In 2007, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, heeding advice from his top political confidant, was all set to veto a City Council resolution supporting a statewide effort to legalize gay marriage. Going along with the council was seen as harmful to Sanders' reelection campaign. But in a principled and tearful stand, Sanders changed his mind—yet still cruised to victory at the polls nine months later. It was, in our view, Sanders' best moment as mayor.
Now in his second and last term, reelection is no longer a factor in the mayor's decision-making process. The services of Tom Shepard, the consultant who urged Sanders to oppose gay marriage, are no longer needed. In 2009 and beyond, Sanders is free to simply lead. He's free to govern with the interests of common San Diegans in mind, without concern for what the city's conservative Republican base might think.
One week before his gay-marriage turnabout, Sanders opposed a City Council ordinance approving a groundbreaking pilot program to recycle sewage and dump it into a city drinking-water reservoir, arguing that the public wasn't ready for what Sanders continued to deride as “toilet to tap.” We suspect that Sanders trusted the science but didn't want to give a prospective conservative challenger like Steve Francis a sharp campaign weapon.
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.
On no issue is such leadership more important now than on the city's hemorrhaging budget.
Sanders estimates that the city is on track to be in a deep, $54-million hole come July 1, so painful budget-balancing measures are needed. He says the pain will be much worse if the state raids local-government coffers to help balance its own budget.
This is the ideal climate 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. Two-thirds of the city's general-fund revenue comes from property, sales and hotel-room taxes and franchise fees, with the remainder coming mostly from license and permit fees and penalties and fines. What do each of these sources pay for? What are the long-term fluctuations in big-ticket items like property and sales taxes? Tax revenues are way down right now, causing the city major grief. How much of that revenue needs to be squirreled away during boom years in order for us to ride out times like these?
What does it cost large American cities to provide public safety on a per-capita basis, and how far off the mark are we currently? Libraries and parks—same questions. How bad is our crumbling infrastructure? How much will it cost to repair it all? How much will it cost to comply with various state and federal laws? According to the city, 45 percent of the budget is consumed by worker wages—is that typical of other cities? And the big question: Can we afford the city's retirement plan, in light of long-term fluctuations in the stock market? If not, how are we going to make it sustainable?
Overall, what are the relationships between the taxes and fees that are collected and the services they fund.
Certainly, some of these things have been addressed in piecemeal fashion lately, but what's needed is a large-scale public-awareness initiative detailing the costs of running a major American city in the 21st century. And it needs to start now, because if it results in an obvious need to raise more revenue, that campaign will take time.
There has been speculation surrounding whether or not Sanders will seek higher office in 2012. We don't think he will; we think he'll retire to his beloved garden in Kensington—using much less water than he used to—and so he's in a perfect position, finally, to lead such a no-nonsense effort.