By John R. Lamb


The warnings were all there. Someone, somewhere, somehow left our region virtually naked against brushfire.

-County Supervisor Dianne Jacob

Clearly, dear ol' disconcerted Dianne never heard the adage, "Every time you have to speak, you're auditioning for leadership."

It's the perfect denial of responsibility: "someone, somewhere, somehow." Plug in any catastrophe, natural and otherwise, and-voila!-response, ready to deliver, for any kind of lapse in political forethought.

Sept. 11? Heyyy, someone, somewhere, somehow left our region virtually naked against terrorism. Off the hook!

Nuclear accident? Well, someone, somewhere, somehow left our region virtually naked against a meltdown. Bammo! Slate clean!

Explain something, if you can, please: If Supervisor Jacob heads up all these fire-snuffing committees and boards and commissions and slumber parties and the like, how come she's so confused how nearly a quarter of the county went combustible?

Let's face it. The county Board of Supervisors has been little more than a development-happy conveyor belt for years, content on rubber-stamping most new backcountry housing tracts while scooping up the campaign dough that goes with the job. As the supes themselves have been pointing out, firefighting isn't mentioned in the county charter-so, gee whiz, don't lay that guilt trip on the Republican heads of these "leaders."

Oh sure, the county printed up a report concluding that its scrub-covered realm was as fire-ready as a warm can of gasoline while folks like Jacob and colleague Ron Roberts, now apparently interested in a rematch with Mayor Yellow Jacket, made softball pitches to do more.

But what does it say of their leadership skills that they couldn't get any of the other three Republican heads to nod in agreement, nor convince voters that it was in their best interests to beef up the county's abysmal aerial firefighting armada of state-owned, vintage WWII-era planes? Much cheaper to pay for reports than actual firefighting equipment.

This week, Roberts pulled papers to run for mayor-for the third time. Last time out, his too-cozy connections with Padres owner John Moores (who was only happy to provide aerial support in the form of private-jet flights to and from sporting venues) were viewed by political pundits as Roberts' Achilles heel.

If he opts to run this time, voters will be introduced to a Roberts wearing the choke collar of an Ethics Commission ruling, which found that he failed to pay campaign vendors in a timely manner when he ran for mayor in 2000. The original ruling had Roberts agreeing to pay off those debts-more than $35,000 worth-by June 30 of this year.

But in an amendment last month to the earlier ruling that continues to raise questions about the Ethics Commission's intestinal fortitude, Roberts was given an extension until Dec. 31 to settle those debts to avoid a possible penalty.

So now, the three Republican men who would be mayor-including banker Peter Q. Davis, who prophetically held a news conference only days before the San Diego inferno to lament the loss of the county's only fire-and-rescue helicopter when its lease payment ran out-all seem to be climbing the ladder to become San Diego's Mr. Public Safety.

Just how we pay for all the new gadgets is anyone's guess. Remember just a few weeks ago when talk at City Hall seemed to center on belt tightening and nothing but? Notice you're not hearing those words these days-although reality suggests that we still find ourselves in a deep, red budget hole.

Meanwhile Mayor Dick Murphy, who thankfully has put his embroidered yellow jacket back in the duffel bag, is busy playing Martha Stewart, arranging corporate-financed thank-you soirees for the brave men and women who did battle with California's all-time worst wildfires.

Murphy will have to say words resembling "I was mistaken" to get out of the verbal jam he finds himself in over questions about his commitment to public safety. Pointing blame at the city manager won't wash with voters keen on throwing out the limp rag with the baby water.

The latest blast from the past to make its way onto the political grapevine is a Union-Tribune story from May 2001 describing the City Council's budget battle with local firefighters.

Councilman Brian Maienschein, the story said, seemed skeptical about budgeting $1 million for overtime pay-even though the only alternative would be hiring more firefighters, an option that seemed even more unlikely during tough budget times. With a chunk of his district reduced to ashes, it's unlikely a guy with future mayoral ambitions will bat an eye during the next budget go-round.

But when it came time to discuss sharing the expense of leasing a firefighting helicopter, Mayor Yellow Jacket snuffed out the idea. Noting that the city's police department already boasted three choppers and an airplane, the mayor reportedly remarked, "We don't need to have two departments in the city with their own air force."

Finger-pointing is, more often than not, an unwanted adventure down a fool's path. But it is necessary in this most distressing of circumstances, when so many agencies came together when the pressure was on, only to stumble so badly under the overwhelming forces and previous budget-priority decisions.

Not that those leaders aren't busy now. But this will be a really tough slog-a mayor's race, a new governor, an army of wildfire commissions exercising their pointing fingers, and the usual words-without-substance response from the Bush administration.

Let's just hope against all indications that the truth wins out in this season of firestorms-Fire Chief Jeff Bowman has certainly proven that honesty curries respect. Heck, throw his name in the mix, and he might look the most mayoral.

Tell us a tale: