"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole cover and die."
Here in America's Funniest (not ha-ha, but strange) City, some things appear certain. As sure as Mayor Dick Murphy dons a blue button-down-collared shirt at City Council meetings, the sun will come up and city leaders will continue to play hide-the-pea with San Diego's questionable financial health.
Murphy donned all sorts of facial expressions this week when the City Council took alternate turns laughing and crying over the recently released audit of San Diego's poster child of fiscal irresponsibility, the city's Data Processing Corp. Spending $17,000 a year on coffee, $450 to rent a big-screen TV for a Super Bowl day "senior management event"-wink-and more than $45,000 a month for office space unoccupied since March are easy targets for fans of schadenfreude, that deliciously malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others.
But Data Processing will never again party like it's 1999-or 2000, 2001, 2002 or 2003, for that matter. No, the magic of the audit-a word that sends shivers down the spine of every red-blooded tax cheat on the planet-has peed in the party pool of DPC, and life will never be the same. After all, DPC was no Microsoft.
The unanswered question on this and every other money-soaked fiasco piling up on the shoulders of city leaders is Who the hell has been minding the piggy bank? The quick answer-at least in terms of protecting the public-appears to be "No one." A murkier and more troubling response, however, might involve something more sinister: that status-quo fetishists at City Hall are so used to this broken system of governance, that avoiding the open manhole of financial uncertainty might prove nearly impossible.
With Murphy in full duck-and-cover mode as he slinks his way to the November election, we again find Councilmember Donna Frye sticking her tanned neck out and raising a ruckus from inside chambers-and this time she just may get what she wants.
A full-court press by Frye on the mayor, who controls the City Council agenda, has led to the docketing of a discussion among councilmembers on June 22 that could determine just how serious City Hall really is about tearing down its financial house of cards and rebuilding with sturdier materials.
The topic that day will be whether to conduct an independent audit of the city's water and sewer departments to determine if San Diego ratepayers are getting their money's worth. Some recent digging by KGTV-10News has raised some schadenfreude-esque questions about whether status-quo-happy city officials, frustrated by the tax-limiting nature of Prop. 13, have been shifting money for decades from those two departments to prop up the sagging finances in other city offices, including the city attorney's office and the Park and Recreation Department.
City attorney candidate Michael Aguirre, who's been busy racking up endorsements aplenty despite an uncharacteristically low-key public profile of late, popped up to tell Channel 10 that he believes the city's use of so-called "service-level agreements" to shift money around between departments "should be read as agreements to divert funds" that violate a host of federal, state and local laws.
Although City Attorney Casey Gwinn and other city financial defenders dismissed such huffing, Channel 10 reported that "Gwinn didn't argue that there might be some charter and state law violations at other departments" but certainly not his own. Attempts to reach Gwinn for clarification were unsuccessful, but, presumably, he'll have something to say come next Tuesday.
And so will Frye. For several years, the councilmember tried to get the city to release a sewer-rate study that-once she pried it loose through a state Public Records Act request-concluded that homeowners were paying a disproportionate share of treatment costs compared to local businesses. Frye said the city has known about the overcharges (about $11 a month for the average resident) since 1991, when San Diego received $266 million in state and federal grants for various sewer-improvement projects.
Frye said the City Council, led by the mayor, had voted in closed session two and a half years ago not to release the report. That vote was 8-1, with Frye the lone dissenter (among current councilmembers, Charles Lewis and Michael Zucchet weren't around at the time). Murphy has reportedly said he doesn't recall Frye confronting him on the study, but she isn't buying it.
State water officials, who have given the city until July 1 to come up with a more equitable fee schedule, have told the city it might have to pay back those millions if sewer fees aren't restructured. But that may be only the tip of the iceberg for the city, which had to cancel plans to pursue additional sewer-bond money.
And how is business taking it? Just ask the kelp people. Dozens of employees from CPKelco and International Specialty Products (ISP), two kelp-byproduct manufacturers that dump loads of organic matter into the sewer system, packed the City Council chambers last week to argue that a rate increase for them would mean shutting down and moving, as one employee said, to Oklahoma.
"What bothered me was the impression that somehow our vote was going to be responsible for putting some 290 people out of work," Frye recently told CityBeat . "But it's more unfair that for all these years the people of San Diego have been subsidizing these companies."
Last August, an ISP manager wrote to a local union representative laying out the company's sentiment on the fee hike. "If we are unsuccessful in keeping the sewer cost-of-service study off the City Council docket, then we would seek to have it handled in closed session," the manager wrote. "If it ends up on the open session docket, then we plan to lobby as many council members as needed to vote it down."
Last week, that didn't happen. The status quo may soon be no mo'.
Write to spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.