San Diego City Hall
Two thousand six marked the end of San Diego's brief Prague Spring, a short interval of freedom and turmoil between the fall of Mayor Dick Murphy and the rise of Jerry Sanders and Sanders's consolidation of power as the city's first "strong mayor." Elected in November 2000 with the backing of the Union-Tribune and other establishment power brokers, Murphy delivered on his promise to them of a new baseball stadium and lucrative development concessions for Padres owner John Moores before being forced to resign in the spring of 2005 by the same people who got him into office in the first place.
Murphy's sins included being too cozy with organized labor and failing to mind properly the employee pension fund's purse strings, leading to an embarrassing financial scandal and a cutoff by Wall Street of the city's fat credit line, an unforgivable circumstance for his pro-growth backers. With Murphy out of the way and the city coming apart at the seams, a mob of reformers stormed city hall; even the U-T got into the spirit, airing criticisms and exposés the paper had bottled up for years.
In 2005 it looked for a bit as if Democratic city councilwoman Donna Frye's populist candidacy might rupture the Republican Party's perennial hold on the mayor's office, but the moment was evanescent. Sanders, a low-energy ex-chief of police who glided through public appearances as though he were on tranquilizers, slipped into the job with the aid of $1.5 million in contributions from business backers and a series of sharp U-T editorial attacks on Frye. A smaller circle of business types had earlier bankrolled the strong-mayor campaign that vested the newly elected Sanders with unprecedented supremacy. But Sanders and his supporters wanted more.
In 2006, Sanders lent his name to another business- and U-T-backed campaign, this one to allow him to outsource city services such as trash collection to private contractors; the measure passed easily in November, giving the mayor more power, virtually unchecked. But that was still not enough. The people behind the mayor busied themselves raising the ramparts at city hall, plugging the holes so tightly that average taxpayers had little chance to see what was going on inside.
Press aide Fred Sainz ordered staffers not to talk to reporters without his say-so and blackballed publications and journalists who were not to his taste, behavior so egregious it drew a front-page story in the pro-Sanders Union-Tribune. City council members and the city attorney were not exempt: the mayor's "chief executive officer," retired admiral Ronne Froman, told them they had to put their requests for information about city operations in writing and then wait weeks or months for a response.
The city council, supposed to provide a legislative balance to the mayor's expanded power, rarely challenged his initiatives and, when it did, frequently failed to prevail. Scott Peters, the councilman from La Jolla elected by his peers as council president, declined even to speak to the U-T about the mayor's stifling of the information flow to the public, sending word through an aide that he wanted to maintain a "good working relationship" with Sanders.
In October, the relationship's lopsided nature came into public view after the mayor slashed money for homeless and neighborhood swimming programs dear to the councilmembers' hearts without telling them. Sanders policy aide Julie Dubick, a onetime school board candidate who many insiders believe is being groomed to be the GOP's candidate to succeed Peters, showed up at a council meeting and insisted the council had "exceeded its authority" when it voted to reinstate the money. Even Peters protested.
Mike Aguirre, elected city attorney in 2004, found himself at the halfway point of his tenure besieged from all sides. City workers loathed him for his attempts to roll back retirement benefits. His case against the pension benefits, on the basis that they had been improperly granted by a compromised retirement board, was shredded by superior court judge Jeffrey Barton. The city attorney vowed an appeal, but the Union-Tribune, one of Aguirre's fiercest critics, called that avenue "fruitless."
Meanwhile, there was plenty of life beyond the tumult at San Diego's city hall. Two thousand six was the year that the Internet, and specifically blogs, came into their own as a political tool. Two examples: San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre's face-off with the Union-Tribune and a mysterious blogger who made a difference in the race to replace GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Mike vs. Chris
Aguirre's biggest critic turned out to be a professional blogger the U-T hired to spice up its flagging SignOnSanDiego website and perhaps settle some political scores in the process. Chris Reed, a former editorial writer from the conservative Orange County Register, opened fire almost as soon as he arrived in town.
Reed's one-man forum, named "America's Finest Blog," a takeoff on "America's Finest City" (ironically, a phrase coined by then-Mayor Pete Wilson after Richard Nixon pulled the GOP convention out of San Diego in 1972, following one of the city's many influence-peddling scandals), went after Aguirre early in the year.
On March 22, Reed proclaimed that there was a "noble" Aguirre, crusading against the city's corrupt power structure, and an "opportunistic" Aguirre, hungry for the spotlight. "From here on out, every time Aguirre appears in the U-T headlines, I'm going to offer my snap take on which Aguirre seems in charge of his tongue this time around."
As it turned out, Reed saw only the bad side of the city attorney, calling him everything from "unethical" to a "city saboteur" and a "lunatic." In an August post, he concluded, "Mike Aguirre is one of the worst public servants imaginable. He is incompetent. He spreads himself too thin. He says one thing one day, another thing another day. He will grandstand on any issue. He uses taxpayer resources on quixotic and pointless crusades."
Aguirre was so piqued he started his own blog, called "The Aguirre Report," and began firing back, accusing the U-T of mounting "a vindictive campaign to discredit my efforts."