"You don't know the power of the dark side." -Darth Vader
One speaker wept before lamenting that San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye had decided against running for mayor. Another voice chimed in that, as far as he knew, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry had yet to choose a running mate.
Mayor Dick "Queasy" Murphy, ever nimble at turning an important public matter into a personal dilemma, said he liked the idea of Frye becoming VP-presumably to leave town-rather than taking his job, which is there for the taking whether he'd ever admit that or not.
When it comes to the public's right to know how City Hall conducts our business, don't be looking to Murphy for inspiration. Leadership-2020 or otherwise-doesn't stir the troops when led by someone who prefers baby booties to Waffle Stompers.
But Frye has never feared the heavy lifting, as she is doing to push a predominantly hesitant City Council out of the darkness of secret meetings and into the embracing warmth of public discourse. As was noted in Monday's three-hour discussion of the city's creaky open-meeting policy, the council's timidity toward sunlight dates back some 30 years.
This week's debate-which will continue next Monday-might well have been between astronauts and dinosaurs for all the head-scratching and hissing that went on in public view. Nearly two-dozen members of the public faced the council to heartily endorse Frye's attempt to, as she said, "let the sun shine in."
"Today is the first day of the rest of your civic life," said Al Strohlein, a frequent speaker at council meetings.
Dave Potter, who chairs the city's Community Planning Committee, said that after he noticed planning staff had begun reducing parking requirements for certain projects, he asked the city attorney for a copy of the opinion allowing such a practice that has not been endorsed publicly by the City Council. Potter was told that he was "precluded from seeing that opinion."
If council members really care about doing the people's business in the light of day-as laid out in the Brown Act, California's tough open-meeting law-they'll need to stuff cotton in their ears when City Attorney Casey Gwinn opines on the subject. Gwinn this week did his doggonedness to make an already dry discussion so unappealing to the general public that some Gwinn critics actually called it "filibustering."
The debate on open meetings did draw out those with a political interest in the outcome. Both consumer-fraud attorney Michael Aguirre and Leslie Devaney, Gwinn's protégé, took different tacks in endorsing a more sunlit political process. But while Aguirre-who has butted heads with city and county powers for years over closed meetings-envisioned Frye's efforts as a "unifier for all of us," Devaney took a page from the mayor's playbook and tried to make the issue her own.
Devaney called Frye's proposed litany of policy changes "eerily similar to what I've been saying for a long, long time," or about nine months, whichever comes first. Those who knew better-does anyone really remember anything Devaney did before deciding to run to replace her current boss?-could only roll their eyes at the blatant attempt at issue hijacking.
So where does the city go from here? Well, Frye continued to boycott closed sessions this week-alone this time. Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, who joined Frye last week in skipping two closed-door meetings, decided to rejoin her colleagues in darkness, but still seemed philosophically in Frye's corner.
"I chose to go to closed session after looking at the agenda, and it appeared that the items listed met the minimum letter of the Brown Act requirements," Atkins told CityBeat. "However, we have definitely not met the spirit of the Brown Act, and I will continue to fight for this issue until that spirit is met.... Just because we can meet in closed session doesn't necessarily means that we should."
The duo also apparently gained at least another in Councilmember Jim "MadDog" Madaffer, who said he would have signed the Frye-Atkins memo that started the council down this road last week had he not been in Washington, D.C. But he, too, continues only to talk the talk, joining his dark-side colleagues in closed session.
In an e-mail, Madaffer said he has long held the belief that in closed sessions, "councilmembers are treated like mushrooms-in other words, councilmembers are often kept in the dark about important issues. Often, we don't have the benefit of hearing input from the public on matters discussed in closed session."
But it's clearly Frye who will be facing the slings and arrows of the city attorney's office. Even Councilmember Michael Zucchet, whose political career began so tenaciously, suggested that council also review its policy on missing closed-door meetings and review whether Frye could be tossed from her council seat for her protest action.
No one said throwing back the curtains would be easy.
This just in
First it was City Auditor Ed Ryan announcing his retirement. Now comes word as we go to press that City Manager Michael Uberuaga will "retire" as of April 9. Appointed in 1997, Uberuaga has taken some heavy flak for the financial bind the city faces.
Mayor Murphy, who announced Uberuaga's impending departure in a press release, said he will ask the council to promote Assistant City Manager Lamont Ewell to the post. Before coming to town three years ago, Ewell was city manager of Durham, N.C.
The retirement will take at least one issue away from Murphy's re-election opponent, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, who vowed to fire Uberuaga if elected.
Let the speculation of a forced resignation begin!
Do you speculate?: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.