July 17 2013 08:03 AM

Mayor's inability to interact responsibly with women makes him unfit for office

Donna Frye is very, very angry.
Photo by David Rolland

Last Thursday, in a special post, we called on San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign immediately. Our call came hours after former City Councilmember Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs held a news conference during which they told Filner that he needed to gracefully step down because of the way he had mistreated "numerous" women. Frye was extremely emotional, particularly when she spoke of the women she's heard from.

The trio wouldn't describe the kinds of encounters they'd heard about from the women. Gonzalez referred to Filner's behavior as "truly reprehensible circumstances." Later, he said on KPBS radio that since they went public, more women have come forward and told similar stories.

Thursday afternoon, Filner responded, apologizing for disrespecting and intimidating women, vowing to seek help and promising to change his behavior. He asked for time to change but didn't say how long he'd need. 

That's when we reached our conclusion that Filner must go.

When we endorsed Filner before the primary election in 2012, we had this to say: "We already knew that Filner can be cantankerous and overbearing and has a reputation for creating a work environment that's not always pleasant. Meanwhile, with Filner—how shall we put this?—the threat level for scandal of varying sorts is at least orange. Color us concerned."

Honestly, this is the kind of thing we were worried about. But at that point, what we'd heard, and what we knew, fell far short of evidence of a serious problem. We supported Filner's policy agenda for San Diego, and that outweighed our concerns about his possible character flaws.

Watching Frye become emotional as she talked about the women she's spoken to, it became obvious to us that Filner has a serious problem. Frye also endorsed Filner and went to work for him soon after he was elected. For her to call for his resignation because of what she's heard is no small thing. It's huge. Ditto for Gonzalez. If they were political foes, this would be a whole different story. They're not.

While Filner didn't apologize directly for sexual harassment, he admitted that he needs help and said that he and his staff would receive sexual-harassment training, which, frankly, we'd have expected that they'd already received as a matter of course.

In the days that followed, Filner grew more defiant, strengthening his refusal to resign, saying that if his as-yet-unidentified accusers file formal complaints, he'd be vindicated, and restocking his top staff. The key appointment was retired San Diego County Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard to the top (temporary) post of chief operating officer. Ekard immediately told Voice of San Diego that his acceptance of the job was conditioned on several things, including that he would truly be in charge of the day-to-day city operations and that Filner would stop mistreating his staff. "… I basically made it clear that the temper and other stuff stops," Ekard told Voice's Lisa Halverstadt.

Right. About that "other stuff":

On Monday morning, Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs ratcheted up the pressure, Frye's emotional state speeding toward rage, and provided the detailed accounts of three still-unidentified women—a former staffer, a constituent and a campaign volunteer. They said they've seen a pattern emerge when Filner meets women: He gets them alone, asks about their availability, compliments their appearance, asks them out on dates and sometimes forces himself on them with uninvited kisses and groping. The campaign volunteer alleged that Filner forced his tongue into her mouth and reached under her bra. The staffer alleged that Filner grabbed her butt and breast. Frye said pointedly that Filner can't be trusted to be alone with a woman.

Meanwhile, Bronwyn Ingram, who ended her engagement with Filner last week before all hell broke loose, told KPBS that Filner, in her presence, would send sexual texts to other women and ask them out on dates. She said he's become increasingly abusive.

We believe Frye and Gonzalez have heard horrific stories; they wouldn't go this far if they hadn't.

We believe Gonzalez is right when he says that Filner knows what Frye and Gonzalez know. That's why Filner's initial apology was as contrite as it was. Therefore, we believe Filner was admitting to serious behavioral transgressions toward women.

It's 2013. A pattern of sexual harassment on the part of a mayor is unacceptable. It would have been unacceptable in 2003, and 1993. The point is, Filner shouldn't have to be told that his behavior is unacceptable. He should know better. And that he didn't know better demonstrates a serious lack of basic ethical judgment, and that's a problem that's easily transferable to other areas of his jurisdiction and responsibility.

Filner has an air of entitlement that can be forgivable in some circumstances—Filner being Filner. But a broader, more troubling pattern is emerging. The Sunroad controversy, which was Briggs' primary point of contention in his call for the mayor to resign, showed a mayor who thinks it's OK to solicit or accept payments or donations from developers in exchange for or accompanying favorable administrative actions. (Although we, like Briggs, contend that the City Council shares the blame in that case. See our story here.) He also doesn't seem to think the California Public Records Act applies to him. Maybe it's only journalists who see that as a severe problem, but everyone should. There's absolutely no transparency in his administration, which is a failure of one of his campaign promises.

Some folks will argue that we're rushing to judgment before Filner gets the benefit of due process. That's reasonable. Innocent until proven guilty. We wouldn't begrudge anyone who takes issue with our call for Filner's resignation on those grounds.

But our job is not to convict Filner based on unambiguous evidence of wrongdoing. Our job is to make recommendations based on what's best for San Diego and its citizens. We still support Filner's vision for San Diego, but we've lost confidence in his capacity to see it through. It was fine—desirable, even—when it was only his political opponents with whom he had no credibility. But his credibility among his own political base is eroding. And, more importantly, he's admitting that he has a severe problem in how he treats half the population, an entire gender of human beings. That's the worst part of this. San Diegans shouldn't have to wait and see and hope that Filner can figure out how to calibrate his human-decency compass.

After how Frye and Gonzalez characterized the problem, Filner's initial apology and subsequent downplaying of the issue— he's hard on people who aren't doing their jobs to his satisfaction; he's "a hugger," and that's being misinterpreted—are woefully insufficient.

Filner's defenders act like this is some kind of coup. The decision is Filner's to make. Frye and Co. wanted him to spare these women the trauma of having to go public. He's digging in. That's his prerogative. Now his accusers are compelled to file formal complaints or lawsuits. City Councilmember David Alvarez, up till now a Filner ally, heard a first-hand account of what he called "abhorrent" behavior and says he filed a complaint with the city.

The options now are: an expensive recall election, a conviction-forced resignation or Filner remains mayor until 2016.

For our part, we've heard enough. We believe Filner is unable to interact with women with anything resembling decency and is therefore unfit to be the leader of the city. We're ready to hand the reins over to someone else—preferably someone who'll pursue Filner's liberal-populist policy agenda. We renew our call for Filner to resign.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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