Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Five easy questions

Question #1: Ever wonder what an auditor does?

I was introduced to the term auditor at an early age. “If anyone asks you what your father does for a living,” my mother instructed, “just say he’s an auditor.”  Many years would pass before I figured out that auditor was more than a code word for daddies who ran numbers and booked bets.  

Auditors could also be professionals in public and private institutions who assessed financial documents and business transactions for accuracy and legal compliance.   Numbers runners, yes, but respectable.

A decade ago, Eduardo Luna was hired as San Diego’s City Auditor. He had the training, experience, and commitment to  public service to withstand political pressure while running the office of City Auditor “to advance open and accountable government through accurate, independent, and objective audits and investigations that seek to improve the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of San Diego City government.” 


Eduardo Luna’s prescribed ten-year term in office recently expired.  But before he moved on I got a first hand look at how an independent, ethical public auditor pursues the job of exposing fraud, waste, and malfeasance within city government.  

This summer, a new City Auditor will be appointed.  Under City Charter provisions the mayor selects the City Auditor for a ten-year term, subject to City Council approval.

Question #2: Who remembers the Kroll Report?

Once upon a time our city was in such deep financial and ethical trouble we were branded Enron-by-the-Sea.

Back then, former mayor Susan Golding--deftly assisted by former city manager Jack McGrory and Golding’s chief of staff Kris Michell (currently recycled as San Diego's chief operating officer under mayor Kevin Faulconer)--had managed to suck the city coffers dry while hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention.  

With loyal help from then-city auditor Ed Ryan, officials engaged in cooking the books and padding the budget through disastrous agreements with municipal union leaders to underfund the city’s pension system while simultaneously amping up pension benefits.  With nary a peep from the city auditor, San Diego's future was put up as collateral.  

The enormity of ongoing financial mismanagement and falsified financial statements and disclosures eventually hit the fan.  By 2004 investigations were initiated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, US Attorney’s Office, and San Diego District Attorney.  

Finally, the City Council got on the ball and retained Kroll, Inc., a governmental risk management firm, to conduct an independent investigation. 

The resultant 400-page, $20 million Kroll Report excoriated San Diego politicians and upper management for financial dishonesty, securities fraud, gross lack of accountability, egregious cover-ups, non-transparency, obfuscation, and denial of fiscal reality.

According to the San Diego Business Journal: "dozens of local officials and municipal employees put their own welfare ahead of the taxpayer for close to a decade, then tried to keep the lid on their wrongdoing…the evidence demonstrates not mere negligence, but deliberate disregard for the law, disregard for fiduciary responsibility and disregard for the financial welfare of the city's residents over an extended period of time…"  

The newspaper editorial ruefully added that "we here in America's Finest City just shrug our shoulders and mumble that it's business as usual." Of course, it takes coordinated teamwork to maintain business as usual.

Question #3: Anyone here look familiar?

The Kroll Report called out many city officials for being “negligent in the fulfillment of their duties” and for “recklessly or intentionally allowing the city to issue false reports regarding its true fiscal health,” including:
  • Previous councilmember Ralph Inzunza (now writing his 2nd semi-autobiographical novel)
  • Previous councilmember George Stevens (died in 2006)
  • Previous councilmember Byron Wear (now a land use/transportation consultant)
  • Then-sitting mayor Dick Murphy (now retired. “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility,” he once declared)
  • Previous councilmember Scott Peters (now US Congressman)
  • Previous councilmember Toni Atkins (now California State Senator)
  • Previous councilmember Jim Madaffer (now public policy consultant and SD County Water Authority Board chairman)
  • Previous councilmember Brian Maienschein (now California State Assemblyman and latest SD convert from Republican to Democrat) 
  • Past city manager Mike Uberuaga (now ??) 
  • Past city manager Jack McGrory (now CEO real estate/investment LLC and California State University Board of Trustees)
  • Past city attorney Casey Gwinn (now CEO San Diego County YWCA, President National Family Justice Center Alliance)
  • Previous city auditor/controller Ed Ryan (now??) 
  • And previous councilmember Donna Frye—but note that she was the sole official in the entire bunch to have publicly protested and decried city malfeasance (now president emerita of CalAware)
  •  Also named were a former deputy city manager, city treasurer, assistant auditor, retirement administrator, utilities finance administrator, wastewater deputy director, deputy city attorney, and assistant city attorney 
Question #4: Things have changed since the bad old days, haven’t they?  

In 2007 the city was halfway through a 5-year trial period of our switch to a “strong-mayor” form of government, a magic potion sold to San Diego voters guaranteeing political transparency, crystal-clear government accountability, and knowing precisely where the buck stops in city government. 

