This past weekend, sometimes rational U-T San Diego columnist Matt Hall declared that Jerry Sanders is the best mayor in the history of San Diego. Yikes! The glorification of the termed-out leader has begun. During the next week or so, city muckety-mucks will heap praise upon Sanders for taking a city buried deep in scandal and red ink, fixing it up and making it look shiny and new.
In our editorials, we've often said how fond of Sanders we are, as a genuine person, but it was almost always like anesthetizing him before we went in with a scalpel and started carving him up for his policies.
During the past week, we went back and read all of the editorials we wrote about Sanders and decided to use the exercise as a retrospective on his tenure, CityBeat-style. Man, pretty much the only thing we ever liked was his about-face on gay marriage. The rest of it's a criticism cavalcade.
Probably the first words written in CityBeat about Sanders came after he spoke at a May 2005 forum of potential Republican special-election candidates to replace Dick Murphy as mayor. Editor David Rolland wrote, "Call me crazy, but I like this fellow. Maybe it was because he seems like kindly Uncle Jerry who'd give you the shirt off his back if you found yourself shirtless. Maybe it's because he refused to take [then-chair of the local Republican Party Ron] Nehring's bait and attack Donna Frye. Maybe because he wants to reappoint whistleblower Diann Shipione to the city's pension board."
Less than three months later, though, during the primary-election campaign, we were bemoaning Sanders' lack of clear ideas and squishiness on taxes. Early on, Sanders positioned himself as a steadying force who'd get San Diego back on track in the wake of a series of scandals, and he was forced by challenger Steve Francis' hard line on taxes to eventually take a tax hike off the table. Francis didn't make the runoff election.
In October, just before the runoff election between Sanders and City Councilmember Frye, we were skeptical that Sanders' proposed reforms would solve the city's financial problems and dismissive of his suggestion that the city could borrow money to pay off its pension obligations. In our endorsement of Frye, we criticized Sanders' inability to articulate—in an interview with Kelly Davis—any semblance of a vision for the city.
"Sanders fizzled out after about seven minutes," we mocked, "relying on canned campaign material like living within our means.'" We also worried about his plans to streamline the permitting process for developers.
After he beat Frye, we praised his sober characterizations of the city's finances and his decision to forego pomp and circumstance for his inauguration, but we had lingering distaste for his denigration of Frye's integrity during the campaign.
After Sanders' first State of the City speech in January 2006, we said, "CityBeat didn't support Sanders; we found the campaign his advisors ran for him distasteful. But, in our view, he's off to a great start, and, as long as he remains his own man and stays true to his own values, he'll do just fine." We added, "It was positively delightful knowing that the city insiders were in the audience squirming in their seats when Sanders said, San Diego's municipal government has failed its citizens and become an embarrassing and corrupt impediment to progress.'"
We were hopeful of an alliance between Sanders and corruption-hunting City Attorney Mike Aguirre, but we continued to state our concern that without tax hikes, city services would crumble.
Soon, Sanders had gotten down to the business of pension reform and managed competition, pushing two initiatives on the June 2006 ballot: Prop. B would require voters to approve any new benefits for city employees while Prop. C would allow increased outsourcing of city services to the private sector. We didn't like either one of them—Prop. B because it was unnecessary and Prop. C because we thought it would lead to people getting less in salary and benefits for doing the same work.
Sanders' friendliness with developers became an issue that spring, after the Building Industry Association (BIA) sued the city over its inclusionary-housing ordinance, the law passed in 2003 that requires developers to either set aside housing units as "affordable" or pay an in-lieu fee into a fund that would pay for affordable housing. At issue was when the in-lieu fee is assessed. Assessing it earlier in the process would save developers millions—and shortchange the housing fund.
"The BIA and Mayor Jerry Sanders," we wrote in April, "got together and hammered out a compromise' that was not so much a compromise as it was a total capitulation to the builders. The compromise' was presented to members of the City Council last week. Before they voted, two lawyers from the City Attorney's Office told them they had a strong legal defense of the city's current policy."
In July 2006, we gave Sanders the thumbs-up for essentially telling the San Diego Chargers to go ahead and shop the team around to other cities in the region. But two weeks later, we were ripping him again. "With each passing week," we wrote, "Sanders looks more and more like a man positioning himself for reelection and less and less like the man who said he'd lead by making tough, sometimes unpopular choices."
A couple of things had been stuck in our craw: He was showing no willingness to even consider raising certain fees to the levels of other large California cities as a way to help solve the budget crisis, and he'd endorsed an appeal of a judicial demand to move the Mount Soledad cross.
