The tenth floor of San Diego city hall is like a submarine in the sky. Behind sealed windows and an electronic-buttoned security door are the cramped offices of eight councilmembers, who themselves are sardined in with 65 staffers — 8 chiefs and 57 underlings. Amid the confines, crew members, some on eight-year voyages, bump into each other. They shout across the hall. They buttonhole one another between desk and toilet. They share family photos and the occasional lunch or workout. On the rare occasion when a citizen shows up and gets in — citizen, try showing up and getting in — they absorb his or her concerns. But more often they endure lobbyists and businessmen, who get in more easily and needle councilmembers and staffs incessantly. Since 1964, when the city administration building opened at 202 C Street, several generations of staffers have recycled the floor’s oxygen — call it the rarefied air of political servitude. Staffers work a variety of assignments: council representative; community, labor, or business liaison; communications director; policy advisor; and deputy chief of staff. Many staffers have moved laterally between one district office and another, on occasion between city and county. They often come aboard when a new councilmember needs an insider, someone who knows how to ply the political waters. The highest rank — the one who gets to shout, “Up periscope!” — is the chief of staff.
Most chiefs have been undersea in the staffing realm for years. To get to chief you first get on board as an aide or council rep; then, one campaign sortie at a time, proving your mettle, you move up to deputy chief, senior policy advisor, or campaign manager.
• District 1 chief John Rivera was a longtime aide to former councilmember Brian Maienschein. Christina Cameron, chief for former District 1 councilmember Scott Peters, was chief for Harry Mathis, Peters’s predecessor.
• Former District 3 councilmember Toni Atkins was the chief for Christine Kehoe when she was the District 3 councilmember in the 1990s. Stephen Hill, senior policy advisor for District 3 councilmember Todd Gloria, was both policy advisor and deputy chief of staff for Atkins. The current chief, Jamie Fox-Rice, was deputy chief of staff for former councilmember Ralph Inzunza and managed Gloria’s winning campaign.
• In District 4, the council seat has been passed down to chiefs like a baton. Prior to being elected to the council in 1987, Wes Pratt was county supervisor Leon Williams’s chief. George Stevens beat Pratt in 1991; Stevens’s chief was Charles Lewis. Lewis was elected in 2002; his chief of staff was Tony Young. Young was elected in 2005; his chief of staff is Jimmie Slack, who was, like Pratt, a chief of staff for Supervisor Williams.
• In District 5, the current chief, Jaymie Bradford, was in the office of District 7 councilmember Jim Madaffer. Madaffer was the chief for District 7’s Judy McCarty before his turn came.
• Former District 8 councilmember Ralph Inzunza was the chief of staff for Juan Vargas when he was on the council. Resigning to run for the Assembly, Vargas endorsed Inzunza as his replacement. Ana Molina-Rodriguez is Ben Hueso’s chief in District 8. She was the chief for Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny and then for Ralph Inzunza, until he was thrown out on corruption charges.
Each council office is budgeted $990,000 annually, a figure that’s remained constant for three years. This pays the salaries of the councilmember and staffers. The lion’s share of the $990,000 goes to the councilmembers’ appointees.
Most city council webpages include a biography of the chief of staff and a description of his or her duties. These include managing staff (hiring and firing), advising on policy issues such as labor relations or land use, and working with boards and commissions. That’s about it for details.
While preparing the 2006 Kroll Report, an investigation into the City’s underfunding of its pension system, Audit Committee lawyers interviewed many city staffers, among them three current chiefs: Aimee Faucett, Jaymie Bradford, and Ana Molina-Rodriguez. The three were asked about their jobs. Chiefs open the member’s mail. They have access to the member’s email accounts. Based on research, they advise the member how to vote and assess how other councilmembers might vote. Chiefs grant — and do not grant — media requests. They organize weekly docket briefings. They set up meetings with lobbyists and attend when necessary. They approve travel and conference requests from staff members. They sign remittance forms for travel and conference reimbursements. And they often control who on their staffs can and cannot speak directly to the member. In addition, chiefs oversee appointments to boards and commissions; support the councilmember’s pet issues; put the member in front of the public so he or she looks good; and, in a few cases, hear from the member about closed-session discussions.
How About an Interview?
I contacted the eight chiefs of staff, hoping a few might talk. Only one provided background info, off the record. But because of their denials, I learned a lot about how city council offices operate. They operate much like corporations, where a communications person handles media requests. Such requests are looked over by the chief, who responds or has the communications person send an email. For my requests, their responses seemed written on carbon paper.
Thanking me for my “interest,” Jamie Fox-Rice, chief of staff for Todd Gloria, wrote, “My job is quite fascinating, but, as you mentioned, the Councilmember gets the coverage.” This was my initiation into the nonexistent link between press and city council chiefs: the councilmember gets all the coverage; chiefs none. I had argued that a story on them, the savviest of insiders, would be fascinating. Fox agreed but still wouldn’t talk. “My role here is,” Fox-Rice later replied, “to make sure that our staff stays focused on the councilmember’s priorities and that the constituency in the 3rd Council district — and the City as a whole — has dedicated and fair representation.”
Aimee Faucett wrote, “My work as chief of staff for Councilmember Faulconer is to ensure his priorities and commitments to the community are achieved. I prefer media coverage to be about the Councilmember, and I have rarely been quoted by members of the press. Therefore, please accept my respectful decline of your request.” It’s hard to argue with a preference.