With mayor Jerry Sanders occupying the catbird seat a Charter Review Committee was convened to tie up loose ends about substantive issues, like: 
...when was the right time to add a 9th city council district? 
...how many council votes should be required to override the mayor’s veto?
...was it a good idea for the city’s chief operating officer to be a mayoral (i.e., political) appointee? 
...should the city auditor be elected by the voters (to maximize workplace independence) rather than appointed by the mayor (the person in charge of the departments the city auditor would investigate)? 

The committee resolved these questions, but not necessarily wisely:
...Our city council now hosts a 9-member array of colorful personalities and political persuasion.  
...Despite a Democratic super-majority, council overrides of mayoral vetoes remain rare.  
...The city's COO, appointed and answerable to the mayor, is currently a well-oiled, longtime political insider.  
 ...As for the city auditor—despite the pretense of an expensive national search for the most talented candidate to fill the vacancy, the mayor selected a team-playing San Diego insider, well-versed in the don’t-upset-the-applecart rules of the old guard game. 
In other words, our first and only independent city auditor steps out the door, only to be replaced by a throwback to the bad old days of yesteryear.

Question #5: Now what?

Kevin Falconer will be out of office soon enough.  But it's a grave mistake to assume that the private interests controlling this mayor will walk away when he's gone.  Mayoral candidate Todd Gloria is already in the bag.  Candidate Barbara Bry has yet to soar on her fledgling independent wings.  

One thing's for sure: installing a proxy city auditor means controlling the city’s system of checks and balances for the next ten years. 

This isn't a political party issue.  This isn't a conservative versus progressive standoff.  It’s a question of protecting the public purse and creating and maintaining honesty and integrity in city government. 

On Wednesday of this week, the city’s audit committee will meet and review Faulconer’s choice for city auditor.  Eventually, the city council will vote to confirm (or not) the mayor's hand-picked choice.  We’ll soon find out where our elected councilmembers stand on issues of good government, public integrity, and city reform. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Duck-duck-goose: San Diego's quest for a new mayor

Let’s start with an urban tale about dreams and possibilities.  Not long ago in a city far, far away, an international gathering took place and it called itself the Fearless Cities Summit. 

And this summit brought together 700 mayors and councilmembers and active citizen groups from far-flung cities and towns around the world.  And their plan was to collaborate on creating global networks of solidarity in the cause of human rights, democracy, and the common good.   Overblown hype?

As it turns out, the “fearless cities” concept is completely down to earth.  It entails people merging their efforts to modify local government institutions and create practical programs that address the specific needs of their particular communities.  Their efforts are unified by a simple overarching goal--to improve the lives of city residents.   Who could find fault with that?

The first “fearless cities” summit took place two years ago in Barcelona—a city that had, for decades, encouraged and enjoyed a tourism and real-estate boom.  But something insidious began revealing itself.  A gradual distortion of the city’s priorities forced out local businesses, drove up rents, accelerated gentrification, and muscled out city residents.  Under the rallying cry of “Barcelona is not for sale," the city boldly embarked on a candid reassessment of the soundness of their growth model based on tourism.

The second fearless cities summit was held in New York City, the third in Warsaw.  Next up will be Brussels, where the city will present a progress report on local initiatives it created to deal with its troubled financial, housing, mobility, jobs, infrastructure, and environmental sectors. 

Sounds like a familiar set of urban troubles, doesn't it?

No, I’m not suggesting that San Diego has the desire—let alone the oomph--to join the ranks of fearless cities.   We’re far from ready to reassess our status as a tourism mecca, much less pull down our city’s “for sale” sign.  

Okay, let's admit it: San Diego is actually a fearful city, where elected officials obediently go along to get along with a well-endowed tourism industry and intimidating real estate/building/growth machine power brokers.  Even our citizen groups are easily silenced by a few token  crumbs.  

Given the usual consequences, maybe we should just cry uncle!  But no, there’s another alternative.  It’s called compromise.   

Her's what I suggest: why don't we settle for improving the biggest small issue that plagues San Diego and causes us much grief?  How about settling for the modest goal of becoming a very well-managed city? 

That’s it? A. Very. Well. Managed. City?  Think about it this way: 
  • when no city official is held accountable for delivering the goods to city residents… 
  • if no one takes responsibility for slipshod oversight of city workers or the work of private contractors… 
  • when no one keeps tabs on how the San Diego Housing Commission spends public money…  
  • if no one remembers that problem-oriented community policing, once a diamond in San Diego’s ear, was stealthily abandoned… 
  • when no one answers for continual botched attempts to ameliorate the city’s homeless crisis, not even to provide adequate public toilets…
  • if no one noticed that the chief of the city water department didn’t supervise his meter readers, who were overcharging water customers (that’s us) by over $2 million… 
  • when no one answers the phone in the office of code compliance/enforcement, while city regulations are violated right and left…
  • if no one can explain why the city throws good money after bad on real-estate deals that sit empty for years… 
  • when no one turns up for over a year to change a street light bulb… 
  • if no one seems to be minding the store… 
  • when no one knows where the buck stops… 
The obvious conclusion? San Diego is A. Very. Poorly. Managed. City.  Is it due to the woeful performance of this mayor?  Or to our bungled transition to a strong mayor system from a city manager government (far from perfect but, in hindsight, more accountable to the public)? Or to our falsified, papered-over pension/budget fiasco?  Or?  Whatever reason, the outcome is--or ought to be--grounds for rebellion.

