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.
Donna Frye’s longtime chief, Steven Hadley, of District 6, declined, saying he wanted the focus to stay on Donna. He sent along a spreadsheet of his and his staffers’ duties.
When I first emailed Erica Mendelson, communications director for District 5 rep Carl DeMaio, she wrote that “we are declining all interviews unless it’s for the councilmember. It’s a decision we’ve made internally.” Apparently she and Mr. DeMaio reconsidered, and they asked for a list of questions. I sent the list, inquiring about how his chief, Jaymie Bradford, was chosen, her role in advising him on policy, the difficult and the rewarding parts of the job, and whether chiefs have conflicts of interest. Soon, Mendelson called to say that the tenor of such questions was “too intense” for Mr. DeMaio to answer. Instead, he emailed the following: “As my chief of staff, Ms. Bradford manages the day to day activities of the District 5 office. In this capacity she is also my chief advisor on policy issues. Because of her extensive background in city related policy issues and knowledge of the intricacies of the city she was the perfect choice to fill the role of chief of staff.”
Glen Sparrow, a retired San Diego State political scientist and a staffer for Councilman John Hartley in the 1990s, is not surprised that the chiefs won’t talk. “One thing you do as a chief of staff,” he says, “is subvert your personality to the boss. Your shield protects him or her, and you take the arrows. Anytime good occurs, you give the boss credit; anytime there’s bad, you take it on yourself. The last thing you want is the spotlight. It’s in their nature to be quiet about what they do.”
Euphemisms such as “internal decision” and “the member gets the press” are so evasive as to be suspicious — or meaningless. What is this not-talking groupthink really about? Doesn’t the public deserve some appraisal of chiefs, especially since they average $100,000 per year, have the hourly ear of the councilmember, and are unelected? Why, at least in San Diego, have they escaped the journalist’s profile?
Biographies of the Chiefs
Chief of staff for Sherri Lightner
Most chiefs of staff have worked their way through the labyrinth of appointed positions in city hall. Some have had to keep part-time jobs, realizing staff jobs are temporary. Part of their savvy is to stay available by constantly reinventing themselves. The king of reinvention is John Rivera, Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s chief in District 1.
According to yourdebteliminated.com, Rivera is a Ph.D. and a consultant. The website markets a program of “debt-free living,” “rooted in the spiritual principles which gave birth to the idea of our great nation,” that will “Save Time, Save Money, Build Wealth.” Rivera consults in “both the public and private sectors” in such areas as “creative problem solving,” “ethics advising,” “effective discipline,” “quality control,” and more. In addition, the speaker and author “has inspired audiences with interests in business and institutional re-engineering,” among other skills. On the website, he is described as a researcher, writer, educator, business/public policy consultant, and cofounder of Financial Freedom International, Inc. He’s given a few keynote addresses, and according to the City of San Diego’s District 1 webpage, he’s run “several small businesses and has been a professor at different California universities.”
In 1983, Rivera lost a school board election to Susan Davis. From 1984 to 1986, he was a part-time administrative assistant to county supervisor Paul Eckert. In 1986, when the city council was choosing from candidates to fill a seat vacated by Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, Rivera added his name to the list; he lost to Celia Ballesteros. At the time, Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer called Rivera “one of the brightest” contenders for Martinez’s seat. Rivera maintained that he was the best choice because he had a “more contemporary way of solving problems.” During the 1980s he was a counselor and instructor at San Diego City College. In 1989, at age 39, Rivera lost the post of chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party’s Central Committee by one vote.
Rivera emerged as the cochairman of the San Diego Christian Coalition, a group that offered training to Christian political candidates. This was part of an effort to recruit Christians to run for every office in San Diego County in 1992. By the mid-’90s, Rivera was a part-time professor at San Diego State.
Rivera was a consultant from 2003 to 2005 and in 2007 for the city council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, chaired by Councilman Brian Maienschein. Councilmembers have a consultant on their staffs for each committee they head. Among other duties, Rivera helped plan the budgets for the police and fire-rescue departments.
In 2005, Rivera testified in the Strippergate trial, the city hall corruption trial of councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet. They and Charles Lewis, who died before the trial began, were charged with taking money to change the “no-touch” policy at San Diego strip clubs. In a taped conversation, Zucchet told Lance Malone, lobbyist and bagman for strip-club owner Michael Galardi, that he would meet with John Rivera to have the no-touch policy put on the committee’s docket. Rivera testified that he had been approached by staffers from the offices of Lewis, Zucchet, and Inzunza, who pushed him to get the matter before the committee. Maienschein testified that he had been asked twice by Inzunza, in 2002, to put the no-touch policy on the committee’s agenda. He refused.
Last June, for a report on city workers’ salaries, the Union-Tribune compiled a database. In 2008, Rivera took home $90,171 from the City. This year he will earn $98,010.
Chief of staff for Kevin Faulconer
The District 2 webpage says that Faucett “oversees day-to-day operations” for Faulconer and “is responsible for community representation, policy, communications, office management and legislative relations.” She has been in politics since graduating from San Diego State, when she became a community representative in Councilwoman Judy McCarty’s office; there she worked on community-development, block-grant, and land-use issues. Jim Madaffer, who for a time was McCarty’s chief, hired Faucett as his campaign manager when he ran for the council in 2000. Her reward at his election: the chief’s job.
In its “40 Under 40” annual feature, San Diego Metropolitan Magazine described Faucett as “especially successful at fund-raising” for the San Diego Family Justice Center and the nonprofit Alpha Project. In the article, Madaffer lauded Faucett: “I rely on Aimee completely for managing legislation, budget, policy, media, community outreach, personnel and day-to-day operations.” That was in 2003. In her Kroll interview, she was asked who was on Madaffer’s policy staff. According to a summary of the interview, she “jokingly responded that councilmember Madaffer ‘was his own policy advisor.’ ” Despite being the butt of the joke, Madaffer again praised her when he left the council last December.
Faucett has done well. In the last six years, her annual salary has ranged from $88,002 in 2005 to $109,144 in 2008. This year she’ll draw $98,010. Her statement of economic interests, filed last January, shows her to have holdings in five stocks valued between $10,001 and $100,000 and three stocks valued between $2000 and $10,000. Her spouse works for Colliers International in commercial real estate.
Chief of staff for Todd Gloria
Before her appointment — an award for managing Gloria’s winning campaign — Fox-Rice was the deputy chief of staff for Ralph Inzunza, press secretary for Donna Frye’s mayoral campaign, and director of communications for Councilmember Kevin Faulconer. She is described on the District 3 webpage as having “extensive experience in City Hall and with local political campaigns.” She does improv comedy, has bachelor’s degrees in consumer sciences and English and a master’s in comparative literature, and is a lecturer for the Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State University. Students seem to love her. Here’s one especially enjoyable blurb from 2005: “Jamie is a really cool professor. You have to invest time into your assignments, but they are not difficult. Her assignments are things that you will use often in your life. Her class is very interactive and you get to meet everyone. She is from back East so she has a good sense of humor.” Her spouse is a vice president at the Amerland Group, consultants in the affordable housing industry, as well as a partner in Elevate, a public relations firm.
Chief of staff for Tony Young
After Councilmember Charles Lewis died in 2004, while awaiting trial in the Strippergate scandal, his chief of staff, Tony Young, won a special election for the council seat. Jimmie Slack became Young’s chief. Slack received a degree in public administration at San Diego State, then served county supervisor Leon Williams for 12 years as a legislative assistant and chief of staff. When Williams left the County, Slack became the program manager for Refugee Employment Services, helping new immigrants navigate job opportunities. He also worked as a project manager for ACS State and Local Solutions. On his statement of economic interests, Slack listed no investments or real estate holdings.
Chief of staff for Carl DeMaio
DeMaio chose Bradford for his chief, as he communicated to me, because of her knowledge and experience. She is his chief advisor on policy issues. She has a degree in political science from UCSD and spent three years as the internal communications coordinator for the Building Industry Association. She was the link between the association and the government. In 2002, she joined Madaffer’s staff as a policy advisor, working under chief Aimee Faucett. In 2006, she became Madaffer’s Land Use and Housing Committee consultant. One of Bradford’s interests was in developing the ballpark. Bradford served Mayor Sanders as a policy advisor beginning in July 2006 and as director of council affairs from July 2007 until she became DeMaio’s chief. Her statement of economic interests lists no investments or holdings.
Chief of staff for Donna Frye
Among the more nonpolitical backgrounds is Hadley’s: a degree in ministerial studies, 17 years as a pastor, and a law degree from California Western. Hadley has been on Frye’s staff since 2001 and her chief since 2004. He has declared himself a candidate for Frye’s seat. The Union-Tribune reports that he is a “recent transplant from San Marcos” to Clairemont, which is in District 6. He owns two annuities, each valued at between $10,001 and $100,000. His spouse is a medical staff coordinator at Scripps, earning between $10,001 and $100,000.
Chief of staff for Marti Emerald
A poly sci grad from San Diego State, Jacobson first worked for Congressman Jim Bates in the 1980s. In 1988, when Bates was accused of sexually harassing women on his staff, she denied having seen Bates harass anyone. He later lost his seat. In 1992, Jacobson ran for the Chula Vista City Council and received the endorsement of labor groups. Though she lost, she was soon hired as business manager for the local Building and Construction Trades Council, where she administered labor agreements and monitored public works projects. She was picked by Governor Gray Davis to be an executive member of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which took over the responsibility of operating Lindbergh Field from the Port of San Diego. She was paid $139,500 per year. By her fourth and final year, she was receiving $171,648. During her tenure, she oversaw studies on alternative sites for the airport; the authority’s recommendation to move the airport to Miramar was defeated at the polls in 2006.
In one minor tempest, Jacobson was found by the Union-Tribune to have flown first-class to an aviation conference in Hawaii, charging the airport authority $2493 for her seat, while Councilmember Tony Young, who was also on the airport authority board, flew coach on the same plane for $546. Last year, Jacobson was given an airport parking pass valued at $300. Also in 2008, she provided “campaign management consultant services” to Marti Emerald, earning between $10,001 and $100,000. Her spouse received between $10,001 and $100,000 working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Chief of staff for Ben Hueso
Molina-Rodriguez is something of a mystery woman. There is no bio of her on Councilmember Hueso’s webpage. Little has been written about her in the Union-Tribune. In 2004, Diane Bell reported that Molina-Rodriguez had given birth to a child and in 2007, that Clint Eastwood had visited Hueso’s office, which Molina-Rodriguez said “made everybody’s day.” She is a Latina and a graduate of Sweetwater High School. She has been quoted as saying that her former boss, Ralph Inzunza, liked to call everyone “buddy.” In 2005, she made $101,982 as Hueso’s chief. Her spouse is the owner of Rod’s Rooter plumbing.
The Kroll Report investigators interviewed Molina-Rodriguez. The interview summary states that she has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree. She was Assemblywoman Ducheny’s chief, and she worked for the San Diego district attorney’s office. As Inzunza’s chief, the summary says, he asked her “to personally research and analyze issues that were important to him.” She was asked if Inzunza “had policy discussions outside of council meetings” and said, according to the summary, that “he would usually discuss policy issues in informal meetings rather than formal ones.” Talk in the hallways of the tenth floor was sometimes about policy, but, she said, she didn’t recall Inzunza’s discussing any specific issues. She did remember Inzunza buying five years of service credit toward his pension.
In 2003, Molina-Rodriguez testified before a federal grand jury about Inzunza’s role in Strippergate. At the time, her lawyer said that “she believes in her boss, and she is confident she did nothing wrong.”
Ben Hueso has filed papers to run for the state Assembly in 2010. Already, speculation is afire about his replacement. Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña has made her preference known: she wants a woman of color to run for the District 8 seat. According to the Voice of San Diego, Saldaña discussed a successor with Hueso. She says he told her there was “a woman on his staff who was interested in running and that she decided not to.” He didn’t identify her. Saldaña said she thought a staffer as a candidate was a bad idea: “There are 450,000 people in my district. I think there’s a lot better choices than just looking across the desk.” Hueso has endorsed his brother Felipe for the seat.
Legislators vs. Staffers
One of the most critical views of those tempest-tossed souls on the tenth floor comes from longtime city hall muckraker Pat Flannery. The white-haired, blue-eyed Irishman with 32 years in our fair city has been brokering real estate for decades. He’s also a former investigative journalist with the Irish Times. Recently, as he lunched on chicken pasta and I on a Greek salad, we discussed his well-read, often wonky blogofsandiego.com. On it, Flannery monitors what he calls the city council “love nest” — that virtual bed in which councilmembers, lobbyists, business owners, union heads, and staffers lie down together. He bristles at the idea that citizens have so little access to councilmembers. As he writes in a March 12, 2009 blog entry, “Try getting in there without an appointment, unless of course you are a well known lobbyist or a union boss.” What’s more, he tells me, the tenth floor’s confines place members and staff in too close proximity, a milieu where they may violate the Brown Act.
On November 8, 2008, new councilmembers DeMaio, Emerald, Gloria, and Lightner were given a 12-minute primer about the Brown Act. Kathy Bradley, deputy city attorney, described the law: any elected body in the state must conduct the public’s business in open session. The public has a right to know about any issue councilmembers will decide and to respond to them and the issue in open meetings. Bradley admonished members “to be mindful that you are conducting your business in an open manner and not discussing matters among yourselves ahead of time.” She went on to define a “meeting” as any occasion when a majority of the members are together. In such gatherings, they cannot talk about city business.
“Serial meetings” — when one member talks to another, then talks to another, and so on — are also prohibited. The point is to forbid members’ deciding something prior to the meeting. This “doesn’t prevent” members from “talking one-on-one.” Staffers face the same prohibition. “You want to be careful,” Bradley said, “that staff members are not talking to each other and developing some kind of collective concurrence.” Nor can elected officials let their staffs decide issues for them. Moreover, councilmembers cannot pass their ideas or decisions on through intermediaries, say a lobbyist, who might, in turn, tell another member about a vote. Closed-session meetings are restricted, usually, to pending litigation and personnel matters.
Flannery knows the Brown Act as well as anyone. In a study of 136 action items between December 8, 2008, and March 3, 2009, he found that 80 percent were uncontested, approved unanimously. He wonders how such consensus was formed: “Did it all occur in the council chamber? Or was a consensus formed before hearing public testimony and before council discussion?” Flannery says that “council/committee deliberation, a vital part of good legislating, is being kept to a minimum.” One proof, he says, is council president Ben Hueso’s frequent use of the statement “I move the staff recommendation.” Flannery notes that such rubber-stamping doesn’t prove there’s been a Brown Act violation. But what else can he think, especially since none of us is privy to how the decisions are made.
Flannery characterizes members by their “institutional mentality.” They are either staffers (worse) or legislators (better). The staffers “demonstrate a natural sympathy with the bureaucratic mind and identify more with city staff…than with the electorate.” The legislators are there to do the people’s business; they “revere” the workings of a “representative democracy.” For Flannery, staffers include Faulconer, Gloria, Young, and Hueso, and legislators are Lightner, DeMaio, Frye, and Emerald.
He believes that Todd Gloria has been practicing the “staffer” mentality all his adult life. He’s part of the “Jesuit army, so to speak,” trained since high school to “go along.” From 2002 to 2008, Gloria was the district director for Congresswoman Susan Davis. He oversaw the operation of Davis’s San Diego office, a job similar to that of a chief of staff’s. By contrast, Carl DeMaio “seems to have a genuine interest in good government and to have made it his profession, [but] he is in a frightful hurry,” that is, ambitious for higher office.
With so many docketed items, one way to get through them, Flannery says, is for each councilmember to ask his or her chief where campaign donors or other players are on an issue. If it’s a land-use item, for example, the member will ask the chief, “Where’s the labor council on this, where’s the Building Industry Association on this?” The majority of the time, the member will vote according to those constituencies. “That pretty well takes care of it. It’s not like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I would say these items don’t even get docketed until positions are already known.”
However, Flannery adds, “Any evidence we have of that is, unfortunately, circumstantial. We’re not going to get any smoking guns. They use fax machines,” which have no electronic trace. “They do not use city email accounts” for questionable contacts or business. For much of their correspondence, he notes, “They use Gmail or Yahoo accounts,” emails the City does not store. “I learned that early on,” he says, mimicking a member’s admonitions: “ ‘Don’t call me on this number, call me on that number. Don’t email me at sandiego.gov. Better still, fax it to me.’
“You would need a federal subpoena to bust into a Gmail account. They guard those with their lives — as sacred as the Delaware LLC. Therefore, what [a journalist is] going to pick up will be extremely well sanitized.” What’s more, he adds, “I’m not going to accuse anyone of anything. All one has to do is look at the coziness of the whole thing.”
As an example of this coziness, he cites two chiefs, Aimee Faucett and Jaymie Bradford, who run the offices of the two Republican councilmembers, Faulconer and DeMaio. Both women cut their teeth under Jim Madaffer. Faucett and Bradford “could finish each other’s sentences. They know what each other is thinking.”
Faucett, Flannery says, “managed to convince Madaffer that she could get him elected — and she did.” So, too, did Bradford persuade DeMaio that he needed her to win. Following DeMaio’s victory last November, he “did not choose Jaymie. She chose him. I’m sure no one said that to him,” that he had to hire Bradford. “But I’m sure it became very clear.”
Such savvy extends to another lioness, Jamie Fox-Rice. Flannery says she is a ferocious campaigner: “I wouldn’t want to tangle with this woman; I’d end up a eunuch.” Flannery notes that “she’s a good example of the kind of power you can demand if you get someone [Todd Gloria] elected when [victory] wasn’t a sure thing.”
Flannery says the system is counterintuitive: councilmembers work for their chiefs. Just the opposite of what we think. That’s its beauty. “It’s totally amazing, it’s totally unknown, and that’s real political power. Rasputin had more power than the Czar.”
To guard against the concentration of such power and proximity, Flannery would like to “break up the tenth floor. The tenth floor is per se a continual violation of the Brown Act.” Flannery would have the chiefs and the staffs reside not downtown but in district offices. He compares the submarine environment of the tenth floor to his youth’s nemesis, the Catholic Church: “The priests used to tell us that when a boy is sitting next to a girl, there’s no doubt you’re going to put your hand on her. It’s an occasion to sin.” The council chamber’s love nest, he says, is an occasion for the councilmembers and staffers to commit political sins.
Protecting the Fiefdom
Since 1992, when term limits were set — two consecutive four-year terms — no city council incumbent has lost an election. This means that staff members also serve for long periods. New candidates must wait for an open seat: witness last November’s victories by Lightner, DeMaio, and Emerald. But these three all chose city hall insiders to be their chiefs of staff.
I ask Richard Ryder, head of San Diego Tax Fighters and a frequent pain in the council’s neck, especially on tax, pension, and conflict-of-interest issues, why aides and chiefs have so much clout. Ryder cites careerism: most chiefs have been working in the “staffing profession” for years. He calls it an “aristocracy” in which many staff positions are like “hand-me-downs.” In fact, Ryder says, there’s a way it’s done. You get a staff position, and as an aide, you spend time in the community at planning-board and civic meetings. All of which creates “a huge support base, at taxpayer expense.” In effect, the road to the city council is paved within. Staffers make political connections and build community presence on the job.
