How deliciously telling it was to see these two headlines side-by-side on the Union-Tribune's website recently:
“Push on for stronger mayor” “Power restored downtown after failure”
Yes, yes, Spin Cycle knows, one story had to do with darkness enveloping a good portion of the city's urban core-while the other involved a power outage. No doubt about it, Mayor Dick “Lights Out” Murphy has let it be known that his job would be easier if he gained greater power, like some crackling transmitter in need of a battery boost, as long as he's able to remain cloistered in the dark.
Although looking somewhat tanner than earlier days (odd, considering the lack of sunshine San Diego has experienced in recent weeks), Murphy this week was able to hold off attempts to throw back the thick velvet curtains and let the sun shine in at City Hall. Good thing tie votes at City Council meetings don't go to the runner, because Murphy-who's proven so good at running away from responsibility-would have undoubtedly prevailed.
Councilmember Jim “MadDog” Madaffer's absence this week-he's apparently traveling in China, the lucky bum-made for an anticlimactic resumption of the debate over San Diego's need for a more open, publicly tuned-in government process after decades of legalistic run-around, doublespeak and obfuscation.
At least verbally, Madaffer has suggested that he backs the yeoman's work of colleagues Donna Frye and Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, but particularly Frye, who has refused to attend closed-session meetings for two weeks while the city squirms under her efforts to give City Hall back to the people of San Diego. Verbally, that is, because in the past Madaffer has said the right things, only to cast the wrong votes (his passive-aggressive moments with the Chargers are just one example).
So, despite the pronouncements from the mainstream press, don't automatically put Madaffer in the tiebreaker's seat for more openness.
What seems so curious about this whole discussion-it's Twilight Zone quality, if you will-is the mayor's suggestion that somehow changing the city charter to reflect a strong-mayor philosophy, rather than the current system that relies heavily on the city manager, will suddenly make all of San Diego's problems go away.
Does anybody really believe that what's going on at City Hall is something other than a bold-faced, in-broad-daylight political power grab during an escalating war between the forces of darkness and light? To think otherwise is, at best, naïve.
Why else would Murphy and three City Council members, a voting bloc that includes three attorneys, seem so hesitant to give the public what it clearly wants? As one long-time political observer noted, “This isn't about a strong-mayor form of government. This is about a backroom-deal form of government.”
Why else the uneasiness displayed by the mayor at the suggestion-again from Frye with an assist from Councilmember Brian Maienschein, a typical Murphy backer-that the city conduct a nationwide search to fill the role of outgoing City Manager Michael Uberuaga, who's announced his “retirement” so he can go off and be city manager somewhere else.
Does Murphy have the votes to let Uberuaga simply slip out the back door while his top lieutenant plops into the CEO's seat? He well indeed may not, but it's clear that's exactly what he's striving for.
And who can blame him? Remember what happened the last time big-ticket department heads were hired in San Diego. Both Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and Fire Chief Jeff Bowman-both brought in from outside San Diego-pronounced their departments woefully under-funded, raised hell and eventually earned the admiration of a public thirsting for straight talk.
Imagine a new city manager coming in and raising similar hell, considering the breadth of federal investigations being undertaken at City Hall. That might lead to political heads rolling, and the mayor has little stomach for that.
This is not to say that Murphy's pick to replace Uberuaga, Assistant City Manager P. Lamont Ewell, isn't worthy of consideration. After all, how many candidates for the job have been portrayed in a made-for-TV movie?
The word on Ewell is that he's one nice guy, very smooth, but that he plays favorites, a symptom that's all too prevalent within San Diego's political machine. When he departed Durham, N.C., after three years as that town's city manager to come here to play second fiddle to Uberuaga, Ewell received generally warm farewells, but he also faced some criticism over a small-business-loan program that wound up financing non-existent businesses. A federal investigation into that episode continues.
The positive spin on that, of course, would be that Ewell now has more than enough experience dealing with federal investigations, including the ones now surrounding San Diego's City Hall and its bond dealings.
Ewell reportedly was never at the center of the Durham investigation, but some have suggested that it goes to his work philosophy, which is to delegate and to give underlings wide authority.
Ewell is said to be a fiercely private man, so much so that when actor LeVar Burton played a role based on Ewell's service as Oakland's fire chief for the TV movie Firestorm: 72 Hours in Oakland (about the devastating 1991 Oakland brush fires), Burton once said that he had to rely on colleagues and associates to formulate Ewell's character. Burton only met Ewell on the last day of shooting.
Murphy has said he doesn't want to take the time necessary to conduct a national search for Uberuaga's replacement. And it might be that no one in their right mind would want the job, considering the heat that's on at City Hall.
But let's consider one telling moment of the Uberuaga era, which began in November 1997. As one observer tells it, Uberuaga's first budget proposal in 1998 was a “refreshing” compendium of all methods the city used to balance its budget, including land sales, one-time-only revenue boosts and low emergency reserves-all laid out in clear and concise charts and graphs that still showed an anticipated revenue shortfall of more than $30 million.
By the time the final budget was unveiled, not one of those details was found. They had all been deleted at the vehement request of then-Mayor Susan Golding, who was busy pushing for such big-ticket items as ballpark funding and a new main library without a tax increase or any impact on other city projects. Sound familiar?
This city doesn't need a strong mayor as much as a savvy one.
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