Now think about it this way: if the fundamental goal of fearless cities is simply to improve the lives of city residents, couldn’t even a fearful city like ours make real and immediate progress toward improving the lives of city residents by setting minimal but firm requirements for our mayor and other elected officials to deliver a well-managed city to San Diego residents?
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Which brings us to Tasha Williamson, a candidate in San Diego’s 2020 race for mayor.  The San Diego City Clerk currently lists the circle of 9 candidates running for mayor. (I've already written commentaries on Todd Gloria, Barbara Bry, and Cory Briggs--who says he's a candidate but has yet to file the requisite paperwork with the city clerk.)  

Did you ever hear of the game called duck-duck-goose?  It’s where 'it' goes around a circle of players and taps each on the head, saying 'duck… duck… duck.'  Then 'it' taps an unsuspecting player on the head and calls out 'goose.'   So 'goose' has to run in circles to tag 'it' before 'it' plops down in the vacated spot left by 'goose.'   That's sort of the way San Diego's political races play out.

Tasha Williamson (TW) is on the list of players eyeing the soon-to-be-vacated spot of San Diego mayor.   One thing's for sure: in this political game she’s no duck.  Not a goose, either.  Could it be she’s more of a swan?  Is it possible for a swan with a resonant message to steal the show--at least for a while?  

Keep this in mind: swans are not outsiders.  They swim the entire pond and know the territory as well as any duck or goose.  And you better take heed of them.  They know how to hiss.  They know how to bite.

What sets TW apart from other candidates is her fearless call for changes that benefit our city’s traditionally underserved sectors.   

Almost a decade ago, TW co-founded the San Diego Compassion Project, serving members and families victimized by gang-related and other violent acts.  Her community actions prompted the Union-Tribune to place her name on their list of Voices of the Year.   She knows the city well enough to give credible voice to many subjects that are usually swept under the rug, like:
→ racial profiling and police offenses in our city...
 the role city government should and could play in enhancing public schools in all neighborhoods...
 concrete, humane responses to the needs of the city’s homeless, poor, addicted, and mentally ill populations...
 resetting misdirected, unfairly apportioned, and wasteful budget priorities...
 beneficial public reuse of public property in the city we all call home...

Tasha Williamson is in the right place at the right time to bring a fearless voice to the mayoral debate.  San Diego voters (and other candidates, as well) can learn a lot from TW's perspectives, perceptions, and experience.  It's a fact--the burden of management failures in our city falls most heavily on our chronically shortchanged communities.  And inevitably, every resident in a badly-managed city suffers the consequences. 

 Yes, a mayor's priorities and goals matter.  But expert management is indispensable if we ever want to see good intentions actually materialize.  The necessity of upgrading the mechanics of city government is part and parcel of what it will take to implement new priorities for raising the quality of life in every community and for all residents.  Now is the perfect time to tackle this unglamorous but burdensome city albatross.
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Of course, exposing and airing the issues are not the same as being able to deliver the goods.  The quest for the best  leader for a fearless future for San Diego continues.  Pass the word along: the cut-off date for mayoral candidates to get their names on the primary ballot is not until December 5, 2019. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

San Diego’s mayor: past, present, and future (part 4)


Mayoral candidate Cory Briggs (CB)

Once upon a time in the city of San Diego a much-heralded and wondrous happening took place.  


From a crowded field of mayoral candidates (including three sturdy Republicans--Nathan Fletcher, Bonnie Dumanis, Carl DeMaio), voters chose to elect a brash, iconoclastic, independent, politically progressive Democrat to become the city’s mayor. 

That person was Bob Filner.  It was the first and only time in recorded history that an authentic liberal came to power in San Diego.  

Personally, he was a flawed agent.  Politically, his record was clean.  But before the public had a chance to see what our city could become with progressive-minded people in charge, he was run out of town.

Today there’s another brash, iconoclastic, (seemingly) independent, (sort of) politically progressive candidate running for mayor of San Diego.  His name is Cory Briggs.  Over the past couple of decades, attorney Briggs has been laboring at loosening the stranglehold of San Diego’s old-boys-club over city politics. 

In an ironic twist to this tempestuous tale, the former-mayor Filner was in the process of confronting the same entrenched powerbrokers before he was ejected from office.  

