San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders packed his 15-person charter review committee with lobbyists and lackeys who are in the pockets of developers and downtown business interests. Now the community is fighting back. At least two groups, the League of Women Voters and the Center on Policy Initiatives, are setting up their own charter review committees to represent the public rather than the fat cats. Such groups could conceivably consolidate their forces. Other citizens, including fiscal conservatives of various stripes, expect to form committees to assure vigorous debate.
The mayor's selections represent "a real power grab," says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who was a member of the original planning group that led to the Proposition F "strong mayor" concept and was on ex-mayor Dick Murphy's steering and transition committees that implemented the concept. In the original series of meetings, the drafters were careful to give power to the council, not just the mayor. In fact, "strong mayor" may have been a misnomer, Erie says. Sanders's establishment group wants to hand the mayor near-autocratic control.
Sanders's stacked deck represents "the downtown crowd, rubber-stamped by the mayor. It has a chamber of commerce flavor. This strong-mayor push will be all about sweetheart deals behind closed doors. This is the old Golding [ex-mayor Susan Golding] crowd: please your contributors. They never met a developer they didn't like."
Sums up Erie, "Jerry Sanders is Susan Golding in drag."
Don Cohen, director of the liberal-leaning Center on Policy Initiatives, says his charter review committee "will bring in everybody who cares about the future -- labor, environmental, friends of libraries and parks, community planning groups, affordable-housing advocates, faith-based groups, advocacy groups. We're interested in people who care about neighborhoods and jobs."
His center did an analysis of the source of Sanders's campaign funds. Overwhelmingly it was from developers and the tourist industry. "Sanders is doing what his supporters in the business community want him to do, which is to recapture control of San Diego. He [Sanders] is squandering an enormously good opportunity to bring together all segments of the community to decide where we go together as a region."
There are three real estate industry lobbyists -- 20 percent of the total -- on Sanders's committee. According to the City's 2006 registered-lobbyist list, attorney Donna D. Jones represents Black Mountain Ranch, Centex Homes, Cornerstone Real Estate Advisors, D.R. Horton, McKinley Nielsen Associates, Murphy Development, Pardee Homes, Regency Centers, Renova Partners, Spectrum Associates, Shea Homes, Sunroad Enterprises (yes, that Sunroad), and Trammell Crow. Attorney Michael McDade, chief of staff to former mayor Roger Hedgecock and a political wheeler-dealer, is a lobbyist for real estate agent Bunny Clews, Coalition for Urban Housing Solutions, Four D Properties, Irvine Company, and MG Properties. Adrian Kwiatkowski is a lobbyist for Ahrens Realty & Development.
Chairman of the Sanders committee is civic powerhouse John Davies of the law firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory and Natsis. While Davies is not on the 2006 registered-lobbyist roster, others from his firm represent Beachfront Properties, CarrAmerica Realty, Douglas Wilson Companies, Gray Development Group, H.G. Fenton, JPI California Development Services, Kilroy Realty, Lankford & Associates, Oliver McMillan, Paseo de Mission Hills, Quantum Properties, the Robert Green Company, SRM Development, Tarsadia Hotels, Centre City Development Corporation, and Westfield Corporation.
Other members of the Sanders-selected committee include Alan Bersin, former U.S. attorney and superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, an establishment darling who has always been protective of his family's downtown real estate; Vincent Mudd, a boardmember of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation; Mark Nelson, head of governmental affairs for utility Sempra Energy; and Duane J. Roth, biotech investor and gadabout.
There are three subcommittees. One is headed by lobbyist McDade, one by lobbyist Jones, and one by Bersin.
"This group is Sanders's committee, not a true charter commission," says civic activist Norma Damashek, speaking for herself and not for the League of Women Voters, with which she is involved. She thinks the Sanders crew will rush to get their changes on the ballot next February or June. What can San Diegans expect? "He [Sanders] wants more budget authority," says Damashek. He wants to strip independence from the auditor. He wants to control the makeup of the city pension board. "He wants a supermajority rather than a simple majority to override his veto," says Damashek. "For sure he will be tackling the city attorney's office -- giving the prosecution of criminal misdemeanors to the district attorney's office." (By opposing such sacred cows as welfare for the Chargers and Padres, Aguirre has alienated the establishment. Now he wants Sunroad to lower a building that defies federal and state aviation regulations, thus enraging developers and some in the Sanders administration who believe real estate profits are more important than air safety.)
Damashek expects more bullying of community planning groups, similar to city real estate czar Jim Waring's attempt to decertify the La Jolla Community Planning Association. "They [the mayor's minions] are running roughshod, doing whatever the Building Industry Association has wanted to do for years. That includes changing land-use decisions [in developers' favor]. They are weakening community participation and planning groups. They want one standard across the city, giving developers the ability to do the same thing in every community."
Sanders's committee may also try to institute at-large elections, or possibly one at-large seat. "There is only one at-large seat in California's ten largest cities," says Erie.
The League of Women Voters wants to put together a citizens coalition -- "a group more representative of the rest of the population," says Damashek. (In that statement, she is speaking for the league.)
At its first meeting April 13, Sanders's committee heard a presentation about California's Brown Act, which requires meetings of public bodies to be open and public. "Then John Davies said there is really no way to enforce it because 'we are only voluntarily complying with the Brown Act. [The committee] was not formed by the council. It was formed by the mayor,' " says councilmember Donna Frye. "That concerned me a lot. What is the purpose of complying if there are no remedies when you don't? Also, there was nothing on whether they have to file statements of economic interests."
Along with the others, Erie believes Sanders's committee wants to put its proposed charter changes on the ballot as soon as possible next year. By contrast, when Los Angeles was going through the same process in the late 1990s, "it started in June of 1997 and ended in June of 1999," says Erie. "There were meetings all over the city; it was truly a public process. It was not like being on a speed dial to get something on the ballot in 2008."
But special interests who want laws rewritten to maximize their profits are always in a hurry.