San Diego Set cynicism aside. The ballot-bubble hubbub may yet bring a happy ending: the swearing-in of a legitimately elected mayor, Donna Frye. This column offers an agenda for Frye's first term. She was not consulted, of course, for it's premature for her to comment, particularly since the legal picture is still cloudy. However, she has already embraced many of the initiatives suggested here.
Obvious question: Is it possible that our partisan, conservative courts will give Frye the nod? Yes, and here's how: Despite all you read, it is not clear under state law that a bubble must be marked for a write-in to count. It's clear in one section, but not in others. However, the San Diego charter and municipal code both state that write-ins will be counted, bubbles be damned.
Former councilmember Bruce Henderson points out that in California election disputes over the past century, when laws conflict, "The court goes with the law that maximizes the vote." But the court may not even get to that issue, because the California constitution specifically states that election laws for cities such as San Diego always prevail over state law, says Henderson. As others point out, the bubble is only a convenience for vote counters, so a court throwing out ballots with unmarked bubbles would be putting the comfort of registrar employees ahead of the will of the people.
Post-election, public opinion is moving against the current administration. Self-proclaimed mayor Dick Murphy is earning the nickname "Mayor Empty Bubble" with his absurd utterances, such as that ballots with undarkened bubbles are "illegal," and, "I really don't know the voter's intent who wrote in Donna's name and didn't fill in the bubble." Puh-leeze.
Mayor Frye must move quickly. Government's job is "to take care of public health and welfare -- not corporate and private welfare," says former councilmember Abbe Wolfsheimer-Stutz. "We have to solve the water- and sewage-treatment problems, and to do that we have to get our back audits completed [2003 and 2004] and restore our credit rating." And then go back to the bond market for the money to fix neglected infrastructure.
In the interim, to keep the city running, "We must get renewal of the short-term credit from the Bank of America," or some other financial institution, says Mel Shapiro, civic activist.
The critical priorities, in order, are "financial recovery, financial recovery, financial recovery," says Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a private think tank specializing in government efficiency. "It's mea culpa time. We can't deny the problem," as councilmembers Jim Madaffer and Scott Peters did on KPBS radio last week, arguing that political scaremongering created a perception of a problem that doesn't exist.
Accounting firms will not give anything but a hedged, qualified audit until the federal government has completed its investigations of the city putting misinformation in bond prospectuses. Newly elected city attorney Mike Aguirre has launched his own investigation and pledged cooperation with federal probers. Aguirre should be named the "sole elected official" to get the audits completed, spearhead the cooperation with federal investigators, and probe possible culpability of city employees, says DeMaio.
"The council should have a separate financial recovery docket, and it should focus on that docket at every single meeting," says DeMaio. "None of this can be done in closed session. It must be open to the public." Establishing openness, long a Frye priority, is essential, say all who were interviewed. Tuesday's unprecedented open council meeting on the city's ailing finances was a good first step, indicating Frye's influence is already taking hold.
The council should examine numerous cost-saving items, such as reducing employment and bidding out certain services, DeMaio says. A balanced-budget initiative should be put before voters. "We would strongly suggest some sort of balanced-budget accountability trigger, so if the budget gets out of balance, rebalancing moves will be made every quarter," DeMaio adds.
"The city auditor should be independent, not beholden to politicians, not protecting the politicians," says Norma Damashek, vice president of the League of Women Voters. DeMaio thinks a city comptroller, in charge of all auditing, should be elected, not appointed.
The near-$2 billion pension and health-care deficits are front and center. Last week's slimy move to eliminate whistle-blower Diann Shipione from the city pension board makes several steps essential. Anybody involved -- whether a staff member, board member, or city government employee -- should be disciplined or fired if they made material false representations. Last week, Aguirre, alarmed at what the board might be trying to do in closed session and wanting to preserve documents for his investigation, took over the retirement system's legal affairs and demanded that files be placed under lock and key. The pension board fought back, claiming Aguirre did not have the authority. It will require a Mayor Frye to help Aguirre smash San Diego's culture of secrecy.
The next step is meaningful pension reform. Among many things, Shipione says that the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (which permits employees to double their pay in their last five years and walk off with both a monthly retirement check as well as a lump sum) must be dropped because it's not being funded. Also, some members of the retirement board are voting on benefits they receive. "People who stand to gain should not be on the board," she says. And the accounting system is lax; it must go conservative.
"To get the numbers they want, the board now tells the actuary how to adjust his assumptions," says Shipione. The actuary should produce independent numbers. Back in the bull market, the board was skimming money from winning investments and using it to pay health-care benefits. That's lunacy, says Shipione, and the Vinson & Elkins report, funded by the city, agrees.
As I have said many times, city employees' pay is well above the earnings of average San Diegans. In addition, the employees get the generous benefits and early retirements. This must change.
There are many other things that should get high priority. "We need to set up some form of a charter-review commission, so that the public can finally be consulted about the strong-mayor system," says Damashek. "What was passed in November said that within five years there will be another vote. We need a charter-review commission so that the transition is done right and in the public interest. This was pushed through so fast that nobody knows what it entails, what it will cost. The people pushing it, in their haste, just didn't bother with details."