to development projects. But frankly, some of the development projects she has voted against were questionable. In terms of residential development, I think that both of the candidates agree that we have to do everything possible to increase the existing housing stock. I think it is going to be hard for Donna Frye to say no to other forms of development as the campaign progresses. She is already raising the jobs issues and the need to recycle older industrial land to maintain the employment base. And she has a role model in Jerry Brown, who morphed from a small-is-beautiful governor to a pro-growth mayor.


Given the urban community that you work in, San Diego, do your classes draw on the city's dilemas and political choices?

Regarding representative government, San Diego voters for the past 30 years have been saying "We want services and we don't want taxes." The politicians have followed and not led on this issue. That is a major reason that we are in the pickle we are today.

The only place to secure extra funds to balance the budget, as the economy and population growth took over in the late '90s, was the pension fund, which was buoyed by a rising stock market. After 2000, the house of cards collapsed. The pension crisis is a wake-up call to San Diego that you have to make sacrifices and accept burdens if you want services and other public benefits. Some fear that San Diego city government may be forced to sell valuable city property to pay down the deficit. Can you imagine what would happen if "crown jewels" like Torrey Pines golf course were put on the auction block?

No I can't. Can you imagine such a scenario?

No, but there already is talk about selling some of the city's property. For example, the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club sweetheart deal of low-lease payments is being reexamined. Some call for selling the property to the lessees to realize a quick return. As we know from past mistakes in L.A. government, once the property is sold, there is no ongoing revenue stream. My strong advice to the candidates is to rule out property sales.

There are better ways to solve our pension debacle.

Under a city manager form of government, San Diego has had professional general managers and department heads. Perhaps that is why they were able to go so long with providing more services with such little resources. Is there a chance that given all of this turmoil, these departnmental managers will be picked off by other cities in California?

Yes, there is the real possibility that they will be picked off. But remember, it is not only the managers, but also the employees who may be looking for new jobs given fiscal uncertainties and the threat of cutbacks and rollbacks. Right now the police department is hemorrhaging. Senior officers are being picked off with the lure of higher pay and secure pension benefits by neighboring communities like Chula Vista.

So the bleeding of talent in city government is already occurring. I suspect this will continue for a while. Everything seems to be on hold until the new mayor is elected in November.

Lastly, what is going to be the title of your book on San Diego in two years when you write about this?

With apologies to the great poet John Milton, the working title is Troubled Paradise: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in San Diego.


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