In another ironic twist, CB and TG--the two politically liberal male candidates now running for mayor--were pivotal participants (alongside fellow-travelers who lurked behind a lineup of outraged women and powerful business interests) in the friendly fire that brought down the aforementioned ex-mayor, who lacked a civilian army capable of advancing his cause or of defending him from the onslaught.  Depending on what is really motivating CB to run for mayor, he, too, may be vulnerable to similar deadly assaults.  

It’s a hot potato.  Before we drop it, there are a few related questions that still need honest answers from the candidate:
  1. Filner's personal proclivities were not an area of concern for CB.  So what triggered CB's lethal attack? 
  2. Was CB (like Todd Gloria) suffering the agonies of thwarted personal ambition, having been spurned by the new mayor?
  3. Or might it be that CB was simply doing friends a political favor by getting rid of this mayor in order to speed up Nathan Fletcher’s second attempt to take over the vacated mayor's seat?  
  4. Whatever the motivation, was CB’s choice to overthrow the mayor a rational decision?
  5. When he and his partners held a press conference to call for the mayor's resignation, did anyone have a backup plan?  Or did CB spontaneously mount the diving board, hold his nose, and jump... to hell with the consequences?  
In other words, what can we deduce about the political judgment of a mayoral candidate who helped precipitate Plan A (a palace coup) without a Plan B (after storming the Bastille, what comes next)?  After all, coups have consequences.  

Keep this in mind: in the aftermath of the political crusade to bring down a duly-elected mayor, the city suffered six years of failed leadership, deteriorating public services across the city, and a score of needless deaths on the streets.

Does CB, in some way, share responsibility with other actors in this riotous plotline for what would come after they achieved their short-term political goal?


And yet… Cory Briggs may be the perfect candidate for the 2020 race for mayor in San Diego.  He's one of an exceedingly small group of San Diegans with a reputation as an advocate for the public good.  He’s got a tight combination of guts, smarts, ability, and stamina that props him up in the face of the political and financial power brokers who have traditionally shaped San Diego’s politics and policies.  

As a leading candidate in the mayor’s race, his presence will open the debate to a full range of city issues and force other mayoral candidates to confront controversial subjects they might otherwise try to avoid. 

In this moment in time, and for these reasons, CB qualifies as this season’s “it man.”  

Of course, being a perfect candidate does not automatically lead to being a good mayor.   CB has a proliferation of warts.  Are they harder to tolerate than those of his blemished opponent Todd Gloria? Or Barbara Bry?  What do they tell us about the odds of CB becoming a good mayor? 

Here’s a sampling of what we're looking at:
  • CB has zero experience in elected political office,  He claims that his legal battles with the city have educated him about running the city: “You have to know how the gears work to know where to put the monkey wrench.”  But being a good mayor calls for leadership and professional management skills (fatally lacking in our current mayor and his appointees).  CB’s lack of a political record means we have nothing to go on in those crucial areas…
  • CB says he will shatter the establishment and shake up the status quo.  Yes, he has achieved some success through skillful lawsuits against the city. But the litigation process focuses on winning.  It deals in short term goals and strategies.  Running a city involves long-term, multifaceted thinking and planning.  Ideally, it involves respect for the public good.  Does CB have what it takes to switch from blocking bad projects to creating proposals that serve the long-range broad public interest?...
  • CB has many admirers within the environmental and planning communities.  He also has unforgiving detractors who accuse him of turning his back on them in client negotiations and settlements.  Their gripes often spin around the notion of trust.  Lack of trust in a lawyer or mayor poisons the waters…
  • CB has undergone in-depth investigation (some call a public reaming) in the past few years by Voice of San Diego, public radio station KPBS, and its collaborative arm inewsource.  Their reporters wrote exhaustively about CB's business practices, ethics, and use of self-created nonprofit organizations as plaintiffs when launching lawsuits.  CB’s wife did not escape allegations from the same investigative outlets.   A vendetta by San Diego’s tourism industry, a prime target of Briggs’ lawsuits?  Noxious fumes from the office of former-City Attorney Jan Goldsmith?  These past investigations have an upside: CB comes to the mayor’s race with few, if any, unexamined ghosts cowering in his closet…
  • CB takes a contrarian position on the current rage known as build-baby-build.  He calls out the mayor, along with other pro-density housing advocates, for misleading the public with claims that higher density housing projects will alleviate the city’s affordable (workforce) housing crisis.  Is his approach an opportunistic wooing of neighborhood and community groups (aka “nimbys”) or has he widened his focus from litigating civic misdeeds to creating broader neighborhood-centered policies?...
  • CB calls out the mayor for misleading the public about the severity of the city’s crumbling infrastructure and unconscionable missteps in alleviating our homelessness crisis.  CB is inexperienced in overseeing city administration issues like these.  And could he come up to speed on the city's pension debacle (yes, it's baaaaack) that once again might raise the specter of municipal bankruptcy?...  
  • CB wields his brand as crusader for public accountability and open government, and as advocate for the voter class over the donor class.  He publicly challenges most of San Diego’s powerful business mainstays: the Chamber of Corruption (that’s his spelling), Downtown Partnership, Civic San Diego, Taxpayers Association, Tourism Authority, Hotel-Motel Association, BIA, and prominent public relations/ lobbying groups.  A good mayor needs the judgment to know the difference between working with these special interests and working  for them.  
    But there have been troubling signs…
    • CB hopped into bed three years ago with a consortium of land development honchos: master manipulator Steve Peace, JMI Realty’s John Moores, SD Chargers special council Mark Fabiani, land developer Fred Maas, and Chargers honcho Dean Spano, authors of  a ballot initiative called “The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources.”  (This initiative would have given the go-ahead to public financing of a new football stadium, imposed privately-managed “improvement districts” throughout the city, and expedited open-ended SDSU redevelopment in Mission Valley--all without public environmental review or control! Hardly the hallmark of transparency and public interest advocacy.)
    • CB added his name to this deceptive “citizens’ plan.”  When he joined the team did he forget there is no vaccine against fleas?  His participation cast doubts about the depth of his judgment and commitment to the public interest.  Fortunately, voters exercised wiser judgment and rejected the initiative…
    • CB will be a valuable catalyst in the mayor’s race, that's for sure.  Beyond that, the prognosis is murky.  CB stares down the same black hole that once engulfed ex-Mayor Filner: the absence of essential supportive scaffolding.  Yes, a successful mayor requires strong executive skills.  But it's even more crucial to be surrounded by a skilled team of expert advisors with training and commitment to run a city efficiently and humanely.  Without that, the city inevitably suffers.
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    There you have it: mayoral candidates Todd Gloria, Barbara Bry, and Cory Briggs--warts and all.   As I said in the beginning of this 4-part series: it's up to them to put their best feet forward and publicize their particular strengths, records, accomplishments, and goals.   My contribution is to round out the picture by providing an unadorned sketch of what may lay ahead.

