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— The moniker "America's Finest City" is tarnished. Don't be surprised if city spinmeisters turn up the hyperbole volume, christening San Diego as a "World-Class City." Keep in mind that the "America's Finest City" honorific was pushed by then-mayor Pete Wilson after the city got national headlines for business and government corruption and lost the 1972 Republican Convention in a scandal. Rather than air the dirty linen and clean it up, the city chose to cover it up with a promotional campaign.

Now the corruption is deeper and the national press more biting. On September 7, a headline in the New York Times correctly labeled San Diego "Enron-by-the-Sea." On October 24, the same words were in the headline of a scathing story about the city's finances in USA Today. On November 25, "Enron-by-the-Sea" was in the headline of a damning story in The Economist. (A Reader headline writer should take a bow. Way back on February 5, we used the head "Our Enron-Style Scandal.")

My first hint of what may be afoot came last month, when San Diego's Competitive Edge Research released the findings of a local "self-perception poll." Four hundred county residents were asked their impression of San Diego. A full 88 percent had a favorable opinion -- 68 percent very favorable. Only 7 percent had a negative impression.

People were asked if Wilson's "America's Finest City" appellation was still an apt description. Some 57.1 percent said the label still fits, and 20.9 percent said the city was only a bit short of qualifying. So even though the city is on the financial brink, its citizenry thinks it's the best place in the country. The sunshine does it. Seventy percent cited the climate and beaches as San Diego's best attributes. Other qualities, such as tourism and culture, were cited by a mere 5 or 6 percent. Sometimes I think San Diego's perfect climate is its worst enemy; it diverts residents' attention from the corrupt leaders picking their pockets.

Then the respondents were asked whether San Diego was -- or could be -- a world-class city. An astonishing 30.6 percent said San Diego is already world-class. Another 42.3 percent said it has the potential to become world-class. Only 22.7 percent said San Diego was not world-class -- and that was okay with them.

KPBS radio had a show on the question of whether San Diego could be called world-class. I was the only panelist expressing strong skepticism. Frankly, I think the notion is preposterous -- certainly for now and coming decades. But I would hardly be surprised if our local pols and publicists start pushing the idea. After all, among the cities that consider themselves world-class are Detroit, St. Louis, Miami, Indianapolis, Colorado Springs, Charlotte, and Columbus, Ohio. Ugh.

What cities are considered truly world-class? According to the Globalization and World Cities Study Group & Network, the first tier consists of London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. In the second tier are Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Milan, and Singapore. Next come San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto, and Zurich.

What are the characteristics of a world-class city? International familiarity tops the list; people talk of Paris without mentioning that it is in France. Some other characteristics: an advanced transportation system, including a mass-transit network; international financial institutions, corporations, and stock exchanges; world-renowned cultural institutions and universities; internationally known nonchain restaurants, retailers, and hotels; science and technological excellence; an international airport; respected architecture and urban planning; tourist attractions; spectacular natural surroundings and government financial stability.

San Diego might qualify in science and technology -- Scripps, Salk, and the University of California-San Diego are recognized for research. San Diego is becoming better known as a tourist destination, thanks greatly to the ocean and weather, but if weather were a criterion, Tijuana would be world-class. San Diego's cultural life is improving, but the area has neither the population nor the wealth to be anywhere near the upper tiers. The city's natural beauty spots, such as canyons and hills, are being chewed up by developers.

The city's financial instability is now known around the world. But most articles err by saying that up until recently, San Diego was a model of fiscal rectitude. Not so. The city's pension deficit dates back at least to the late 1980s, and phony pension accounting became the norm in the early 1990s, according to Diann Shipione, the pension-board whistle-blower who has incurred the wrath of her colleagues for informing the city and national media of the truth.

During the late 1990s, when ballpark boosters proclaimed that a brilliantly managed city was flush with cash, only a few people dared point out that it wasn't so. The "America's Finest City" sobriquet helped feed local euphoria.

With its public-relations campaigns going full blast, city government developed a culture of secrecy. It's legal for politicians and bureaucrats to lie to voters, but it's not legal to lie to potential bond investors. Government criminal and civil investigators are probing inaccuracies about pension deficits in bond prospectuses dating back to 1996. Audits for 2003 and 2004 have not been completed. As a result, the city cannot get financing. So capital improvements -- the ones neglected during the faux fat years -- must be delayed, if not cancelled, putting the city in violation of state and federal mandates. Meanwhile, the overlords have been trying to grab the mayoral election from the only candidate, Donna Frye, who preached infrastructure investment and opposed pension underfunding and the culture of secrecy.

City hall has an in-group that calls itself the "Tribe." An employee who wants to get ahead must follow the Tribe. Those who follow the Tribe all the way to prison may have the consolation of having lived in a self-proclaimed world-class city.

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