But really bugging us was Sanders' stance against what bureaucrats call "indirect potable reuse"—turning sewage into potable water—and critics, including Sanders, call "toilet to tap." By then, the practice was considered scientifically safe and sound, but Sanders was tapping into the public's irrational fear.
By the fall of 2006, Sanders had put a stranglehold on the dissemination of information from the city to the public, and we gave him grief for it.
In spring of 2007, the Sunroad scandal blew up in Sanders' face. The city had allowed a company (run by a campaign contributor), Sunroad Enterprises, to erect a 12-story office building in Kearny Mesa that federal aviation and state transportation officials had, in advance and in no uncertain terms, deemed a hazard for pilots attempting to land planes at Montgomery Field. Though his land-use chief had pulled the strings, Sanders accepted blame. We were only happy to agree that it was indeed his fault; we summed it up as a product of his too-chummy attitude toward developers and private businesses.
To hear CityBeat tell it, Sanders had developed a bit of a fibbing problem by the summer of 2007. We caught him misleading the public amid a flap over a mandatory-recycling ordinance being pushed by Mike Aguirre, and around the same time, he got caught making a false statement about a detail in the Sunroad scandal.
"Your past declarations of honest reform now sound like lip service," we wrote in an open letter to Sanders. "Empty rhetoric disguising business-as-usual. Meaningless sound bites diverting attention away from back-room dealing."
But, oh, what a difference a couple of months and a momentous flip-flop make.
In September, Sanders became the apple of our eyes when he made national news by switching his position on same-sex marriage.
"His sudden strong stance in favor of equality under the law," we wrote, "could split the Republicans locally and isolate the wing of the party populated by the sort intolerant bigots who want to teach Christianity in public schools, keep people like Terri Schiavo from dying with dignity, stop potentially groundbreaking stem-cell research, make abortion illegal and much more dangerous and strip gay citizens of their constitutional rights."
The honeymoon didn't last. By the end of the year, we were giving Sanders guff again for his timid take on sewage-water recycling and for trying to strike language in the city's General Plan, at the behest of hoteliers, that called for jobs that offer livable wages and good benefits.
Other than a difference of opinion with the mayor over how the city auditor should be hired and fired, he was pretty much free from our wrath during the first half of 2008—an election year.
The June primary pitted him, once again, against Steve Francis, who was never in the running for our endorsement. The way our recommendation of Sanders began, you'd swear we'd forgotten everything we'd ever written about the guy:
"Mayor Sanders, the person, is nothing if not genuine. With apologies to his strident critics, we like the guy. We've tried not to, but we can't help it."
That's always been our conundrum with Sanders: We dig the man but hate his politics. Despite our litany of grievances, we sure as hell weren't going to pick Francis, who did not win. You're welcome, Jerry.
Near the end of 2008, as an already-cash-strapped city was beginning to feel the impact of a national recession, Sanders was blasting the City Council for refusing to make tough choices on cuts to city services, choosing instead to raid reserve funds to keep rec centers and libraries open. We turned the tables on him, chiding him for refusing to show leadership on the need for new revenue, and began to bang the drum on charging single-family-home residents for trash pickup.
"He says the citizenry doesn't trust its elected officials to spend increased revenue intelligently," we wrote in November, "reinforcing the sentiment each time he utters it."
We added, in our final editorial of the year, "Now, the real Jerry Sanders can stand up. Now, instead of cowering in the face of any perceived public apprehension, he can become a force for increased public awareness, understanding and sophistication. Now, Sanders can aim for the highest common denominator, rather than the lowest.
"This is the ideal climate," we continued, "for Sanders and the City Council to have an honest, in-depth conversation about how much tax revenue is collected in the city and where it comes from, and how much it costs to provide basic municipal services."
By March 2009, we'd added raising the fee that property owners pay to help the city comply with clean-water mandates—the stormwater fee—to our short list of new-revenue ideas; the pittance that property-owners pay doesn't come close to recovering the full cost of the mandates. But we were also urging more union concessions to help Sanders convince the public to contribute more.
That summer, we warned him against repeating the sins of the past by quietly pushing for an accounting change that would lower the city's financial contributions to its employee-pension fund. And after a lunchtime speech in September—when he spread joy and laughter throughout the land by saying "erection" instead of "election"—we jammed him on his advocacy for the new central library and expansion of the convention center amid uncertain capacity to pay for them, and, conversely, his insistence upon asking voters to approve construction of a new City Hall.
But, for the most part, we went pretty easy on Sanders in 2009.
CityBeat broke a story in early 2010 revealing that City Council candidate Lorie Zapf had tried to impress noisy, overexcited, antigay bigot James Hartline by saying some rather intolerant things in an email, even about members of her own family. In the aftermath, we expressed disappointment that Sanders had not reacted more harshly to her remarks.