    But we're not quite done.  Tasha Williamson has also declared her candidacy in San Diego’s 2020 race for mayor.  She's a welcome addition, someone to enrich and expand the debate by bringing new perspectives to city issues.  I’ll be writing about her shortly.  

    So far, no Republican candidates have revealed themselves. If and when that happens, you’ll read about them here.

    Parting question: ...is that all there is?  The pool of choices in San Diego’s 2020 mayor’s race is still woefully shallow.   Despite plentiful rainfall this winter season, San Diego remains a sparsely-endowed political desert.   

    Surely there are a few good men... and women... sufficiently qualified to jump into the race.  Why settle for good enough?  How about electing a NOTEWORTHY mayor?  Wouldn't that be a revolution in America's finest city!

    Thursday, March 21, 2019

    San Diego’s mayor: past, present, and future (part 3)

     Mayoral candidate Barbara Bry (BB)

    Here's a fact: San Diego is a big small town in which--at one time or another--most everyone gets into bed with most everyone else (figuratively speaking, of course, but literally sometimes).  

    So when we question who’s got easy access to whom, we’re not just being nosy.  The in-and-outs of political bonding can tell us a lot about how political deals and decisions are made, or which way a vote will go.  

    That's why it's important to keep an eye on endorsements, business partners, personal associations, and so on.  Didn't you learn this as a kid? birds of a feather… peas in a pod… lie down with dogs….

    In a less complacent city than ours, alarm bells would be ringing over conflict-of-interest pairings that, here in San Diego, don't even raise an eyebrow.  

    For example, there’s the domestic financial symbiosis between State Senator Toni Atkins, housing advocate and promoter of “smart growth” high-density development and spouse Jennifer LeSar, favored recipient of much-sought-after committee appointments and nonprofit housing contracts.  Clients of LeSar Development Consultants in our region include the SD Housing Commission, El Cajon Housing Authority, Monarch Group, and Affirmed Housing Group.

    Then there’s the politically adventuresome dynamic duo of State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez and her recent spouse County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.  Their double-fisted grip on the local Democratic Party facilitates who gets--or gets locked out of--crucial party funding and party endorsements.   Sometimes even who gets targeted for the trash bin.
      
    Headed for the trash bin, according to this week's headlines, is school board member Kevin Beiser.  He’s running for City Council against fellow-Democrat Wendy Wheatcroft, the founder of a nonprofit coalition called San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention who once exposed the fact that the National Rifle Association gave a high rating to Nathan Fletcher. 

    Shortly after it was created, her Gun Violence Prevention nonprofit did a somersault and endorsed Nathan Fletcher for County Supervisor (are 501c-4 nonprofits free to publicly endorse candidates? I think not).  