Of course, not all staffers follow this route; not all have political ambitions. But, Ryder says, a few are “out there campaigning and getting reimbursed at city expense.” Until recently, staffers and city councilmembers were given a “massive” driving allowance. Ryder helped end this practice because, he says, “most of what they did was campaigning.”
With 10 years of service, a city employee qualifies for a pension. Ryder says that it’s a big problem for those in the “pension-screening process” — the board, the politicians, the staffers, the analysts — that they all can influence pension decisions. “Particularly the staffers who bounce from place to place, who go in and out of elected office as well, they end up with 15 to 20 years.” These long-timers face, he says, a “huge conflict of interest when controlling pensions.”
Ryder notes that when staffers run for council, “They typically get endorsed by the guy going out.” The way the system moves a staffer to the council is “very hard to beat unless you bring some exceptional credentials or high visibility, like Carl DeMaio.” The system is, he says, “hereditary — not based on family but based on employment.” Such a system, he believes, “incentivizes” people to do the wrong things — pay-to-play schemes, voting for all pension benefits, and more. But if we blame staffers or any public employees for what they do, we are, he says, missing the point. We shouldn’t be surprised when they seek their interest over ours. “There’s nothing evil about it. It’s human nature. We have to understand that.”
What Was True Once Is True No Longer
Wes Pratt, former councilmember in District 4 (1987–1991), tells me by phone from his home in Springfield, Missouri, that he picked his chief, Jennifer Adams-Brooks, because of her “temperament. She had keen intelligence and insight, an excellent way with people.” Her experience with private companies in land use also helped. Pratt himself began as an aide for Assemblyman Peter Chacon. In the 1980s, he became a staffer for county supervisor Leon Williams, eventually becoming his chief of staff. On the council, Pratt says he liked to be well informed: on a given issue, he wanted to know how other councilmembers felt, how his constituents felt, and how his staff felt. After he heard others’ opinions, he’d make his decision. What was so helpful about Adams-Brooks is that she understood his “very deliberative style.”
When Pratt ran for city council, his boss, Leon Williams, initially supported George Stevens. Pratt says he wasn’t picked or anointed by anyone, despite District 4’s reputation as a place where councilmembers seem perennially to come from within the staff. And he says he never groomed anyone for his position, either in or out of office: “I wasn’t interested in building a kingdom.” He notes that it wasn’t the loss to George Stevens in 1991 that soured him, though it was “disappointing.” He never “wanted a career in politics.”
I tell him that the chiefs won’t talk. “Really?” he says. “You’re kidding me. I don’t know what to think. I never had a problem with my chief of staff talking to the media. I don’t understand that apprehension.” Pratt wondered whether we, Reader writers, had been writing bad things about them. Before calling him, I had contacted Jennifer Adams-Brooks, who referred me to her old boss. She didn’t want to talk either: “She is someone who doesn’t want to be in the public eye. She doesn’t want to toot her own horn. She’s more of a public servant.”
Abbe Wolfsheimer-Stutz, a councilmember for eight years, left in 1993. Recently she told me that choosing a chief of staff when she was elected in 1985 was easy. Joanne Johnson was a “marvelous” chief of staff, “a dynamo” who had staff experience in Michigan and who also served as Wolfsheimer-Stutz’s campaign manager. Johnson was a good choice because “I like to surround myself with people who have a discipline I don’t have. She was a perfect match.” For Wolfsheimer-Stutz, Johnson administrated the office; paid bills; hired and fired staff; oversaw the calendar and mail; planned staff meetings and set agendas; met with constituents when they had problems and questions; and reviewed council dockets for issues Wolfsheimer-Stutz was interested in, issues important to the district, and issues crucial to the city as a whole. In terms of policy, staff members would advocate for their specialties and try to convince her to vote a certain way or to become as informed as they were.
