May 3 2006 12:00 AM

City officials return to their rancorous ways—and professionals say it's time for an intervention

Alas, the days are long, the snow is gone from yonder peaks and the sheets are in need of changing in not-so-newly elected Mayor Jerry Sanders' honeymoon bed.

True, everybody knew City Attorney Mike Aguirre-seemingly present wherever discord surfaces-and Sanders couldn't skip arm-in-arm down the corridors of City Hall forever. And not even Sanders' momentum and popularity could keep City Council President Scott Peters and Councilmember Jim Madaffer from trying to clean Aguirre's clock.

The rancor is back at City Hall, and not a moment too late.

No, City Hall isn't quite back to its Dick Murphy-era days of despair-famously featuring former City Manager Lamont Ewell's agreement to resign only if Aguirre would agree to do the same-but just give this latest strain time to blossom.

While the city's financial crisis, matters linked to the ongoing investigations of the city's pension and water funds and a tangle of related lawsuits are at the heart of most of the disputes, recent weeks have featured plenty of strife. One of Aguirre's top lieutenants, Don McGrath, got into it with City Councilmember Brian Maienschein. Tension between Aguirre and Sanders increased after the city attorney opposed the mayor's plan to issue pension-obligation bonds. Madaffer, always lacing his comments with pointy barbs, has repeatedly expressed a lack of trust and confidence in Aguirre and threatened to use his influence to eviscerate the city attorney's office budget. And during City Council meetings, Peters is handling Aguirre with increasing degrees of condescension and exasperation.

While the renewed tension has no doubt helped to boost the City Council's TV ratings and provided further amusement to observers, it's not doing anything to help the city navigate the obstacle course of audits and investigators it needs to complete before it can once again declare itself financially and otherwise healthy.

April Boling, a political campaign treasurer who's well-versed on the city's financial issues, said she thinks the atmosphere is actually improving and views many of the aforementioned exchanges as overblown examples of “venting” and honest disagreements. Still, she says they aren't helping the city any.

“There is a timeline here, and we are going to be in a position of steady fiscal decline if we don't meet some of these deadlines,” she said. “We're paying these people to run this city, and when they are spending their time instead massaging their own egos... it doesn't help the situation.

“I would characterize it as a waste of taxpayer money.”

With the regular exchanges between San Diego's public officials proving tiresome and embarrassingly childish, maybe it's time they sought professional help.

“It's highly irresponsible, I think, in a society such as ours, which is a peaceful, prosperous society, to have public officials that behave in such an immature way,” said Joyce Neu.

As executive director of USD's Institute for Peace and Justice, Neu regularly has to face atrocities like retaliatory rape, torture and murder when attempting to solve conflict around the globe. Given the grim circumstances she considers on a regular basis, it may come as little surprise that she has little sympathy for San Diego's city officials, who have yet to spill any blood. So how do city officials go about changing course?

“People in conflict get mired in their differences and tend to forget why they're at the table,” she said, noting that everyone involved, hopefully, sought their current position out of a desire to improve the city and wants to leave a positive legacy. “While they are looking for and finding differences,” she said, “there isn't motivation to find common ground.”

Whether officials find that motivation within or via pressure from outside forces, Neu suggested they consider a retreat, taking time to put their differences aside and listening to each other's underlying goals.

She also strongly recommended bringing in an outside facilitator, versed in the art of conflict management, to assist the City Council in separating particularly sensitive issues and settling them individually.

Neu's sentiments and recommendations were echoed by Steven Dinkin, president of the San Diego-based National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), a private company that helps families, corporations and large government entities, including the Navy and the Department of Homeland Security, mediate disputes.

Dinkin said third-party intervention could work for San Diego. “The current situation within the city and the precarious nature of our finances and the tension that exists within our city, I think, demands leadership and people willing to take a risk like that,” he said. “I think it's necessary.”

Dinkin says despite communicating well with their constituencies, elected officials often need help talking to each other in times of crisis.

“They can be effective communicators, but that doesn't mean they are effective at problem solving, communicating and negotiating,” he said. “That's a different set of skills.”

Convincing elected officials-often concerned about losing face and reluctant to back down in public-to participate is the largest challenge. “The focus has to be on moving forward and problem solving as opposed to saying that here's a group of council members and a city attorney that are not able to effectively resolve issues and communicate with one another,” said Dinkin.

How a government body like the City Council-subject to state laws governing public meetings-embarks on such a process is another matter.

Terry Francke, one of California's leading open-government advocates, said state law prohibits officials from discussing issues involving members of their own board or commission in closed session, and that if a majority of the voting members of the City Council are to participate, the meeting has to be open to the public.

Franke doesn't see why public officials should shy away from such discourse, calling it transparent, good government. “So long as it's about their role as [public officials], it's city business, and if it's really causing problems, then it may be the most important city business,” he said. “If they can't stand the kitchen heat, maybe they should be in consulting.”

If San Diego's elected officials chose to take Neu and Dinkin's advice, it wouldn't be the first time a local government relied on a neutral third party to resolve conflict.

Several California cities, including Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose have brought in outsiders to help settle high-profile disputes. It's also worth noting that Sanders, a former board member of the NCRC, is no stranger to the facilitation process. Earlier this year, he asked the city's employee labor unions to allow a retired judge to mediate a dispute with the city regarding the legality of previously granted pension benefits, a process that's ongoing and has yet to bear fruit.

Aguirre told CityBeat that he and Ewell attempted to settle their differences by appealing to a third party, but the process fell apart after one meeting.

While Boling and others may scoff at the idea of adding to the phalanx of outside consultants the city has hired to help it out of trouble, Dinkin told CityBeat that officials wouldn't have to look very hard to find a free helping hand.

“There are individuals and leaders within the community who are willing to do that on a pro-bono basis,” he said. “Including an organization like ours.”

Although Aguirre at first took issue with the idea of an outside facilitator-insisting that democracy is messy and the City Council isn't being hampered by discord-he later said it was an “excellent idea” and “that if there's something that would get the council to work with other elected officials, I'd support it.”

This just in: We've learned that Aguirre has filed a lawsuit alleging that City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Jim Madaffer violated state conflict-of-interest laws when they voted to increase employee benefits while failing to disclose that they would personally benefit from the votes. That's not going to help matters.


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