Just a short month ago, a careful listener could have seen the metaphoric tumbleweed blowing through City Council chambers and heard the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the background as Mayor Jerry Sanders took the podium. Across the room, he saw mad-as-hell council members, their legislative guns loaded, their hands itchy over the triggers. He spoke sternly, telling them to get out of his way as he tried to pull the city out of the mess that they, he implied, had created.
In retrospect, the events leading up to this moment had certain inexorability. The executive-mayor governance structure began in January 2006 with much hoopla and fanfare, but the new organization had profound flaws: eight council members with no way to break a tie vote, a veto override that required a simple majority (as opposed to the supermajority required in other legislatures) and ill-defined mayoral powers.
In July, the first real rift between Sanders and the City Council occurred when council members learned from constituents that a neighborhood swim team had been axed and funding slashed for a program that employed homeless individuals. An irate council began looking for ways to force the mayor to be more up front about budget changes. By the end of January, Andrea Tevlin, the council's budget analyst, had proposed changes to the management structure that would require the mayor to provide a lot more information to the council. She said she informed Jay Goldstone, the mayor's chief financial office, of the proposed changes, but when the legislation hit the docket, Sanders said he felt blind-sided. He lost his temper and fired off a Jan. 25 memo that called the council “dysfunctional” and “wedded to special interests.” Council President Scott Peters countered with tough words of his own, calling the memo “harmful to the function of government.”
On Feb. 5, the council voted 5-3 to require the mayor to get its permission for all “material and substantial” changes to city services. The moment had to be the nadir of Sanders' brief political life.
So everyone was surprised when Sanders, Peters and City Councilmember Tony Young joined hands to announce a compromise. And not just a compromise, but one that included limits on exactly the authority Sanders claimed for himself. They proposed that the mayor could change up to 10 percent or $4 million of a department's budget before getting council permission. Should he decide to cut a program that affects the community, the council would receive prompt notification. The speeches at the press conference were tantamount to a group high-five. The City Council still needs to vote on the compromise, but with Young and the original three opponents to the previous ordinance (Peters, Maienschein and Faulconer) on board, the proposal seems in good shape. On the other side, Councilmember Donna Frye's heels are dug in, so they'd need a vote from Toni Atkins, Ben Hueso or Jim Madaffer.
A suddenly more-understanding Sanders struck a very different tone than the gunfighter of Feb. 5. Not only did he promise improved communications with the council, he vowed to go beyond the compromise and notify the council every time he makes a change to city services, a statement he reiterated to CityBeat in an interview.
Sanders has begun a new communications initiative with the citizenry. He kicked off a series of community coffees and forums last week with a Saturday open availability at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest. So how on earth did Sanders go from hardcore “none shall pass” mentality to the big teddy bear of compromise? What happened to the stubborn cop who demanded the right to manage the city as he saw fit?
Until the February council meeting, Sanders had enjoyed a good run as the chief executive of a city beset with problems. He used his nearly 80-percent approval ratings to jam through a November ballot initiative allowing more city services to be contracted out to the private sector, and, in general, he filled a power vacuum left by a council nervous about investigations by the SEC, the FBI and a private consultant, Kroll Inc. He was able to run the city in much the same way he'd run the local United Way and Red Cross chapters and the San Diego Police Department.
“He's had his way. He's been grabbing power in this new system, because the council can't get its act together and it doesn't speak with a single voice very well,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University's School of Public Administration and Urban Studies. “He's used to snatching power and doing what he wants to do, and he was surprised when they bit back and did that.”
Sanders admits that his experience prior to becoming mayor did not fully prepare him for the job.
“It was a lot more orderly,” Sanders told CityBeat. “When you call as the police chief, people take the call and they listen. When you call as the mayor, they may take your call, but they might not listen.”
He also has had to get used to the breadth and nastiness politics can bring out. The missions of his prior employers were tough to argue against. As Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, pointed out, “Who campaigns against the United Way?”
Of course, Sanders wasn't just new to the job of mayor. The job of San Diego mayor was new itself.
