It was an ironic turn of events. On Dec. 6, San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye had the votes of at least half of the eight-member City Council to be named chair of a new committee formed as crucial piece of City Hall's effort to fix the sins of its past. She wanted it bad. But she was ultimately done in by someone else's deft use of the very quality that has made Frye the darling of the good-government left.
At that Wednesday meeting-one of a series of special sessions aimed at fixing the city's internal financial auditing controls-Councilmember Jim Madaffer, a conservative who typically views Frye from the opposing side, pledged his support for her to head a new audit committee-a panel that's key to making sure City Hall never again gets in trouble for misleading the public about its financial condition. Madaffer praised Frye's reputation for doggedly doing her homework and asking the tough questions. Councilmember Tony Young followed suit. Councilmember Toni Atkins, who's often allied with Frye, didn't expressly support her that day but probably would have, had the matter reached a vote, given her vote a month later when the tally was ultimately taken. It isn't too great a stretch to speculate that Councilmember Ben Hueso would also have voted for her, considering his ideological bent. That would have been the five votes she needed.
Frye has built an almost-fanatical following by insisting every step of the way that the public must be involved in policy decisions and privy to the discussions that lead to them. But last month she was arguing for quick action, and Council President Scott Peters turned the tables on her, urging his colleagues, successfully, to delay the vote because the public hadn't been given the chance to weigh in on the exact makeup of the committee. Frye and Madaffer capitulated, lest they be perceived as ramming policy through without adequate public review.
Peters made it clear at that meeting that he didn't want Frye to chair the audit committee. Instead, he wanted Councilmember Kevin Faulconer because, he said, Faulconer isn't the chair of any committees while Frye was already chair of the council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee.
A month later, after a holiday recess, Peters followed up with his official nomination of Faulconer as chair, Frye as vice chair and Young as the third member. And Peters had an ace up his sleeve-a rule requiring six votes to scrap the president's nominations in favor of nominations from the floor. At the council's Jan. 9 meeting, Faulconer moved to approve Peters' nominations, and Hueso seconded the motion. Atkins then asked for a vote to scuttle Peters' nominations and name Frye the chair, but the vote failed 5-3, with Frye, Atkins and Young losing. Madaffer explained that he jumped ship because it was obvious Atkins didn't have the six votes she needed, and without them, his choice was "solidarity" behind Peters. Frye had lost; Peters and Faulconer had won.
Despite being urged by Atkins and Madaffer to accept the role of vice chair, Frye refused, remarking cryptically, "I've learned my lesson."
It begged several questions: What lesson? Why would Frye invite critics to charge her with sour-grapes childishness? And what did this episode of insider intrigue say about Frye two years after becoming a household name on the strength of her stunning apparent win in her write-in mayoral campaign? (For you newcomers: She eventually lost when a judge declared some 5,000 ballots invalid because bubbles weren't properly filled in.)
In an interview the day after the vote, Frye said she refuses to go along with the sort of business-as-usual that has gotten City Hall in such deep trouble.
A bit of history: The Securities and Exchange Commission has officially cited the city of San Diego for misleading bond investors about the financial condition of the city. The SEC action came on the heels of an investigative report by a private company, Kroll, which said Peters, Madaffer, Frye, Atkins and Councilmember Brian Maienschein were legally "negligent" and recommended a series of fixes, including the establishment of a permanent audit committee. Under city law, a permanent committee can't be created without a public vote, which can't happen until 2008. As an interim measure, Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed a committee made up of one City Council member and two citizen finance experts appointed by him. After City Attorney Mike Aguirre and the City Council's independent budget analyst, Andrea Tevlin, objected, arguing the committee has to be free of the mayor's influence, Sanders agreed to the three-council-member composition.
Frye adamantly said she would not serve on such an important committee under "someone who is not independent. I won't do it."
For her, it's a simple matter of checks and balances: The mayor oversees the people who produce the financial statements that the audit committee will be in charge of checking. In policy matters, Faulconer has so far marched in lockstep with Mayor Jerry Sanders.
"It's not, like, a personal attack on Kevin-it's lack of experience and lack of independence. I haven't seen anything that indicates independence from Mayor Sanders."
Frye doesn't buy Peters' stated reasons for nominating Faulconer. She's asked him for the real reason but didn't get one. Frye said it might be found in her alliance with City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who's been a thorn in Peters' side for the past two years. (Ironically, Aguirre supported Peters on this one, prompting Frye to tell her friend to stick to legal advice, which is usually a song sung by Peters and Madaffer, the latter this time siding with Frye. Go figure.)
