Such a year. During the past 12 months, San Diegans suffered through havoc of Biblical proportion: towers of terror in Kearny Mesa, landslides in La Jolla, epic wildfires burning through the county like Sherman to the sea, looming water shortages threatening to make us have to plumb our toilets to our taps, a housing-price implosion, a deserting sports franchise, continuing fiscal uncertainty and internecine municipal civil war.
All in all, another normal year.
San Diego ends 2007 not substantially different than when the new year of promise began: a pension system on the road to recovery but not completely out of the woods, still out of Wall Street’s good graces (what, you guys can snap up sub-prime-laced securities like popcorn but turn up your nose at our bonds? San Diego’s credit is every bit as sub-prime as the next guy’s), still with a mayor who continues to be strong on promises but weak on delivery and a city attorney who everyone either loves or loves to hate.
Yet through it all, San Diegans got by, living their lives in what might not be America’s finest managed city but is still, fires and political crises not withstanding, one of the nicer spots on the globe to live. After all, they’ve had epic mismanagement in New York and Philly but, even after they fixed those problems, everyone was still living in New York and Philly. We at least have palms trees, sun and fish tacos.
San Diego’s leading politicians continued to not play congenially in the municipal sandbox in 2007. The ongoing feud between Mike Aguirre and Jerry Sanders metastasized from an oozing sore to festering wound, courtesy of the Sunroad fiasco. The year 2006 ended with Aguirre suing to force the removal of the top two floors of the oversized Kearny Mesa tower even as the city allowed Sunroad to finish putting a roof it. The spring was spent with Sanders appearing to be way more of a backroom wheeler-dealer than anyone thought, trying a variety of gambits to appease both the Federal Aviation Administration and Sunroad, whose owner just happened to be a major mayoral campaign contributor. The outcome: Aguirre got his way—Sunroad was forced to actually follow the law—but his accusing Sanders of corruption in the matter ended whatever chance at a working détente the two may have had. And Sanders came out of it all with his straight-shooter reputation a tad bent.
Sanders and Aguirre later made a feeble effort at bon hommie, appearing at a few joint press conferences, but, for the most part, the two spent the last half of the year studiously avoiding each other. Which doesn’t exactly lend itself to effective government. Meanwhile, Aguirre’s relationship with the City Council remained at the usual level of simmering contempt, with Council President Scott Peters periodically blasting Aguirre for the millions he’d spent on pension lawsuits even as the council spent big bucks on its own outside counsel whenever it disliked the opinions of the city attorney—or simply didn’t trust him to deliver an opinion in the first place.
This year the bloom came off Sanders’ mayoral rose. His failure to achieve many of his 2005 campaign promises during his first year in office could be—and largely was—seen by the public as understandable given the huge mess he inherited from Dick Murphy and his settling into the job. Yet this year the mayor was a little more successful in achieving his declared goals of substantially reducing the city workforce, renegotiating and downsizing municipal employees’ pay and benefits, outsourcing city services, streamlining the business-and-development regulatory processes or returning to the bond market. Even the mayor’s promise to change City Hall’s culture of secrecy and evasion of public scrutiny—the sort of behaviors that resulted in the pension crisis and Sunroad—fell short: The city’s whistleblower hotline remains—in violation of city law—under direct mayoral supervision, hardly the ideal relationship to encourage the exposure of abuses of power, or mere incompetence, in city government.
While the public still largely approves of Sanders’ performance to date, that approval dropped steadily in 2007, particularly post-Sunroad, only bouncing back because of the general perception that Sanders and the city handily handled the October fires. As the fires faded, however, official and public criticism of Sanders and the city for not implementing all of the fire-safety recommendations that emerged post-Cedar fire—like build a couple of dozen more fire stations and hire hundreds of additional firefighters, for starters—flared up. According to a Competitive Edge survey, by November only 50 percent of San Diegans thought San Diego was still moving in the right direction, down from 54 percent at year’s start, a sign that Sanders’ administration is, at best, adrift and, possibly, taking on water.
