CityBeat was never invited into the mayor's office under the Dick Murphy regime. Who can blame him? We were a tad snotty in his general direction. So, you can imagine our delight when new mayor Jerry Sanders agreed, without hesitation, to sit down with editor David Rolland for a whole hour and answer his questions. (We should note that Toni Atkins let us in, too, while she was mayor.)
The Sanders interview took place on Dec. 30, long before U.S. Attorney Carol Lam indicted five pension-system officials last Friday, so that explains the conspicuous absence of that topic.
Sanders will deliver is first State of the City speech at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, in Golden Hall, 202 C St., Downtown. It is free and open to the public.
So, how's this whole mayor thing working out for you?
Sanders: (Laughs) It's working out fine. You know, I think I had one impression of what it was going to be like, and probably an impression of what it wasn't going to be like, and it's somewhere in the middle. It's much more political than I thought-silly me, being the mayor of a major city. But, you know, in another perspective, I'm much more comfortable stepping into the role as a "strong" mayor, where I actually am in charge of the city-employees and the budget and all those things-because that's more of a role that I'm used to.
How is it more political than you thought?
Well, I think every issue that somebody comes to talk to me about, there's not really consensus on, in terms of other people coming in, because they'll come in and argue the exact opposite of that point. On the police department, when somebody came in and we talked about issues, everybody was pretty much on the same page. The solutions might have been a little bit different, coming from different perspectives, but very rarely did we have complete polar opposites on things. And I'm finding in a lot of the things we're dealing with, we are dealing with opposites, which means you just have to look at it a little more closely and make up your mind on which way you're going to go and make that decision.
So, how does politics enter into that?
Well, I think it enters into it in [unintelligible] divided labor versus management. Some of our council members have been supported pretty heavily by labor. So, as I'm starting to look at issues, I realize there are people on both sides of that issue that are equally entrenched in it.
Are you saying it forces you to thread a much smaller needle than you thought you'd have to?
That's exactly what it is. It means that I'm looking for a way to achieve consensus on a lot of these by looking at some nuancing as we go forward, and some of them I have to stake my position out and then just keep that position. You've seen that in the council race with Faulconer. I endorsed Kevin Faulconer. Lorena Gonzalez seems like a good person to me, but, really, she's got labor support. I need to have a balance on council. With Kevin there, who's not anti-labor, by any stretch-I mean, he's been endorsed by the firefighters and the police officers-but I do need somebody there who's got a more balanced approach, and he said he would support the things that I think are important, like the ballot proposition on managed competition and the ballot proposition on the pension issue.
Managed competition is the contracting out of city services?
Are people a lot nicer to you now?
[Smiles] I have a lot of very new friends. It's really a funny thing, though. Even when I was chief of police, a very public figure-as mayor, probably 20 times more of a public figure, people are very considerate, very nice. When I go out, people will want to say hi, or want to say, "I voted for you"-or people will come up and say, "I didn't vote for you"-but everybody's been very considerate about that. It's been very nice.
A lot of new friends, though?
A lot of people who now like me better than they used to. [Smiles]
I would love nothing more than to have CityBeat raving about your performance a year from now. Can that happen?
[Laughs] I'm not sure that anybody's going to rave about my performance a year from now, because I think a year from now there will be people who have had a tough time with some of the things I've done because decisions have to be made and we have to move forward on some issues, and I think that's going to kind of split everybody. I don't think anybody's going to be happy all of the time. But I think what people will be able to say a year from now is we've moved past a lot of these problems and put solutions in place. It may not have been a perfect solution; it may not have been a solution people would have preferred to see, but we've got solutions in place and we're moving forward. For me, a great year would be: we get the budget in sync, so we're actually showing people what we bring in as revenue, showing 'em what we spend, where we spend, and we have a plan in place to put structural integrity back in it; it would be a year where our audits are completed, for the last three years... and we've got the Kroll issue handled [and] we've got KPMG handled... and we're back in the bond market; it would be a year where we've actually had substantive conversations with the Chargers and are moving forward in one direction or another; it would be a year where we've worked with our employee groups and they understand where we're going, and we have a pension solution in place-not completed, but at least a plan in place so that we can complete the solution so that. That, I think, would be a great year.
