If you're a Democratic Party operative, or a city-employee union president, or a Mike Aguirre hater, you already have a beef with Mayor Jerry Sanders, but if you're an average citizen-or a reporter with a Dick Murphy hangover-you're going to have to try really hard to not like this dude.
CityBeat didn't support Sanders; we found the campaign his advisors ran for him distasteful. But, in our view, he's off to a great start, and, as long as he remains his own man and stays true to his own values, he'll do just fine.
Sanders' first State of the City speech last Thursday night struck all the right chords. It was mostly tough and stark, with a little sprinkling of hope. It gave us the feeling that someone is actually in charge-a quality conspicuously missing in recent years. Some pundits complained that it lacked specifics, but this was not a policy speech. The specifics will come as Sanders becomes privy to San Diego's financial condition. A speech like this just needed to set a tone, and the tone was unmistakable.
It was positively delightful knowing that the city insiders were in the audience squirming in their seats when Sanders said, "San Diego's municipal government has failed its citizens and become an embarrassing and corrupt impediment to progress."
Up till then, only City Attorney Aguirre and City Hall gadflies had tossed the word "corrupt" around so effortlessly. This was the State of the City, and the state of the city is corrupt. Just try to imagine Dick Murphy calling city government corrupt. No way.
Sanders, in fact, separated himself from Murphy right off the bat: "Mayors before me have offered platitudes-they have offered visions and 10-point plans. That's not my style, and that's not what out city needs right now." The remark was a message to the critics who charged during the campaign that Sanders was going to be a Murphy clone.
The speech was riddled with words like "misconduct" and "deception." Sanders later told CityBeat that those words were aimed at people who've been indicted on federal counts or charged with state crimes, as well as unnamed high-level city staffers (check out our "Blame Game" story on Page 9 for more on that). We would have liked to hear direct criticism of the City Council's role in San Diego's financial and ethical crises, but we at CityBeat would make lousy politicians; Sanders needs these people if he's going to get anything done.
All this is not to say that we agree with everything Sanders is saying. We don't. Truth be told, a lot of it makes us nervous.
* We're ambivalent about his recommendation to make Aguirre the legal counsel to the city's pension board. There are complicated potential conflicts we don't claim to fully grasp. Whoever represents the pension board should be insulated from city decision makers-and perhaps Aguirre himself. Sanders points out that independence hasn't worked, and that's a hard point to argue with.
However, his companion proposal to oust all the public representatives on the board scares us. The pension board must remain independent of City Hall influence. The only reasonable argument for replacing these people is that Sanders wants to start fresh. But this is it-after this one, no more ousting.
* We like that Sanders has gotten snuggly with Aguirre, but it has cost him dearly in his relations with the largest employee union. The Municipal Employees Association likely won't return to the bargaining table, and that'll force Sanders to make good on his threat to lay off 600 city workers. We don't think the city can withstand such budgetary violence and still adequately serve its citizens. Trouble is, the city has to pay for the mistakes of the past, and fully one-third of the operating budget will have to go into the pension system. Sanders backed himself into a corner during the campaign when he said he wouldn't tax the city out of its mess. Now he's in a real bind.
* We couldn't help but notice that Sanders was obviously listening to Lorena Gonzalez during the recent District 2 campaign. She kept talking about "safeguards" when it comes to the mayor's desire to outsource some city services to the private sector. The word made an appearance in Sanders' speech. We won't support his proposed City Charter amendment to allow more outsourcing until the idea is fully vetted in a public debate.
* The mayor wants to streamline and fast-track housing development. "Regulatory inefficiency is the most immediate and correctable roadblock to solving the housing crisis," he said. Yikes. Sounds like Christmastime for developers. Proceed with caution.
* Sanders says he'll be a "champion for the visitor industry." Do we need another one of those?
* New stadium for the Chargers? Sanders says he promises to "explore every option at our disposal to keep the team here," and he's made noises about meeting privately with Chargers president Dean Spanos. Fine, but don't take too long-there are many more pressing problems to solve. We don't know for sure, but we suspect that the Chargers' plan to redevelop the Qualcomm site fell apart not because of Aguirre, as the team's special counsel Mark Fabiani said last week, but because it just didn't pencil out for the developers the Chargers talked to. The Chargers are a private business that should be treated like any other. If they have another idea, great-but Sanders shouldn't bend himself into a pretzel trying to find them a new place to play.
Sanders will do well if he displeases everyone part of the time-CityBeat included-especially if his demeanor remains calm, he continues to be accessible to the press and his heart stays in the right place. He's already irked the City Hall establishment with his partnership with Aguirre. And that's a really good sign.