“Let's face it,” Sparrow said, “the job is defining itself as it goes along.”
Early on, Sanders took heat for the organization of his staff-five press personnel compared with two community liaisons. Previous mayors hired a liaison for every district, though Sanders is quick to point out that in the compromise to create the executive-mayor government, several positions were transferred from the mayor's office to create Tevlin's Independent Budget Analyst's office. However, the persona he created on the campaign as a likeable, honest man in a city of corruption carried him forward for much of his first year as he tried to acclimate to the job.
“There were a lot of painful lessons along the way. I had to learn to go one-on-one with council members, which is something I'm not normally comfortable doing,” Sanders said. “Sometimes I stand up in front of council and say something that's very clear and it comes through on a 6-2 vote or a 5-3.”
He wonders how there could be disagreement on issues he considers “very compelling.”
Indeed, the breadth of opinion on any given subject took him by surprise.
“You may say the sky is blue one day, and some group will say, ‘No, you're wrong-it's azure,” he said.
But his response to setbacks has been that of a fighter rather than a conciliator. After the meeting in February, Sanders and his team began girding themselves for a popularity battle-he would veto the law and begin campaigning for reform. But even as the public and council members filed out of the auditorium, Councilmember Young's chief of staff, Jimmie Slack, approached Sanders and indicated that his boss wanted to work something out.
“The councilman wanted to make it clear that he was not seeking to micromanage the mayor,” Slack told CityBeat. Young mainly wanted to make sure the public, by way of the City Council, received notification of cuts to any programs. He contacted Goldstone and Betsy Brennan Kinsley, Peters' chief of staff, to see about setting up some meetings.
Meanwhile, Peters had begun approaching people to find a solution. He particularly liked the idea of setting thresholds, a notion he first heard from Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers' Association, during the public-comment portion of the Feb. 5 meeting. The Taxpayers had been working on the issue for months, and had even received presentations from Tevlin and Julie Dubick, a policy advisor to Sanders. They worked out what Lutar called “the hybrid solution.”
The initial meeting between Kinsley, Slack and Dubick produced no agreement. Kinsley said Dubick didn't even bring a proposal.
“I think that early on the tensions were still pretty high,” Sanders said. “I think we thought we were right by [city] charter and I think the council staff felt they were right by charter.”
To bust out a cliché, fate chose that moment to intervene. A burglar broke into the La Jolla home of billionaire Ernest Rady. Peters, who had been looking for an excuse to hold a community meeting on safety and crime, rolled into action, setting up a forum with police Capt. Boyd Long and, of course, San Diego's top ex-cop.
More than 160 La Jollans turned out, and after they vented their fear of incipient homicide, they spiraled into discussion of other issues. From the mayor, they wanted answers on the pension crisis and the city employee healthcare debt. From Peters, they wanted to know about the broken streetlights in downtown La Jolla and cars speeding down Via Capri.
“I think he realized we have to respond to the issues that were literally more close to home,” Peters said of Sanders.
“People ask their council members very different set of questions than they ask me, Sanders said. “And I learned why the council needed certain kinds of information from me.”
Sanders himself appeared for the next negotiations meeting, one that included Peters, Young, Kinsley, Slack, Goldstone, Chief Operating Officer Ronne Froman and Sanders' putative chief of staff, policy advisor Kris Michell. The mayor brought a proposal that had notification and thresholds. He met one-on-one with Faulconer, Madaffer and Maienschein. Everything else was detail.
None of this is to say the strong executive of last year has vanished, however enlightened Sanders may be. He made it clear to CityBeat that he agreed to the compromise in part because he's planning a charter commission to “clean up some issues” in relation to the executive-mayor government. No doubt there will be a huge public battle over charter changes, not to mention the storm clouds of the 2008 budget gathering on the horizon.
“What's interesting about us locally,” Sanders said, “is San Diego's always had such a homogenous group that, any tension at all, it's a big deal. Most cities it's just clashing all the time.”
At least now some of the ground rules have been laid.