Peters told CityBeat he'd been planning on tapping Faulconer since the fall, when he was making committee appointments.
"I think everyone recognizes that Kevin's the mayor's closest ally on the council," Peters acknowledged, "so you have to have a committee that's balanced. That's why I wanted Donna Frye on the committee, too."
Peters meets with Sanders weekly but said Sanders never lobbied him to pick Faulconer.
Immediately after his State of the City speech last Thursday, Sanders told CityBeat that he has no political strangle hold on Faulconer. "Kevin's been very good to work with," the mayor said, "but he's got his own ideas on a lot of things, and I think you'll see in the future we'll have very different positions on some issues."
Sanders likes that the committee includes Faulconer and Young, who, unlike Frye, were elected after City Hall was found to have produced false financial statements. "I think the fact that we've got at least two members who weren't part of any of the previous stuff makes it even more independent," Sanders said. "I think it could have been called into question if Donna would have been on it-whether there would have been that independence."
(Although Frye was one of five council members deemed "negligent," she was the only one credited by the same people for trying to blow the whistle on malfeasance in the way the city was charging customers for sewer use.)
Frye's not alone in her concern about Faulconer's capacity for independence. Atkins said it was clear to her that Sanders wanted Faulconer to chair the committee, and she felt the need to talk to Faulconer about separation of powers.
"Kevin knows that people have that concern," Atkins said. "He's also a member of the council and the legislative body, and the role is supposed to be checks and balances. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and see.
"I don't agree with Donna that she couldn't be effective on the committee," she added. "I don't."
Faulconer said he was "surprised" by Frye's refusal to serve on the committee. Told what she'd said about him, Faulconer said, "Donna's entitled to her opinion, and I'm entitled to disagree with it."
He said concerns about independence are due to his support for Sanders' "reform agenda." But it won't be an issue. "Independence is important; I agree with Donna, and it's my goal to set up an audit committee that will be the most independent, will represent the best practices from across the country, and that people, when it's set up and we're up and running and functioning, will point to us as a model."
Frye's defeat raises questions about her role on the City Council and her ability to gain the support of her colleagues. She became a star amid her run for the mayor's office, but Frye's campaign was sunk by her proposal to raise the local sales tax and, probably, the electorate's unease about her maverick ways. Still, Frye returned to the council with a large throng of loyal followers who appreciated her straight talk and refusal to run a safe campaign. She might have been in a unique position to build a powerful opposition coalition among the more progressive council members. But her disdain for go-along-to-get-along convention and distaste for behind-the-scenes politicking has kept her on the outside looking in, which, in the final analysis, is where she's comfortable.
"I've learned my lesson relying on other people and getting involved in politics when it comes to things so important as audit committees and those types of things," she said. "This is probably by far the most important committee, I believe, on the council, depending on what the role is going to be. I'm not playing politics. Politically, it would have looked better for me to say, "OK, I accept the audit vice chairmanship.'
"It would make my colleagues happy. It would make a number of people in the public happy that I'm on the committee even though I'm not going to chair it. People like that-you know, the compromise-it makes them feel good. It's not dissension and divisiveness, you know; it makes people feel comfortable."
But, she added, "The person I need to rely on is me, and when it comes to certain decisions, I am not going to make them politically. And I really do not care what the consequences are to me politically, if I think something's not right."
The conversation takes Frye back a few years to when SeaWorld was seeking approval for its Journey to Atlantis ride, which required a variance from the area's 30-foot height limit. She tried to persuade colleagues behind the scenes to oppose the project, but couldn't even get a second to her motion when the vote came up.
"Does it mean I'm not persuasive? No. It means that SeaWorld [held] a lot more sway than I did when it came to campaign contributions," she said.
The episode convinced her to be her own person rather than try to "walk the halls" in search of supportive votes. "People say, "Why don't you count to five?' Because I'm not supposed to. Once you start, you don't stop, and that's not leadership."
Atkins acknowledged wishing that Frye would compromise more often, but she's come to terms with who her colleague is.
"I was struggling to determine if I thought Donna had missed an opportunity to take a bigger, more powerful leadership role on the council, because other people had said that to me," Atkins said. "But I thought about it, and I thought, you know, Donna's personality is what it is.
"Clearly, Donna stands out as someone who is really going to take her own path. It's the only way she can be; it's who she is. It's what makes people like her. It's why she would be the mayor, but for bubbles."