San Diego In the end, it was a fatal combination. The gawky, jock-obsessed control freak and the ambitious small-town politician. Jack McGrory and Susan Golding. They were an odd pair, thrown together by political circumstances. Golding, elected mayor in 1992, inherited McGrory, the city manager hand-picked just a year earlier by her predecessor, Maureen O'Connor. McGrory came out of Boston via Colgate University, with a stint as an infantry officer in the marines, and then settled in as a midlevel bureaucrat at San Diego's city hall before destiny called. Golding was a state college administrator's daughter who used her personal attachments to two powerful men to enter politics. Neither, it was whispered, was big on substance.
During their honeymoon year, both projected a naivete that seemed difficult to contrive. First there was Golding's plan to buy an aging downtown high-rise - the old Bank of America building at Seventh and Broadway - and turn it into a new central library. McGrory stood at Golding's side, nodding when the mayor announced to the press that the idea would save taxpayers money. Behind the scenes, librarians were aghast at the plan, pointing out that renovations to the structure would cost far more than building from scratch. But even as the plan got deeper into trouble when the building's owners refused to sell, McGrory defended it.
Eventually, both backed away from the notion, but not before taxpayers had been forced to spend more than $100,000 on wasted studies. Three years later, Golding announced yet another library proposal, again put together by the mayor in private with no public discussion. And once again McGrory was by her side with his endorsement of a plan now expected to cost far more than $100 million, if it is ever built. Already, taxpayers have been forced to front more than $3 million in fees for architects and planning while costs and controversy mount.
The pattern has been often repeated. Both McGrory and Golding liked to concoct pet projects behind closed doors, sources say. And they didn't like outside interference. "All that crazy stuff - the sports arena, the library, the Alex Spanos stadium giveaway - sprang straight out of their heads," says one long-time city hall insider. "They both think they're brilliant human beings, and everybody else is an idiot, and that's a pretty dangerous way to think, especially when you're supposed to be protecting the taxpayers. If they wanted something, they grabbed for it like greedy bastards, and eventually they paid the price."
Neither McGrory nor Golding was big on consulting others about their plans. Under the city charter, the city manager is supposed to run the city without the day-to-day interference of the mayor and council. The council, which includes the mayor, can hire and fire the manager with a majority vote but isn't supposed to pressure him to get its way. Policy is supposed to be made during the council's public sessions.
McGrory and Golding stretched that limitation, and some sources say broke it, in their pursuit of personal power. "They often met secretly and worked out the details of a deal before it got to council," says another city hall insider. "The stadium and the library are just a couple of examples. Don't forget the Republican convention. That was Jack and Susan's masterpiece. Somebody spent $30 million on that, and nobody can produce the paperwork to account for it."
In the past, when city fathers considered big-spending items, they formed task forces to hash them out through the give and take of exhaustive public meetings. Under McGrory, the procedure was different. He made all the crucial decisions, announced them as done deals, and when reporters or members of the public had the temerity to ask for more information, their calls went unreturned, and they were forced to hire attorneys to invoke the state's public records act in order to obtain even the most rudimentary information.
An early example was McGrory's plan for a downtown sports arena, which Golding made her "top priority" of 1993. "It will be a catalyst for both residential and commercial development," she told the L.A. Times, "and a signature structure that celebrates downtown San Diego as a place where people want to live, work, play, and visit." Skeptics pointed out that the city had little prospect of getting an nba team to play in the new arena, but McGrory brushed them off, and Golding shepherded his plan to spend more than $1.5 million on architects and planning studies through the council. The arena is "on a fast track, and it's going to remain on a fast track," McGrory said in February 1994. "At some point, the members of the city council are going to have to make some hard decisions." Chimed in Golding, "I want to send a strong message to the nba that the mayor and the council want a new sports arena and are willing to build it."
The fast track, as it turned out, went nowhere. McGrory eventually wrote off more than $2 million on planning studies and staff overhead when the project was abandoned in 1995. Instead of acknowledging their failure, however, Golding and McGrory moved onto what they thought were greener pastures: the expansion of the stadium in Mission Valley and the implicit, but secret, commitment to a new baseball park downtown. Critics claim the stadium was McGrory's waterloo. McGrory insists it was the biggest victory of his career. Either way, it was a watershed for both Golding and McGrory. Until the stadium deal with Alex Spanos exploded into the public consciousness late in 1996, the pair had been on a roll, with much of the success attributed by many to McGrory's stonewall tactics. Chief exhibit: the '96 Republican convention.
In early 1995, the city council voted to give McGrory exclusive control over financial terms of the convention, allowing him to spend city money without further public review. Although costs climbed to historic proportions, estimated at more than $30 million, the convention came off without any embarrassing hitches and Golding, the event's chief San Diego patron, advanced her personal political agenda. With help from high-ranking executives at the Union-Tribune, who squelched a wide-ranging investigation into costs by the paper's reporters, public criticism of the cost overruns was muted. McGrory, who at one time had promised a detailed accounting of the financing arrangements, never produced one.