San Diego’s political sharks seem to be smelling mayoral blood in said water. Fellow Republican Steve Francis, emboldened by Sanders’ failures to deliver on promised policies, is seriously preparing to challenge his 2005 special-election nemesis come the June primary. The remaining big mystery is why city Democrats, seeing Sanders stumbling, have yet to offer up a viable candidate to challenge him. Even the City Council, which tended in 2006 to roll over for the mayor more than a love-starved mutt, has started to challenge His Honor, handing him stinging defeats by overriding his veto of the their sewage-water recycling initiative and moved to block Sanders from deleting all references in the city’s economic general plan to fostering the development of jobs that pay a living wage.
But it was still Gentleman Jerry who had the finest moment of any San Diego politician in 2007. His self-reversal in September on the City Council’s decision to support a legal effort to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriages flew in the face of conservative orthodoxy and political pragmatism. Yet Sanders recognition of the fundamental humanity underlying the political sloganeering and opportunism surrounding the issue was a rare—too rare—moment of political grace that, more than anything else in his tenure in office, established his bona fides as a community leader. It may well also turn out, in 2008, to cost him the support of his conservative Republican base—and with it the title of mayor.
A host of issues confronting the city remain unresolved at year’s end, to be carried over into 2008, just as they were from 2006. The most potentially disruptive of these is the continuing state of disrepair of the city’s water and sewer systems and looming water shortages. Depending upon the fickleness of the winter snow pack, hard choices may need be made in 2008 on the distribution of life’s elixir, the very sort of hard choices politicians hate to tackle any time and positively run from in an election year. Sanders hopes the city will return to credit health early in the new year. Given recent history related to San Diego finishing the necessary financial audits to return to the bond market, this might be yet another example of wistful thinking. If so, raising capital for needed capital improvements—short of tax increases no one wants—is a nonstarter.
This issue and many others—like the Bolts looking at becoming the Chula Vista Chargers—are going to remain in limbo until after the June primaries. A city without a Jerry or a Mike in power and with a Steve or an Alan (Bersin) in their place would be a very different political animal than it currently is. The past year was the one to take issues off the table. Most of these issues will now remain tabled until 2009.
But amid the mud (both slung politically by warring politicians and sliding down hillsides, carrying houses) and smoke and red ink, were notable triumphs. While derided by critics driven more by squeamishness than science, the vote by Councilmembers Frye, Atkins, Peters, Hueso and Madaffer to fund a pilot project looking at reusing wastewater at least recognizes the fact that finding new water sources to quench San Diego’s growing thirst is inevitable. Likewise, the passage of the mandatory-recycling ordinance, while not making San Diego a completely green city, will help the city comply with state mandates to recycle at least 50 percent of its waste and extend the life of the Miramar landfill.
While all the lessons learned from the Cedar fire might not yet have been implemented, the development of a one-stop local assistance center with more than 40 agencies on hand to assist victims of the disaster helped provided faster aid and relief to those in need. Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors has finally taken the first steps toward creating a county fire authority to integrate the hodgepodge of local fire districts. This should help make countywide response to inevitable future fires better coordinated and effective. Down at Otay, the San Diego region moved closer to obtaining the required presidential permit needed to open a third border crossing. In leading the charge on this effort, folks like Supervisor Greg Cox have recognized that, as much as anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric fills political speeches and AM radio airwaves, San Diego is still part of a regional economy that includes our neighbors to the south and our long-term economic futures are inescapably linked. And out in Lakeside, Supervisor Dianne Jacob has successfully championed for a new, state-of-the-art Little League ballpark. Of such things dreams are made.
And that about sums it up. Massive fires and fiscal mayhem on one hand, better recycling and Little League fields on the other. Sure, many of the problems confronting San Diego government will continue year in and year out. Fiscal mismanagement, municipal incompetence, politicians placing short-term political gain and ego over long-term social good—welcome to the family human. The true genius of American politics, even in its provincial San Diegan incarnation, is that, despite the mediocrity and mischief of many elected officials, despite we-the-people, constantly asking more from government than we are willing to pay for, despite the fact that, at the end of the day we all are just human beings, life goes on and, over time, has consistently gotten better.
And, when the sun rises Jan. 1, we San Diegans will still be living in a darn nice place. On to 2008. Carl Luna blogs at politicallunacy.word press.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.