    Wendy Wheatcroft--whose campaign treasurer previously worked on Fletcher’s mayoral campaign--has recently been gifted with an official endorsement by Gonzalez-Fletcher.  It's a wide bed, after all.  [It's been suggested to me that a Gonzalez-Fletcher endorsement has not officially occurred.  If I was mistaken, I regret the error.]

    As for Kevin Beiser... looks like he’s toast.  Maybe he deserves it.  Maybe not.  Maybe there are newsworthy others who will also be pulled down in this drama.  Maybe not.  Maybe one day we'll know the whole story.  Probably not.  But as we already observed: most everyone's a kissing cousin in our small big town.   

    Which brings us to the matter at hand--San Diego’s 2020 mayor’s race.  
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    At first glance, Barbara Bry could pass for the girl next door.  But look again—she’s no pushover.  

    Four decades ago BB was a business writer for the LA Times.  Between then and now she has immersed herself in the magical universe of venture capital, business innovation, and entrepreneurship.  It's a high-stakes, risk-filled, public-private cosmos, populated by angels with wads of cash in search of biotech, biomed, software, wireless, and telecommunications jackpots—keepers of the keys to the kingdom yet to come.

    BB has a business degree from Harvard. She was founding editor and CEO of the online news outlet Voice of San Diego and, later, of the aborted San Diego News Network.  Her company Blackbird Ventures invested in early stage technology companies. She created an organization called Run Women Run to inspire and train “pro-choice” women to enter political life.  

    Just two years ago she took her own advice and ran (successfully) to become San Diego councilmember in District 1.  Her self-identification as a business woman working to empower other women is her lucky token.  She's tossing it into the ring in the bigger race for mayor.

    BB has a couple of campaign advantages over her opponent Todd Gloria in the mayor’s contest.  First, her focus on business will bring a degree of support from Republican voters.  And second, her political record is thin.  While TG has to answer for a wart-filled record during eight years on the city council, BB's paper trail is scant.  There’s not much to answer for.

    Not to say that she’s blemish-free:

    • BB succumbed to the seductive lure of political sirens and, with barely half a council term under her belt, decided she was ready to take over the reins of city government and steer the future of San Diego...
    • BB falls back on hackneyed key words to define herself: fiscal discipline; tough decisions; stand up to special interests; fair treatment for all; comprehensive solutions; forward-looking leadership; uniter.  Also: problem-solving skills; entrepreneurial mindset; consensus builder; pragmatist... 
    • BB has a campaign slogan: “I mean business.”  The question of voters is, whose business?  The Let's-Run-Government-Like-a Business meme doesn't translate well for ordinary citizens in the real world.  Private businesses frequently fail, dissolve, go bankrupt, or relocate overseas.  Entrepreneurs say they embrace failure, but failure is a luxury city government cannot afford...  
    • BB has a history of cohabitation in the world of big-scale real estate development.  Her previous spouse was San Diego developer Pat Kruer--former California Coastal Commissioner and founding partner of Monarch Group, a private real estate entitlement, development, investment, and management firm.  BB’s daughter is a partner at the Monarch Group
    • BB renewed her connections to the world of real estate development via her current husband and business partner Neil Senturia--successful real estate developer of office buildings, condominiums, and hotels in Los Angeles and San Diego and loquacious founder and CEO of numerous diverse technology companies: “I have the sense that, at some level, the concept of profit has become a dirty word, I’m resentful”...
    • BB’s fundraising network ranges from the city’s hi-tech/ bio-tech universe to more grounded sources like real estate developer Jennifer LeSar, the Ace Parking family (one of the city’s prime-site land owners and likely beneficiary of the proposed paid parking lot in Balboa Park, should the Jacobs Park Makeover Plan ever come to fruition), and Convention Center expansion cheerleader Bob Nelson…
    • BB was an early proponent of the San Diego’s 2010 switch from a city manager form of government to the current (and in urgent need of revision) strong mayor system...
    • BB supported the dubious switch of the city's pension plan to a 401(k) plan.  The Supreme Court has just thrown our costly pension mess back to the city to resolve. It's a hot potato that no city official wants to touch.  The next mayor may have to...
    • BB’s chief of staff is Jamie Fox.  She was previously deputy chief of staff for convicted-and-later-acquitted councilmember Ralph Inzunza...then director of communications for ex-councilmember Kevin Faulconer...then campaign manager and chief of staff for Todd Gloria throughout the roiling days of Bob Filner’s tenure in the mayor’s office.  Now that her new boss BB is running against TG in the mayor’s race, is it unreasonable to speculate on latent conflicts of interest in her heart-of-hearts?… 
    • BB’s chief policy staffer is Victoria Joes.  She was policy advisor for Mayor Jerry Sanders and director of housing policy at the well-connected firm of Jennifer LeSar Development Consultants.  It's a small world, after all...
    • BB calls herself a business-savvy decisionmaker.  But cheerleading for SDSU’s open-ended expansion dreams for Mission Valley--a vision that entails a new stadium, thousands of housing units, office buildings, research facilities, magically created at no cost to taxpayers or students--is premature, at best... 
    • BB lends her name to what looks like a bad business plan for the Mission Valley-SDSU (No city control over basic details. No bottom line about the price the city will accept for the sale of this coveted public land. No binding environmental agreements. No heads-up about traffic impacts. No assurances about creating the promised River Park. No timelines. No definition of “key deal points.” No financial guarantees).  It enhances BB's claim as a risk taker but could undermine her standing as a protector of the public interest... 
    • BB prided herself for having “confidence” to stand up to the mayor by opposing the “Soccer City” development proposal on the site of Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley and supporting the alternative SDSU West ballot initiative (which won voter approval).  But neither proposal passed the smell test.  Wouldn’t a good mayor have opposed both ballot choices and gotten to work on a comprehensive public planning process?... 
    • BB’s support for the expansion of the downtown Convention Center falls into the same category.  A good mayor would be wise to be skeptical about who the ultimate beneficiaries will be—the tourism industry? or the public footing the bill…
    • BB’s leadership role as a city councilmember is being squashed by the mayor and council cohorts.  She joined fellow Democrats in calling for a national search for a new police chief and had to settle for a secret selection process and in-house appointee by the mayor.  She took the lead on regulating short-term vacation rentals and was sabotaged.  She stepped forward to regulate dockless scooters and was cast aside by the mayor and councilmember Mark Kersey.   She gets scant support from the new contingent of “minority” women now on the city council…
    • BB went along with council decisions on granny flats, reduced parking requirements (she subsequently reversed her stand), and the mayor’s loosey-goosey proposal for a Community Choice Aggregation (energy) business plan.  She shows she can be a team player.  Can she develop the political clout to call more of the shots?… 