Sanders finally got behind the idea of new revenue—a modest sales-tax hike—in 2010, but he got skittish at the first sign of special-interest backlash.
"Why did Sanders bother pitching the idea if he was just going to yank it at the first sign of displeasure from a group of conservatives, whose opposition to tax increases is as predictable as the marine layer in June," we wrote in July, again needling him for refusing to propose trash and stormwater fee increases.
The City Council later resurrected the sales-tax proposal, and it went to the ballot as Prop. D. We all know what happened to it when it got there. We appreciated Sanders campaigning for it, but, in retrospect, we wish he'd heeded our calls for a longer, more sustained outreach campaign to educate the public on revenues and service costs.
In the wake of Prop. D's colossal failure, and having earlier gotten the City Council to approve the new central library, Sanders' attention was on expanding the convention center. We'd come around on the idea by November—as long as someone came up with the money to pay for it—because it represented an opportunity to enhance public access to the bay.
In order to help Prop. D's chances at the polls, Sanders and the City Council had pulled from the ballot the proposal to build a new City Hall. City Councilmember and mayoral aspirant Carl DeMaio was vehemently against both measures.
"After voters sent the tax increase down in flames," we wrote in February 2011, "San Diego was left with a gaping budget deficit and no plan to replace a crumbling City Hall. Score that: DeMaio 2, Sanders 0."
The humiliating defeat of Prop. D spoke to Sanders, and what it told him was that San Diegans need more pension reform before they'd even consider raising taxes. So, Sanders got behind what would soon be called Comprehensive Pension Reform, winding up as Prop. B on the June 2012 ballot. In April 2011, Sanders and friends launched their campaign, and we began our ultimately unsuccessful crusade to kill Prop. B by countering claims that a 401(k) system for city employees is a dream come true.
Generally speaking, the remainder of Sanders' term was spent on Prop. B and big-ticket projects such as the central library, the convention center, a new Chargers stadium and an overhaul of the center of Balboa Park, which was being pushed by Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, who'd been largely responsible for making the library a reality by chipping in millions of dollars.
"Mayor Jerry Sanders seemed too eager to jump aboard whatever bandwagon Jacobs happened to be driving," we wrote in July, complaining that Jacobs was being too rigid in how Balboa Park was to be fixed. (After it was approved, we said we'd get over it.)
A month later, Sanders journeyed to Kansas City, Indianapolis and Denver to learn how to finance football stadiums.
"Weirdly," we wrote, "we also feel a little sorry for Sanders, who, not so long ago, was rightly doing his best to avoid the Chargers topic altogether but has since spun in the opposite direction. Now, he's shilling for the Spanos family and wasting his time in flyover country—presumably because he at least has to look like he's doing everything he can to keep the team in San Diego."
In December, Sanders made comments to CityBeat about pension reform that wound up as evidence in a legal case against Prop. B. Sanders said pension-reform proponents chose to go the citizen-initiative route in order to avoid negotiating with the unions that represent city employees.
"You do that so that you get the ballot initiative on that you actually want," he said. "Otherwise, we'd have gone through meet-and-confer [negotiations], and you don't know what's gonna go on at that point through the meet-and-confer process."
In an editorial, we wrote that "it's underhanded to do an end-run around the unions by exploiting the envy of voters who don't have the kind of retirement security that public-sector workers have. Sanders' message: Let government workers scrounge for scraps when they're old like everyone else. But not him—he'll be fine."
The mayor's final State of the City speech in January 2012 began with a high-energy video with Eminem's "Lose Yourself" as a soundtrack, and AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" as Sanders' entrance music, but it was his remarks about homelessness that got our attention. He said the in-progress Connections Housing center would render an annual emergency winter shelter unnecessary, which we said was "flat-out wrong."
We didn't have a whole lot more to say about Sanders throughout 2012, as our attention turned to poking Bob Filner, tearing DeMaio apart and reacting with a combination of amusement and horror at what Doug Manchester and John Lynch were doing to the former San Diego Union-Tribune. We didn't even bother to freak out when Sanders endorsed DeMaio to replace him, which is—hey, wait—Jerry Sanders endorsed Carl DeMaio to be mayor of San Diego! Of all the stupid, ridiculous—! He has some nerve to—! We oughtta give him a piece of our—!
Oh, forget it. No harm, no foul.
Hey, so, no hard feelings, Jer. We raise a pint of craft ale to your good health and that $300,000-a-year, cushy-soft landing with the Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, and remember when you told Steve Francis to fuck off? That was awesome.
What do you think of Jerry Sanders? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.