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— 'Enron by the Sea" is outdated. Next up: "Buffoonery by the Bay." In an attempt to attract industry and capital, the San Diego establishment placed a special advertising section in the January 3 issue of Business Week. The first words: "The smart money says San Diego's economy may be almost as perfect as its weather." But visiting business executives, upon seeing the farce being played on the local stage, must ask, "Is there any smart money in San Diego? Or smart anything?"

Last Wednesday, a mayor who came in second in the voting kept his seat because of a court decision disqualifying 5551 write-in votes for his opponent, Donna Frye, who came in first. There may be appeals. Also last Wednesday, a letter surfaced showing that this same mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee on Finances soft-pedaled San Diego's pension woes in 2002 because the ballpark bonds were going to market. The committee couldn't con Wall Street because the city had to pay a stunning 7.66 percent interest on AAA-rated insured municipal bonds, but it sure conned the city council, which went on the same year to grant even fatter pension benefits to city employees. Surprise! The city is now on the financial shoals, with jellyfish steering the ship.

Count me among the dense ones. It took me a while to realize that this is exactly what the downtown overlords have wanted all along: a strong-mayor structure, but a pliant mayor whom they control. It looks as if they have what they want: Malleable Mayor Murphy, loser in the vote, but winner in the court.

The transition to strong mayor takes place in a hurry -- the first of next year. "They should have made the transition three or four years, as other cities have done," says civic activist Norma Damashek.

Ah, but an orderly phase-in would not have suited the corporate-welfare crowd's purposes. In March of 2003, Murphy suddenly decided he wouldn't run again. The overlords talked him out of it, and he ran in 2004, and made it, although losing the popular vote. Bang! Bang! Weak mayor, lots of power.

History is strewn with examples of befuddled monarchs manipulated by a Rasputin or Cardinal Richelieu. Trouble is, San Diego's overlords are hardly pulling this caper off artfully.

The nabobs who pushed and bankrolled the strong-mayor system, John Moores and Malin Burnham, are now putting up $125,000 to hire a consultant, Rand Corp., to facilitate the changeover.

"He who pays the piper calls the tune," chuckles Mel Shapiro, the civic activist who led the fight against the strong-mayor system but was outspent 10 to 1. "They want to call the tune."

Oh, no, the overlords insist. The Rand study will be "in the best interest of the city," claims George Mitrovich, courtier to the downtown establishment. What's really scary is that Mitrovich might even believe his own rhetoric.

"Nobody is going to influence [Rand] about what the final product is," insists Burnham. Gulp. Does he not understand the immutable but unspoken relationship between consultants and those paying their bills? Or does he think the public doesn't understand?

"The city council seems to be suspicious" of the Moores/Burnham arrangement with Rand, says Frye. Despite the council's uncharacteristic flash of discernment, it hasn't discussed what it really wants in a consultant, she says. She doesn't think it's a good idea to have two different consulting groups making recommendations, with one of the consultants funded by the people who touted and paid for the initiative.

The potentates went all out to sway public opinion -- and the court -- against Frye. It was amusing. Writing in the Union-Tribune January 28, attorney Dan Stanford said that "Frye received so few votes -- substantially less than the voting populous [sic]." He must have meant "populace," a noun, not "populous," an adjective.

Also on January 28, one Chris Niemeyer wrote in the Transcript that "special-interest money" was behind the efforts for Frye. But who is Niemeyer? He is the executive director of the Lincoln Club, a Republican political action group -- that is, a quintessential "special interest group," and a well-heeled one.

But the Lincoln Club didn't stop there. Its chairman, Robert Watkins, was one of three people behind a fatuous "friends of the court" brief filed to influence the judge. The brief recycled the tired arguments that Frye should never have been on the ballot.

Was it a "friends of the court" or "friends of the judge" brief? The judge, H. Michael Brenner, is a Republican. The brief was an attempt "to signal to the judge that the Republican establishment is horrified by a vision of Donna Frye as their strong mayor," says former councilmember Bruce Henderson, who filed one of the pro-Frye suits and who is himself a Republican.

It's clear the establishment wants a mayor who can be manipulated. "They want a puppet," says Henderson. "The problem is that they have a dysfunctional puppet."

And with the revelation about the letter, the dysfunctionality will intensify. On April 29, 2002, Richard H. Vortmann, a member of the city's pension board, and also a member of the blue-ribbon committee, wrote his fellow panel members, along with some bureaucrats, and noted in his first paragraph, "As you might recall, my redraft of Chairman Joe's initial draft was relative [sic] harsh in its appraisal of the city's fiscal health."

"Chairman Joe" was Joe Craver, chairman of the blue-ribbon committee and also chairman of the Public Facilities Financing Authority that was issuing the ballpark bonds. This is cozy double duty typical of San Diego politics but was not widely noted at the time. The bonds came out in February of 2002, as did the committee's report to a city-council panel. The bond prospectus did not report the pension system's deepening deficits. The committee's report, delayed several months until the ballpark financing was completed, warned of pension risks, but erroneously stated that the system was 97 percent funded.

But in his letter, Vortmann was having second thoughts. Things weren't going so well, particularly with the pension system. Despite the burden on future taxpayers, "There appears a chance the city will grant further pension benefits this year," he complained. "The city's fiscal health is not what it appears; there are serious problems; their solutions will be painful in terms of reduced services and/or increased taxes and fees."

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