    Could it be that BB hasn’t yet gotten her political sea legs?  Could it be that she hasn’t yet figured out San Diego's political universe?  Could it be that her trusted advisors aren’t doing a good enough job looking out for her strategic and political interests? 
      
    The primary election for mayor is one year down the road.  Is there time for Barbara Bry to grow? Spread her wings? Expand her scope? Be a risk taker by speaking truth to San Diego voters? Emerge as a multi-dimensional public-minded political leader?
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    Our final installment looks at mayoral candidate Cory Briggs.


    Thursday, March 14, 2019

    San Diego’s mayor: present, past, and future (part 2)


    Mayoral candidate Todd Gloria (TG)

    Origin stories are the rage nowadays, but do they make one person intrinsically more worthy than another?  Do they reliably predict the abilities, values, ethical yardstick, or qualifications a person develops over the years? 

    Take Todd Gloria, for example. You may already have a mental image of him as a likable, winsome, up-and-coming kind of guy.  He self-identifies as a gay person of color: ½ Alaskan tribal- native American, 1/4 Filipino, a tad Dutch, and a touch Latino (Puerto Rican), nestled in a home-grown man from an economically disadvantaged background.  

    In other words, our man for all seasons.  

    TG was elected as heir apparent to the District 3 seat of the San Diego City Council following a particularly nasty primary battle against opponent Stephen Whitburn (who's running once again).  The LGBTQ baton was passed to him by Toni Atkins, who had received it from Chris Kehoe.  

    At the end of their respective terms, Kehoe, Atkins, and then Gloria advanced to the CA State Assembly.  Kehoe and Atkins eventually mounted the next rung to CA State Senate.  Not TG.  He's been hankering after Susan Davis's seat in the US Congress but she hasn't budged.  

    (Correction added) Starting in 2012, assemblymembers can serve a lifetime maximum of 12 years or a combined total of 12 years in both the State Assembly and Senate.  So TG could conceivably hang out in Sacramento for another 8 years.  But he's back to San Diego to run for mayor.  

    That’s not to say that being mayor hasn’t been on TG’s mind for a while.  He clearly enjoyed--and made the most of--his 6-month stint as San Diego’s interim mayor, a post he held in 2013 following his dubious partnership with former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith during the orchestrated undoing of Mayor Bob Filner.  

    That wasn't the only odd coupling in the saga of Filner’s election as mayor (although it was the most toxic).  TG’s domestic partner Jason Barsi had hooked up professionally with the mayoral campaign of Filner’s Republican opponent Bonnie Dumanis.  

    Meantime, the high school daughter of not-yet assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez made a surprisingly sizable campaign contribution to Nathan Fletcher, at that time also one of Filner's Republican opponents.  Fletcher's budding relationship with Gonzalez was already bearing fruit.  

    (Targeted from the start by presumed Democratic allies, the hapless super-liberal Bob Filner never stood a chance.  But that’s a story for another day.)

