It's not clear whether Mayor Jerry Sanders has ever paddled a kayak, but apparently, a local kayak tour company knows what it takes to float Jerry’s boat — and keep it afloat — courtesy of the “strong mayor” system of governance that comes up for renewal, and permanency, in the upcoming June election.
On June 9, San Diegans, including some who’ve snagged lucrative kayak-operation concessions from the city, will determine, via Proposition D, whether the strong (some would say “strong-arm”) mayor model of municipal rule will continue after the initial five-year trial period ends at the close of 2010. The Mayor, along with his kindred-spirit politicos and business cronies, have made their preferences clear, proffering arguments in favor via the “Strong Mayor Council Institute” — a downtown cluster of behind-the-scenes influence-peddlers who say that their “mission is to serve as a resource for communities engaged in a civic debate over their governing structure.”
Sanders wasn’t always on board, though; when cheerleaders for the über-mayor scheme first gathered forces in 2004, the mayor, along with councilwoman Donna Frye (who continues to oppose it), was on record in opposition to the change. At the time, San Diego was administered under the aegis of the city-manager framework — in place for about 70 years — one in which the mayor served as a member of the city council. Against the backdrop of the pension crisis (which has persisted during Sanders’s tenure) — as well as assorted scandals, both large and small — voters, by a slim 51–49 percent margin, chose to implement themayor-centric system currently in place.
Proponents of the new order claim that it promotes greater efficiency and that San Diego has outgrown the city-manager construct, noting that it’s most prevalent in smaller cities. However, critics of the strong-mayor approach (including Frye) claim that, since its implementation in January 2006, the modern way to run a metropolis has led to an imperious, autocratic style of leadership in which a virtual moat renders the mayor’s office unapproachable. The end result, some say, is drastically reduced responsiveness to constituents’ concerns and a loss of political accountability. As June 9 approaches, Sanders and his cadre — San Diego insiders all — are making concerted efforts to maintain their influence.
A major player in the push for permanency is the Monger Group, a downtown consulting firm headed by Jack Monger. Monger’s Adrian Kwiatkowski (who, along with the namesake principal, is a lobbyist registered with the city) is president of the institute, as well as deputy campaign manager of San Diegans for Accountability at City Hall. Having cowritten the official ballot argument in favor of Proposition D, he’s continuing his fervent advocacy as election time approaches. As it happens, Kwiatkowski and Monger are also kayak-mongers — selling the virtues of client San Diego Bike & Kayak Tours to anyone who’ll listen at City Hall.
The Monger Group’s curious interest in kayaks began in late 2008 when San Diego Bike & Kayak Tours approached them, seeking a strategy to best position themselves in a nascent licensing process for kayak tour operators. Owners Marcella Di Michieli and Nick Bauman, who’d scrapped and clawed their way to a dominant place in the La Jolla Cove world of small boats, sea caves, and tourists, were worried: for the first time, the City of San Diego was poised to cap the number of kayak tours and rentals. To Di Michieli and Baumann, who’d commanded a fleet at the Cove since 2004, this signaled the specter of diluted market share and lost revenues.
Pressure to regulate the previously laissez-faire activity of kayaking ’round the Cove has as its genesis the complaints of other La Jollans, some of whom have voiced their dyspepsia via the La Jolla Shores Association, which labels itself a “democratic volunteer organization…whose primary purpose is community issues as they relate to the protection and enhancement of the unique characteristics of the La Jolla Shores area.” Although kayak tour and rental companies have operated out of Avenida de la Playa since the late 1980s, there seems to be general agreement among locals that kayak-linked community issues have arisen largely during the past decade. Traffic, for one, has become increasingly annoying to the doyens of the tony enclave, who moan that nearby streets are constantly clogged with beat-up old pickup trucks hauling the boats to and from the launch site. The affluent seasiders also lament that pedestrians are in danger of being injured or frightened by protruding paddles on the sidewalks — not to mention being overtaken by bikes. And, of course, the kayakers create noise, take “their” parking spaces, and deposit unsightly sand on the main drag, Avenida de la Playa. Jim Heaton, the Association’s chairman at the time of the “request for proposals” process, states that, since Di Michieli and Bauman set up shop, “There’s been a distinct shift in the tenor of the kayak business on the street; in the past, all the owners knew and worked with each other. It was less competitive, more congenial. Most of them were La Jolla natives.”
Perhaps the most outspoken of the kayak detractors is Vaughn Woods, whose eponymous financial-services firm sits next to San Diego Bike & Kayak. Woods — who seems to epitomize the touchiness among folks who ply their trade in this affluent pocket — lives directly above his business, just as Di Michieli and Bauman live above theirs. Although the neighborhood had been zoned for mixed use (retail and residential) long before Woods set up shop, he claims that the entrance of Di Michieli and Baumann, less than a year after his own move to La Jolla, sparked a sea change that has not only hurt his business but rendered the neighborhood “unlivable.”
Woods, who charges the upstarts with being “unschooled in community consensus building,” spouts a litany of sins allegedly committed by the duo. To begin with, he says, they “run a high-volume operation in a small space,” clogging the sidewalks with rowdy kayakers who block the entrance to his business. Woods fumes: “Their customers lean their backpacks against my property and throw their cigarette butts and cans into my planters. They’re even grinding away the posts on my building. They also track sand on the sidewalk. It’s a health hazard because it’s slippery and gets into my carpet. They peer into my windows. I’ve had to send my employees out to tell them to kindly move along.”