In the months after Frye joined the council in mid-2001, “I remember [Mayor] Dick Murphy used to sit in closed session and tap his watch and say, ‘Ms. Frye, take your concerns off-line. Everybody else understands this. You don’t understand it. You need to get up to speed. Don’t take up our valuable time.’ So I took him up on that, and I would meet with the city attorney and I would get every document, every piece of paper. And what I was being told in the council did not add up with what I was reading. At that point, in 2002, I certainly was not an expert. I had never read a bond-offering document, and let me tell you, I read and reread until I found things I did understand. In other words, you start with the things you do understand, and then you work out.
“You need to understand the job of the private sector,” Frye continues, “and its people and the attorneys who represent them. It’s to make a profit. You can’t get angry and become all shocked and surprised when they actually do what businesses do.”
And if you don’t want them to take advantage of you? “Look at the Padres, look at the Chargers,” she says. “They can run circles around us. So you have to do your research, you have to understand the consequences of your actions. And when you don’t think those things through and then it becomes shock and awe and you say, ‘Oh, my God, they’re doing X,’ ‘Uh, yeah, read the contract. You gave them the ability to do that. So why are you shocked?’ ‘Because that’s not what they said.’ Well, of course that’s not what they’re going to say. But read what’s in there.
“There’s an old lawyer joke that says, ‘You go ahead and write the contract, and I’ll sign the terms.’ That’s what would happen to us. So many times we were outmanned, outgunned, outsmarted. These guys get paid big bucks, and there’s a reason. They’re very good at what they do.”
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The Convention Center Facilities District proposed by Mayor Sanders was likely modeled on an existing organization, the city’s Tourism Marketing District, created in 2008. The latter is set to expire this year, but talks are under way to renew the district for 40 years, raising an expected billion dollars through the 2 percent assessment on hotel-room revenue. Unlike the 10.5 percent transient occupancy tax, about half of which goes into the general fund to pay for, among other things, road improvements and fire and police protection, the Tourism Marketing District’s assessment funds the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, long-term marketing, and selected tourism groups.
“So much money is being sequestered,” says Frye, “that the real question is: shouldn’t the public be able to weigh in in advance? And I mean weigh in by voting. [That this hasn’t happened] is why so often these large-scale-type projects take so long. The people who want to push them forward really don’t want the public voting on how the money is spent. And the reason they don’t is because they don’t want to do the work to potentially lose. So they try and figure out a number of ways to get around a real public process. That’s standard here in San Diego, and then they wonder why the projects take so long. They should do it right to begin with and go out and say, ‘This is why this is a great project and this is why that money would be better spent for hotel interests and Charger interests and convention center interests than your community interests — and because it’s good for you.’
“But does the public think the best thing is to have these hotel taxes be controlled by an unelected board of hoteliers and used primarily for hotel-type projects that will support the tourism industry? Do they think that’s the best use of that money? And that discussion has never taken place. The average person has no clue that this money has been essentially given away. It isn’t the hotel folks making contributions. They can call the money [assessments or] whatever they want, but it is tax dollars, paid for by the tourists, that have been locked up for 40 years, if this thing stands. That will make it impossible to ever raise the transient occupancy tax.”
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It was Mayor Sanders’s use of strong mayor powers that in April of last year collapsed the City’s planning arm into the Development Services Department. The move cut the number of planners and money spent on planning by more than 80 percent. “I don’t think most people realize,” Frye says, “that the City’s Planning Department has been decimated by the current administration. That to me is an appalling legacy to leave, that one of the things you did was to decimate the Planning Department.” Planning is about “a long- rather than short-term vision,” Frye says, “and not simply looking at permits and zoning and approving what the administration wants. Planning is a guard at the gate to make sure the city develops in a way consistent with all the planning that has gone into community as well as general plans.” The job of planners, according to Frye, is to create communities rather than simply to assist developers get what they want.
During her mayoral campaigns, says Frye, “I wanted, but did not have the time, to caution people about the strong mayor form of government. I call it the neutering of the city council. Previously, if we voted on something and the city manager didn’t do what he or she was supposed to do, we had some power. We could remove that person. Now, if we say we want money allocated or we want this done or that done and the mayor doesn’t do it, we don’t have any real authority to penalize. We do have the budget, and there are ways to bring people into compliance by withholding funds, but most councilmembers don’t have the stomach to take on the mayor. So it was frustrating for me as a city councilmember to watch votes taken by the council appropriately, legally, and watch the mayor refuse to carry them out.”