    In today’s mayoral race, here’s what distinguishes TG from his opponents: TG is a seasoned city politician who has already captured early support among Democratic Party regulars, labor unions, the hotel industry, and major developers.
      
    The assortment of power-brokers and lobbyists in his corner is impressive.  Financial backers include hoteliers Bill Evans, C. Terry Brown, and Richard Bartell, SeaWorld, Sempra Energy, Ace Parking, Cox Communications, Cush Enterprises, CA Association of Realtors, CA Building Industry Association, Chevron, CA State Building & Construction Trades Council, OliverMcMillan, and--recently in the news--private prison contractors doing business with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  

    But there’s a flip side to being a seasoned city politician.   After two terms as city councilmember TG left a paper trail, a political record, for all to see.  Once you refresh your memory about his time on the city council you'll be faced with a thorny question: would TG make a good mayor, anyway… despite much of his recorded performance? 

    As councilmember:
    • TG engineered the establishment of the Balboa Park Conservancy, whose mission is to raise funds to maintain and improve the park (Balboa Park is in TG’s council district).  But the Conservancy stumbled, sputtered, and languished under his negligent supervision…
    • TG defied 1) public objections, 2) a lawsuit brought by Cory Briggs, and 3) strong opposition from incoming mayor Bob Filner by forging ahead with an unprecedented 40-year lease extension to the Bahia Hotel in Mission Bay, owned by financial backer Bill Evans... 
    • TG actively supported the Qualcomm/Irwin Jacobs makeover plan in Balboa Park for a bypass bridge and city-financed paid parking lot.  Filner opposed the plan and, after becoming mayor, took steps to create a pedestrian friendly Plaza de Panama by eliminating surface parking spots… 
    As council president:
    • TG chafed mightily under Bob Filner’s ascendency as San Diego’s progressive new mayor.  The two engaged in a fierce public rivalry over who was the city’s rightful top dog… 
    • TG conspired with the City Attorney to deny legal support to Bob Filner, an underhanded and unethical tactic to force the mayor to resign or face bankruptcy...
    • TG climbed to the top of the bandwagon in support of public funding for the Convention Center expansion...
    • TG sidestepped honest analysis of the San Diego worker pension morass, replicating evasive practices of previous city councils to conceal damaging budget impacts from public view…
    • TG improperly pressured a city planner (according to court documents) to reverse report findings over a disputed expansion of the Academy of our Lady of Peace, a private religious school.  This unethical manipulation cost the city more than half a million dollars in legal settlement fees...
    As interim mayor

    • TG used his 6-month stint as interim mayor to speedily reverse, undo, and overturn numerous decisions and processes put into place by the elected Mayor Filner… 
    • TG put up roadblocks to renegotiating improved terms for the city regarding a tourism marketing deal with San Diego hoteliers, dismantling Filner’s early efforts…
    • TG overstepped his job description as temporary mayor and hired consultant Stephen Goldsmith to reorganize city government.  Goldsmith was an "efficiency expert" in privatizing government services and in the sale of city functions to the private sector... 
    • TG promptly rehired two lobbying firms, previously rejected by ex-mayor Filner but favored by Jerry Sanders and the Chamber of Commerce.  Peculiar choices for a progressive politician…
    • TG rescinded a stop-use order issued by ex-Mayor Filner to prevent zoning code violations by the neighborhood restaurant chain Jack in the Box.  In doing so he overstepped his authority as interim caretaker, turned his back on North Park residents, and reassured big-business backers...
    • TG reversed a program--previously funded by Mayor Filner--to keep shelters open year-round, thus impeding the city's ability to provide emergency shelters as needed.  Closing cold weather shelters eventually led to a deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A just a few years later…
    More as councilmember:
    • TG boldly claimed credit for promoting a much-sought after minimum wage law—an ordinance that had, months earlier, been achieved for contractors doing work for the city by then-Mayor Filner.  In a bizarre twist, TG negotiated worse terms by scaling back the wage increase from Filner’s $13/hour to $11/hour.  Who had the last laugh on this one?...
    • TG claimed authorship of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, which must come as a big surprise to the plan originator Nicole Capretz, who had coordinated with ex-Mayor Filner… 
    • TG dropped the ball in creating San Diego's Balboa Park Centennial Celebration, which was to be a spectacular citywide festival.  Through failed leadership and lack of oversight it landed as a disastrous flop.  TG promptly blamed ousted Mayor Filner for having unduly raised expectations...

    ************************************
    If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's this: bad things happen to a city under bad leadership and bad management.   Next time around we need a good mayor.

    So the question for voters remains: is Todd Gloria's proliferation of political warts--scattered across many unexpected places--a dependable indicator of what we can expect from him in the future?  Nobody’s perfect.  The question is, would he be good enough?  

    Our next installment looks at mayoral candidate Barbara Bry.