No one attracted political storms like lightning rod Jim Waring, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' land-use chief. During just 19 months in office, Waring, who was referred to as the land-use 'czar' by some in the media, managed to be at the center of every sticky issue that didn't have the word 'pension' in it--most famously, the Sunroad Enterprises building debacle.
Waring arrived at City Hall in January 2006 with a reputation for competence, intelligence and developer connections. A tall, thin man with a razor nose and the sort of eyes novelists describe as 'penetrating,' Waring spoke volubly on policy issues but generally remained quiet in a room. At public meetings, he would make his presentation and then stand in the background unless called upon. He has a law degree, as well as a master's degree in peace and justice studies from the University of San Diego. A real-estate transactions attorney by occupation, Waring also had affiliations with environmental groups like the River Network that gave him a patina of green.
Almost everyone who dealt directly with Waring enjoyed his company.
'He's really likable. We've said nasty stuff to each other, but I'd have a beer with the guy,' said environmental attorney Cory Briggs, who often found himself opposite Waring at the negotiating table.
With his air of competence and an affable personality, Waring specialized in deal making and finding middle ground, and he tried vigorously to avoid lawsuits.
'He didn't know the meaning of the word 'no,'' said Fred Sainz, Sanders' spokesperson.
'Jim always was looking for a compromise, always looking for a way to give everybody as much as they could have,' Briggs said.
Waring's desire to strike deals went so far as to become a bit of a joke at City Hall.
'You'd be sitting around, the question would be, 'Can this be done?'' said environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, 'And the other person would say, 'Well, that depends. Can Jim broker the deal?''
No one expected that a building that poked 20 feet into tiny Montgomery Field's airspace to generate a year-long firestorm. Yet there stood the Sunroad Centrum building, built too tall despite warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration. That the building had been constructed by an important Sanders fund-raiser elicited charges of corruption from watchdog groups already predisposed to think of Sanders as the developers' man in City Hall. Even still, the controversy should have been snuffed easily at any number of points along the timeline. Yet Waring's need to make all sides happy kept backfiring on Sanders.
Waring oversaw the Development Services Department (DSD), which provided the permits to get the Kearny Mesa structure built. He brokered the deal that lifted a stop-work order imposed by DSD in 2006 and was the force behind a pair of proposals that sought to make the building shorter, but not short enough.
This past spring, Sanders borrowed Airport Authority executive Ted Sexton to work on other airport issues, or at least that's what he told the public at the time. Then a letter signed by Sanders was unearthed, asking the Airport Authority to loan Sexton specifically to work on the Sunroad issue. The howls of corruption and deception only grew louder.
Sainz told CityBeat this week that Waring wrote that letter and 'stuck it in front of the mayor to be signed.' Sainz said Waring wrote the letter without showing it to anyone but Sanders.
Earlier this month, after Sanders reiterated in numerous public settings that the Sunroad building must be lowered to 160 feet, Waring had a meeting with City Councilmember Donna Frye in which he once again introduced the idea of leaving the building at 166 feet. Jay Goldstone, Sanders' chief operating officer, and Sainz both said Waring was acting on his own--Sainz called him 'a cowboy'--but Frye and others believe he was still acting on the mayor's instructions. Regardless, Frye told City Attorney Mike Aguirre, and Aguirre told the world. That was it for Waring. Goldstone located Waring on vacation in Iceland, and Waring quit over the phone.
'If he hadn't resigned, he would have been fired,' Sainz said.
CityBeat was unable to reach Waring for an interview for this story.
The story of Sunroad only promoted the image held in some quarters of Jim Waring as a developers' stooge. Yet his powerful urge to find compromise may have put an obstacle in front of the more extreme developer proponents in the mayor's office.
'Waring sounded a sobering voice in the administration; he was a balancer,' said Murtaza Baxamusa, an analyst for the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a social-justice-oriented think tank. 'He made sure to always throw something to the community, at least some window-dressing.'
Consider: Opponents of Doug Manchester's Navy Broadway Complex project railed that it took away the possibility of a waterfront park. Waring brokered a deal in which the city (or its redevelopment agency) would have the option to purchase back an acre of the land for roughly $20 million to build a waterfront park. And during negotiations over the housing portion of the city's master plan, he proposed that developers pay $15 per square foot of a project, a fee that would be dedicated to building new parks downtown. Even in the settlement of Briggs' lawsuit over rampant condo conversions--which put an annual cap on the number of apartment units permitted to become condos--Waring sealed the deal, remarking, 'Let's give the community a victory.'
Not all of these deals came to fruition--the waterfront park idea seems to have been rejected--and few were satisfactory to his opponents, but to Baxamusa, they indicated a wider view of government than most people imagine when they think of Waring. Indeed, when it came to affordable housing, Waring may even have been a progressive force.
'The mayor wasn't pushing to do anything about housing, [and Waring] wanted to do something about housing,' said CPI's executive director, Donald Cohen. 'He was trying to balance interests, trying to get something done. He was legitimately motivated by the right thing.'
With Waring gone, many of those who sat opposite him in negotiations worry that developers may have even easier access to San Diego's bounty. Baxamusa fears the forces in the Sanders administration that Waring mediated may run amok.
Briggs isn't sure, but he sees the concern. 'It's hard to know,' he said. 'Will the scraps disappear? Probably. Everything will be like pulling teeth.'
Of course, Waring didn't always compromise. He confided to co-workers that he found the neighborhood citizen boards that weigh in on land-use decisions quite frustrating. He threatened to have the La Jolla Planning Group disbanded over a complex set of bylaw requirements, and at the City Council hearing on the subject he lost his temper.
Frye believes that Waring simply never became accustomed to public service.
'I think a lot of people have problems making those adjustments,' she told CityBeat. 'Making adjustments into a public decision-making process, and actually embracing it, feeling comfortable working in that kind of environment, it is extremely time consuming. But it is time consuming for a reason.'
Even before he left for Iceland, Waring had begun to sour on public life. In e-mails obtained by CityBeat, Waring wrote in December to Briggs, 'I spend 50% of my time on negative stuff.'
By July he'd begun to despair.
'I have never been in an environment where so much effort is made to harm and distract a system. It has been my privilege to work here and watch people by and large work extremely had under very difficult circumstances. Before I worked here it was easy to criticize and speak to how much better things ought to be,' he wrote in another e-mail.
In an Aug. 6 e-mail to Cohen, he said he would be deciding whether or not to stay in government while on his vacation.
'Today is my 60th birthday,' he wrote. 'Since public service means volunteering to be a punching bag, how much of my 7th decade do I want to sacrifice? If we were 'moving the ball' the answer is easy. But we're not.'