If members of the San Diego City Council, past and present, are looking for words of wisdom this week as they contemplate their roles in the various government crises that have unfolded over the past two years, they needn't look any further than Uncle Ben. No, not the guy on the box of rice-we're talking about the uncle of Peter Parker, otherwise known as Spider-Man.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben tells his nephew.
Given the sometimes-surreal nature and oftentimes melodramatic tone of San Diego's municipal mess, it's only fitting that we turn to a comic-book character for philosophical insight. We only wish the City Council understood the sentiment behind the line. Judging from a few of the members' initial reaction Tuesday morning to a long-awaited analysis of who-did-what-wrong at City Hall, they still don't get it.
Representatives from Kroll Inc., who've been paid $20.3 million to sort out a decade's worth of mismanagement of the city's employee-retirement and sewer-fee systems, concluded that the City Council was negligent in its duty to provide accurate financial information to bond investors (a determination that could lead to civil penalties); was responsible for rubberstamping a scheme that shortchanged the retirement system and violated city and state laws; and, worst of all, broke federal and state laws and violated terms of city loans and grants by devising a sewer-fee structure that unfairly burdened homeowners and benefited large businesses.
All this occurred while current City Councilmembers Toni Atkins, Donna Frye, Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein and Scott Peters were in office. All five were found culpable for misleading investors and approving the pension scheme (although Frye voted against part of what some have called a quid pro quo). Atkins, Madaffer, Maienschein and Peters were deeply implicated in the sewer scandal.
The initial responses from Peters, Madaffer and Atkins were understandable from a practical standpoint, but ultimately disappointing. They were likely advised against accepting blame by their lawyers, but their buck-passing was shameful.
Peters said, “We do recognize that there have been problems in this city” but went on to reject Kroll's comparison of San Diego with Orange County's past troubles, downplay his colleagues' responsibility due to their lack of expertise and ask for credit for cooperating with investigators. Atkins and Madaffer, as Peters has done previously, passed blame to city staffers who advised them.
No, we didn't expect them to admit to breaking every law in the book and beg for mercy, but it would have been better to say nothing than to say what they did.
Why? Because, leaving aside for the moment the pension-scheme and financial-disclosure matters, the sewer-fee scandal shines an awfully unflattering light on them.
On Jan. 29, 2002, Atkins, Madaffer, Maienschein and Frye, plus former City Councilmembers Byron Wear and George Stevens and former Mayor Dick Murphy, were told that the city's sewer-rate structure violated the federal Clean Water Act. Consequently, the city had violated its agreements on “hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans,” according to Kroll. Making the appropriate adjustment would lower rates for homeowners and raise rates for a few big businesses.
Madaffer's response was “Let 'em sue us.”
Over the objections of Frye and Stevens, the group voted to table the matter until then-City Attorney Casey Gwinn analyzed it further. His report came nearly a year later. It repeated that the city was breaking the law and warned that the city was at risk of having to pay back roughly $370 million in grants and loans. The City Council responded by doing nothing for two more years and, in the meantime, applied for another $12 million loan “in knowing violation,” Kroll said, adding that evidence shows “the City Council intentionally delayed implementing a compliant rate structure out of concern for Kelco,” a large manufacturer.
Maybe city finance staffers did mislead the City Council with regard to the disclosure of financial information to bond investors, and maybe city lawyers gave the City Council bad advice on the pension scheme-but the sewer stuff can't be blamed on anyone but the council.
Regardless, members of the City Council wield great power over hundreds of thousands of people's lives. They ought to use it with those people's interests at heart, and they ought to know that with that power comes responsibility-including the responsibility of knowing where the buck stops. Even comic-book writers know that.