Is there anything else that you've learned since you were sworn in?
Well, I actually thought there was going to be a little bit of a honeymoon to let me learn about the issues, and that honeymoon lasted about four days. I didn't have the idea in mind that there's so many things hanging out there that people just want to get off their plate and want to get into the solutions, and I think that's legitimate. I mean, I really don't have a problem with that, but I was pretty naïve about that. So, I guess I've been impressed, and maybe shocked a little bit, with the pace, because so many of these [issues] require solutions fairly quickly because they've been sitting for so long.
What things are hanging?
Well, I was in for four days when this whole Audit Committee thing really jumped into overdrive where Kroll wants a certain amount of money right away, and I'm saying I want to see a work plan, and you start having that conversation and it has to occur very quickly, at least according to some people, and I think that, in order to be responsible, you almost have to slow it down a little bit... because that's a hugely expensive piece of work, and I want to make sure we're getting what we're paying for, that we have a timeline involved so we know when this is all going to end because it's been hanging over the city for a couple of years.
So, there are people who just want to give Kroll what they're asking for so we can get on with it?
Right. But there are lots of issues where people are coming in right now, saying, "I really need to get this in front of you because we need a decision on this." I had people come and talk about the Soledad Mountain cross yesterday [Dec. 29]: Expenses are mounting; legal things are starting to come out-you know, we need to get this issue front-burner. We're trying to hire executives for this team up here; it's not like we had time to do an executive search, and yet we're really pressing ahead on that. That's a front-burner issue. You've got employees who are saying, "Am I going to be here, or am I not going to be here?" That's a pretty front-burner issue when you're talking about people's careers and their livelihoods, so all these things have come very rapidly, and I think that's legitimate. I mean, there's not been something in place, a process to actually take care of all that, so people have kind of just been hanging back. And Toni [Atkins] did a great job when she was interim mayor, but a lot of people were saying, "We're not going to take that up until we have a mayor." And that's what's starting to come very quickly.
You have an "Action Plan for Recovery." That sounds really tough and exciting. What's that all about?
[Laughs] Really what we're talking about is naming an executive team, starting the process of re-engineering the city. It's putting markers in place for when we're going to have the audit done-at least discussions on that, moving ahead. It's talking about when we have resignations from people, when we start doing our downsizing, when we have a budget in place. All of these things really have to be scheduled in the first 90 days, which we have really paid attention to, so that we have those plans starting to move forward from that point because you can't wait any longer. We have to have a budget done by April 15-we don't even have a CFO onsite yet. We're really going from ground zero on this issue right now because we don't want to use the same budgeting process that's been used in the past. We want a fairly transparent process that's also got a very small document so that people can actually read it; we don't want a seven-volume budget. When you do that, what you're saying is, "We don't want anybody to read this or understand it. We want a very small document that lays out the spending plan but also lays out the issues that are involved with that. So, this timeline for change is really nailing down all those things I talked about in the campaign and getting those in process right away.
You sent out a questionnaire to the four candidates for City Council Districts 2 and 8 that detailed your recovery plan-contracting out city services, changing the pension system, freezing salaries-and you only got one back. That's gotta hurt-one candidate bothered to answer your questions?
I've talked to all four candidates. Candidates didn't want to put that in writing. Kevin Faulconer was the only one willing to say, "Yeah, these are important things to me." I think the others weren't as wild about doing that. That's fine.
Could it be that they just didn't think they needed your support?
Well, I'm not sure about that. I think that they all would have liked the support. But, on the other hand, am I willing to support candidates who aren't willing to buy into what I think is important? Kevin was willing to buy into that. I mean, I think it closely mirrors what he thinks is necessary. There are a couple of make-or-break things on that [questionnaire]. One is the contracting-out language that we'll put to a ballot proposition. That's an integral part of what I talked about during this campaign-we need to have competition. And the other part of it is the pension system; we can't continue with the current pension system we have right now. When we bring new employees into this city, there has to be a different system [for which] we can actually forecast the cost and we can afford. And you see that all over America-this is not just San Diego, even though we're one of the first public agencies to actually address that. Delta [Airlines] the other day took a 13-percent pay cut for their pilots because of pension issues and all the rest. Other pensions have gone under in the private sector that governments had to step into. You're seeing huge problems with these pension systems because they're not sustainable, and we have to stop that. So, I think that's a litmus test for my support.