While Wolfsheimer-Stutz says she didn’t vote on pension decisions, she recalled some councilmembers in the late 1980s voting to “sweeten” their health-care benefits. One change she has noticed with councilmembers nowadays is that each one has a media or public relations person. It’s often the chief. “Back then that was unheard of. Nobody put out newsletters telling everyone what good deeds you have done. Reporters hung out in the hallway and asked us, ‘Is anything new?’ They were very unstructured.”
These days, she is more than a little sour on the council. She finds many of the members, not necessarily their staffs, “lazy. They’re rarely in the office. They rarely go to meetings. They cancel half of their meetings every month. We never budged. We worked all day, at our desks from eight to seven. Out in the community every night and on the weekend.”
I ask Wolfsheimer-Stutz, if a reporter called to interview her chief, would she have encouraged the contact? “Absolutely.” She can’t fathom why they won’t talk. Maybe they’re protective of what power they do have.
“There were chiefs of staff when I was there,” she says, “who ran the whole office — and the policy. And anything else. Who literally told the councilmembers how to vote. One of them was John Kern. John Kern worked on my campaign and went on to become Judy McCarty’s chief of staff. She didn’t go to the bathroom without permission from him.”
Kern served as chief to a string of District 7 councilmembers: Larry Stirling, Dick Murphy, and McCarty. He became Murphy’s chief again in 2000, when Murphy was elected mayor: there Kern was one of the highest-paid city officials, earning $153,528, which was $72,000 more than his boss took in. (In his interview with Kroll Report investigators, Kern identified his chief’s role as the “troubleshooter” and “political go-to person.” He said many on the staff spoke with him before speaking with Murphy.)
Wolfsheimer-Stutz says that in her time the chiefs weren’t a professional class. They are now. “A lot of the chiefs today have grown up in that position, and they haven’t really learned anything in their lives except what the political system in city hall is. They’ve been trained from ground zero all the way up.”
Kathryn Burton, who served as managing assistant city attorney during Mike Aguirre’s reign, divides the council and staff into two types: political animals versus public servants. Like usually attracts like, she says. For instance, with Donna Frye, her chief of staff, Steve Hadley, is like a Donna in training. Burton recalls trying to get a neighborhood park open for kids and calling on Hadley, who was on the staff of Councilmember Harry Mathis in 2000. The park was ready to go — “grass and swings and playsets” — but it was fenced, so the kids stood around, clutching the chain link and wanting in.
“One night after a planning board meeting, I grabbed Steve and I said, ‘I really need to know why the kids can’t get in the park.’ He said, ‘Let’s go see.’ Here he was in his suit, and he climbed over the fence — I thought he was going to tear it. He climbed in and climbed back over, and he said, ‘It looks ready.’ He started working on [the park’s approval] the next day, twisted a few arms, got things expedited, and it was open. I’ve never forgotten him. Then he ends up being the chief of staff for Donna Frye. People end up with like-minded people.”
She says other chiefs are chosen because they know how to play hardball; chiefs “let [the councilmember] look good.” When Sherri Lightner in District 1 (“a wonderful improvement over Scott Peters, who’s never been my favorite guy and is the antithesis of the public servant”) hired John Rivera to be her chief, “I thought he was up-front and honest. I think she hired him because he knows the downtown scene. I think she was smart enough to realize that she was in a perilous situation with the sharks down there who knew the ropes in a way that she didn’t — since she’s more of a land-use person.”
Overall, she says, “Lots of people get recycled.” They often get “anointed and receive the endorsement. You don’t get too much different that way.” Most of the time, she says, “The constituents have very little to do with” what gets done because people “are using the council as a stepping stone for their next political gig.” I mention Ben Hueso, and we both laugh.
A Political Gerontocracy
For decades, one of the prickliest thorns in the council’s side has been attorney Bruce Henderson. A councilmember from 1987 to 1991, he later brought suit against the City for its shady financial arrangements in building the Padres downtown stadium. When I complain to Henderson that the current chiefs aren’t talking, he says that besides my being from the Reader, the rule of thumb in politics is that the politician’s name and not the chief’s should be in the news. That said, he believes the real reason they won’t talk is that they can’t “justify their jobs.”
