Andrea Tevlin looks kind of like Martha Stewart. Squint your eyes a little-the resemblance is there.
She doesn't act like the homemaking guru, though. Not at all. While Martha is ferocious boss and general bitch-on-wheels behind the scenes, Tevlin's staff seems to adore her. Both of them earned fame for their prowess over the stove-Martha as the head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, Tevlin as a cooking columnist for her community paper back in Arizona. Martha went to jail for participating in a huge financial scandal. Tevlin is part of the solution for San Diego's huge financial scandal. Right, there had to be another difference there somewhere.
Tevlin is San Diego's first independent budget analyst. Her role, created when the city switched over to a new, executive-mayor form of governance, is to provide the City Council with clear-eyed fiscal analysis and advice. Most observers of city government see her job as central to digging the city out of its current mess.
“I want to make sure all information before the council is accurate, complete and timely,” she told CityBeat. A San Diego neophyte might assume that the City Council always gets such information, but insiders would laugh bitterly, knowing as they do of the pension and wastewater debacles. According to Kroll, the consulting firm hired by the city to figure out what's been going on in the halls of municipal power, the City Council was badly misled by staff, resulting in the $1.7 billion the city owes its pension fund and an as-yet-undetermined amount owed to wastewater improvements.
But the whole thing doesn't work if the job isn't as independent as the title implies.
Tevlin's main office is on the third floor of City Hall, but she keeps a desk and a phone up on the 10th floor, where the council works. She has regular meetings with City Council President Scott Peters and Budget Committee Chair Toni Atkins, as well as occasional meetings with City Councilmembers Ben Hueso, Jim Madaffer and Tony Young. Surely she is constantly pressured to provide friendly reports for their pet projects, right?
She said no.
“They come to me mostly to get information on how things are going, like the five-year budget projection, or perhaps a rough sense of whether a project is feasible,” Tevlin said.
Though the IBA does analyze an issue at a councilmember's request, most of the work is performed on the initiative of Tevlin or a member of her staff.
“The council only sees the report with the public,” she said. “We never release drafts to the mayor or to the council. We don't get involved in negotiating the words we use-hardening or softening-based on input.”
Well, that sounds like a pretty good start.
As the first-ever IBA, Tevlin creates precedent with her every action. It was the historic opportunity to be the original IBA that drew her here from Phoenix in the first place.
Tevlin came to Phoenix from Wisconsin Rapids, her hometown in the upper Midwest (she still has the flat Midwestern twang in her speech). She decided to go into public service on the advice of a political-science professor, so away she went to Arizona State University, where she overlapped for a semester with none other than San Diego Chief Financial Officer Jay Goldstone. For the next 25 years she worked in Phoenix, rising up through the ranks on the traditional career path of a city manager. In the 1990s, she leapt sideways to join “the dark side,” as bureaucrats call the political side of government, taking a job as the chief of staff for Mayor Skip Rimza. Her six years in that position gave her an understanding of electoral politics rare among city managers.
She spent six years in that role, but the experience did not change her fundamental belief in the value of professional city managers.
“I'm a real management person; I am not a political person,” she said. “I would never advocate for a strong-mayor form of government, myself, as an improvement.”
In 2000, she switched back, becoming deputy city manager until 2005, when San Diego's recruiting firm called. She turned them down the first few times.
“At first blush, I would be leaving the city of Phoenix, which has an outstanding reputation, extremely well-managed, to come to an organization that was clearly in deep trouble,” she said, “but as I learned more about the IBA's role, I started to envision it, and I realized what a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this is.”
She had to appear before the entire City Council, assembled in the committee room, for her interview. She said the meeting was intimidating, but she must have performed brilliantly, since the council hired her that very night.
Tevlin found the idea of working in an executive-mayor form of government-but not for the mayor himself-an intriguing challenge. “I was interested in being an advocate for the legislative body, in being the balance in that new form,” she said.
Tevlin's version of partisanship will be in her vigorous defense of the legislative body from domination by a popular executive.
Five members of the current City Council are named in the Kroll report as having been negligent in their duties, and the Security and Exchange Commission has not yet released its report with its own condemnation of the council members. Meanwhile, Mayor Sanders enjoys astonishing heights of popularity. Tevlin's reports, with their questions and analysis, gives the City Council the backbone to stand up to the mayor.
Last week, the council learned that the mayor's office had cut funding to a youth swim program and altered the funding structure for the “Take Back the Streets” program. Tevlin promptly alerted the council, issuing a memo that warned that the act of cutting funding without council approval was “in complete violation of this form of government.” (Please see Kelly Davis' story on Page 8.)
But Tevlin's first challenge came immediately after she took office, with the arrival of the new city budget. Tevlin analyzed the mayor's offering and determined that the inclusion of $374 million in pension-obligation bonds was inappropriate.
“We were still who knows how many months from [having access to] the bond market. It didn't make sense to me to include those in the budget,” she said.
The bonds were pulled out and the budget passed. Her insights on this and later issues have increasingly won the respect of the City Council, a group once burned by poor staff advice.
“Even [City Attorney Mike] Aguirre says that if the IBA were here in 2003, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now,” Peters said. “She's definitely been a watchdog for the council. On the other side, because we trust her, when she says the mayor is doing this the right way, we can relax, because we know she would say something if he wasn't. The council is a much stronger institution than it was before.”
“Her quiet confidence and intelligence provide the perfect antidote to a city hobbling back to its feet,” Hueso said.
Perhaps more impressive, she garners praise from both ends of the political spectrum.
“I think she's doing a great job, her and her staff-[she] has injected a fresh new analytical approach to city finances. She's analytical and non-political,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the left-leaning think tank Center on Policy Initiatives.
“Part of the reason I think she is doing a good job is that when she criticizes a proposal, she also provides what she believes to be a superior alternative,” said April Boling, former chair of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “It's easy to criticize-not always so easy to come up with solutions.”
Indeed, the remedial recommendations made by the Kroll report top the City Council's agenda right now. Sanders has already asked the City Council to adopt all 121 recommendations. Tevlin issued a report that approved of most of the measures-“some of them were obvious,” she said-but questioned the wisdom of having the mayor appoint the majority of the members of a proposed audit committee. When the measures were brought before the full council in September for consideration, what was the oft-heard refrain? That the mayor shouldn't have the power to appoint the majority of the members of the audit committee.
“I feel listened to,” Tevlin said. “Not that they take all of my recommendations, and they should make their own decisions. But I definitely feel heard.”