Didn't either Luis Acle or Ben Hueso excite you?
Well, it's not that they didn't excite me; it's just that neither one of them responded to the survey in writing, and neither one of them would be completely committed.
And that would be make-or-break for an endorsement?
If I'm going to put my name on somebody, then I want to be sure that we're going to have a good working relationship as we step forward. And I'm not saying I won't have that with Ben Hueso or Luis Acle or Lorena. I could probably have a good relationship with each of them, but if I'm going to actually go out and help, then I want to make sure that they're on exactly the same page I'm on.
It's a bit of a gamble if your candidate loses. Did you consider that gamble before you decided to endorse?
I did consider that gamble, but I don't think Lorena and I were going to be on the same page whether I supported Kevin or not. I think we're in pretty different lines of thinking on a lot of these issues, so I don't think that was going to have a jarring impact on our relationship. I think we can have a very respectful relationship, whether she wins or loses. But that doesn't mean we're going to think the same on issues, and I don't think anyone would say we're nearly close on those.
Where did the privatization idea-the contracting out of city services-come from?
I'd actually talked to Steve Goldsmith from Indianapolis quite some time ago. I was part of the city when it started the managed competition program, although it didn't seem to do much, and that was when I was chief of police, and they were doing some of it. I also went over and talked to several county supervisors about how they made their turnaround in the county, because they've made a fairly huge turnaround, and the county was bankrupt a while ago-or near to it-and now they're in good financial condition, and they think that a big part of that had to do with managed competition. So that's where the genesis of that came [from]-kind of from several different areas.
It's a very anti-union program.
I don't think it's anti-union, and I don't think the unions mind the competition portion, if it's a fair competition.
But it reduces their numbers.
It could reduce their numbers, but also, some of the things that they talk about are, if you reduce management above us, that's going to give us a lower cost as we do our job. So I think it forces every single part of the city, whether it's unions or it's management, to think differently about how they get to the bottom line. If you've got a high overhead bogging down what the line-level can do, that makes no sense at all. I mean, if they can do it much cheaper or more streamlined, and you've got the high overhead above it, that's not a union issue; that's a management issue, and we have to look at that.
Some people I know would take your comments from the campaign about fast-tracking development, coupled with your endorsement of Faulconer, who's backed by the real-estate industry, and be concerned that developers are going to get a free ride. Will they get whatever they want from you?
No, but those same people that you know that would be concerned about fast-tracking are also people who are probably not happy about either the ability not to own something or they're unhappy about the amount of rent that they pay right now or the fact that they can't find adequate housing. I have never said that fast-tracking means that we don't pay attention to the T's and the I's and making sure those are crossed and dotted. It doesn't mean that we don't have good plans in place or not fully considering what the community wants and all of that. But what it does mean is that there's a predictable process in place; there's a process that respects both the community and the people building the housing, and starts giving us a supply of housing that'll start lowering the prices for both rents and for buying. I mean, the opportunities for people to buy in this community are going down every day. I believe the last survey said 9 percent of San Diegans could afford to buy a house. That doesn't seem to me to make any sense at all.
Do you have any specific plans to alleviate that problem?
Well, that's really going to start. That's the last position we're filling right now, and that's taken some time to find some people who have been on both sides of the fence, who've been on the planning side and on the development side so that we get a process that actually makes a lot of sense to both the community-because the community planning councils are a big part of what we do-and then also on the city side so that we have processes that we can move forward much more quickly. I think it's not an issue of giving in to developers; I think it's an issue of being fair to everybody, because the longer we drag out the process, the more that product at the end is going to cost. So, I'd like to see us streamline a process so it's much quicker for everybody, so you get a "no" just as quick as you get a "yes," and also a process that's very thorough at the same time, but also one that is going to start looking for partners in the affordable-housing element so we can leverage those resources differently than we're doing right now and that we can also start looking at the city inventory to see if we've got pieces of property that can lend themselves to affordable housing and we partner with some nonprofit groups that are building that housing.