“Anyone that's ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.”
It appeared as an afterthought in a mid-July story that ran on the San Diego News Network website.
Buried in an article about an announced alliance among three powerful, business-centric organizations—the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corp. (EDC) and tech-giddy CONNECT—came a rather startling revelation, at least by Spin Cycle standards:
“… San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has turned to the business community for help with his civic leadership agenda….”
After picking itself up off the floor, Spin Cycle decided to check with the Mayor's office to see just what this “help” entailed. That effort, it should be noted, began more than three weeks ago with a jovial e-mail to the Sanders media machine seeking an explanation.
Late last week—after a series of progressively less jovial e-mails—Team Sanders finally responded.
“This was a group of civic leaders who want to help the mayor,” Sanders spokesperson Darren Pudgil wrote in an e-mail. “We hope they can help us spread the word about the mayor's priorities. We hope you can too, John.”
Well, spreading the word is right in Spin Cycle's wheelhouse, but what took a while to figure out was: 1. Who's doing the word-spreading? and 2. Why hadn't we heard much about this group, which apparently has yet to be given an official name.
Bill Geppert, the local Cox Communications cable honcho whose name is often uttered as a future mayoral candidate, was tapped by Sanders to serve as chairman of the group, which he called the Civic Leadership Team.
Geppert, the current EDC chairman, told Spin Cycle this week that the group is still in its infancy, but he rejects the notion that this is Sanders' version of the ol' “kitchen cabinet,” a term in political circles that usually refers to an unofficial band of advisers that are brought together to formulate an agenda and suggest how to roll it out. Heck, Ronald Reagan had one.
“I think the idea is to try to identify and organize people who are absolutely passionate about a particular project or area,” Geppert said. “Then, in some cases, these people can bring their expertise and be credible supporters when they speak to the City Council or the community.”
Ben Haddad, whose political teeth were cut during the Pete Wilson administration, said that, as vice chairman of the group, he, too, disagrees with the suggestion of a kitchen cabinet.
Those invited to meet “are not there to shape an agenda,” said Haddad, a lobbyist who currently serves as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. “The agenda has been shaped. It is what it is.”
The Mayor's office offered a small glimpse into the group when it provided an e-mail sent in early July to 46 local movers and shakers asking them to attend a July 29 “Civic Leadership Agenda Meeting.”
“Dear Civic Leader,” the e-mail from Sanders chief of staff Kris Michell begins, “Mayor Jerry Sanders has created a Civic Leadership Agenda that will guide our city not only for the next three and a half years, but beyond his administration as well.
“As discussed in the April meeting, a civic leadership team of community leaders such as you is absolutely essential. We are confident that this group will carry on the city's civic and economic viability beyond the Mayor's time in office and into future administrations.”
The e-mail was sent to a who's-who of the connected in San Diego—Alan Bersin, Malin Burnham, Steve Cushman, Duane Roth, Mel Katz, Nikki Clay, Jim Waring, media types (including the new Union-Tribune head Ed Moss, perhaps a nod to previous meetings arranged by the late Herb Klein for the mayor's pleasure), developers and other big-biz advocates.
Geppert said about 70 people attended the July meeting, which took place next door to City Hall in the Silver Room of the Community Concourse.
While the Klein-arranged business gatherings in the past have been described by attendees as casual, free-flowing discussions, it was the meeting in April, Haddad said, that “seemed to have a little more structure to it. The mayor and his staff made it clear that they had actually developed an agenda for the remainder of his term.”
He said the agenda—while it involves pursuing such big-ticket items like a new city hall and downtown library, expanded convention center and a new stadium for the Chargers—focuses on four major themes: fiscal reform, water reliability, economic development and infrastructure.
Each topic was assigned a chairperson, who is then responsible for gathering other “passionate” people to discuss those concepts and then “educate further out in the community,” Geppert explained.
So, these are advisers then, right? “It's different for each group,” Geppert said. “I'm not dodging your question; it's just that there's no prototype approach to any of these [agenda] topics.”
Even mention of the Klein gatherings, and Geppert deflects: “I would say this is an effort to broaden and engage a much broader cross section of folks, rather than the same three people showing up at a City Council meeting. This is about capturing and organizing the passion that people feel for this community.”
Pudgil, from the Mayor's office, did, however, describe the group as “an offshoot of a group that Herb Klein helped form shortly after the mayor took office. The mayor meets with them periodically to update them on city matters.”
He added that the meetings don't require notice of the public or the media because “they are very informal” gatherings. Moreover, Geppert added that he doesn't envision the group getting together as a whole more than a couple times a year. Haddad, for one, said he wouldn't mind seeing the public and press attend, although he quickly added, “That's not my call.”
The question also arises—as Sanders heads toward the end of his administration—whether the self-proclaimed “caretaker” mayor is now worried about the legacy of his mayoral career. After all, “He Stabilized the City” isn't the sexiest of political tombstones.
But Haddad will have none of that. “I don't think Jerry's really interested in a legacy, to be honest,” he said. “People who've been around the political world will refer to it as that because that's what it looks like. Jerry's just wired differently than your average pol. I mean, if he were more like the average person, he would be running for something after this, and he's really not.
“He's not trying to dictate what his legacy is. The public and the media will do that for him.”Got a tip? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Would you like to your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.