What’s their job?
Henderson wants me to understand first that their true job is not the same as the job they actually do. “Staff is supposed to identify and deal with their constituents’ concerns. And second, [members] should see to it that there’s a staff in place” so that when members go to a meeting, they are “thoroughly briefed” on issues. Council staff members are “supposed to have the background that allows them to dig into documents and understand them.”
As an example of what happens when no one on the council staff has the “skill set” necessary to evaluate documents, Henderson cites a spreadsheet produced by the city manager’s office in the 1990s. It showed that by 2010, the Padres would be paying the City millions of dollars in rent at what is now Qualcomm Stadium. Although council staffers had inquired about Padres revenues, they “never went beyond this bizarre representation that the Padres would be paying these huge amounts of net rent.” Henderson says this deal didn’t “compute — there’s no backup that tells us how they arrived at their numbers.” As it turned out, he says, there was no agreement “with the Padres to pay any net rent.”
The civic center proposal currently floating around city hall is a current example. “Who among the chiefs of staff,” Henderson asks, “has a background for reviewing documentation like that?” None, he says. “If they don’t, do they hire someone who does?” Another critical issue is budgets. Henderson says only DeMaio’s staff in District 5 is qualified to do such work. With the chiefs, he says, his tone bordering on disgust, “Their real job is getting the boss reelected and setting themselves up to run for office.”
Glen Sparrow echoes Henderson’s concern. Now that we have a strong-mayor form of government, Sparrow sees the onset of what he hopes is a trend in how council offices are run. “Instead of hiring people to handle complaints or to get them reelected,” he says, more councilmembers should, as DeMaio and Faulconer have already done, be “hiring policy people…to have at least one person on their staff to understand what a budget is.” For the last two decades, Sparrow says, “The staffs have been assurers of reelection, taking care of the constituents and potholes and barking dogs. They need to get rid of those glad-handers who go out to the communities and replace them with people who understand how the City operates.”
All too often, Henderson says, “Most councilmembers operate on the basis of what we don’t know won’t hurt us. So, ‘Don’t tell us anything.’ They tend not to ask questions, not to read background material, not to be concerned with whether or not the mayor’s office” is fully informing them.
If a councilmember says — or implies — to his chief of staff, “ ‘I don’t want to know anything,’ then he has deniability.” During his tenure, Henderson says, “That’s what I thought all my fellow councilmembers did — to be honest with you.” He admits he has no proof that anyone ever said, “ ‘Don’t tell me,’ but my experience was, they didn’t want to know.” He says he’d talk to councilmembers about issues, and they had no idea what he was talking about. “Some would, and some wouldn’t listen. You couldn’t have a discussion with them.”
In 1987, Henderson hired Jim Sills, a political consultant, as his chief, in part, because Sills was Henderson’s campaign manager. As a former chief for county supervisor Paul Fordem (1981–1984), Sills had “a profound knowledge of how government works. He could bring documents up to me and say, ‘Here are the key decisions that need to be made at the next meeting.’ He would carefully go over the agenda and identify issues I needed to look at. And we would have that discussion. The difference for me, as a lawyer who’s been involved in a lot of financial deals and reviewing contracts, I had a thorough background that allowed me to review budgets. I didn’t need to hire someone who had those skills. Jim ran the office and saw to it that constituents were served. He’d review the docket and look for things that were being hidden from us. There was a lot of stuff. That’s the name of the game. Voluminous documentation is dropped on you, at the last possible moment, so you won’t have time to go through it. That’s also part of the game.”
By phone, Sills recalls the late Paul Fordem, who told him once that he “liked my energy level, that I had a long memory, could remember details, and that I was well organized and loyal to him. It was similar with Bruce. Some of those who advised him were trying to get him to change his views on certain issues. I never do that. I just try to find out what the candidate believes, then help him communicate that to the voters. Bruce said, ‘Jim lets me be me.’ ”
As for chiefs running for council, Sills says that in his day it was “almost unheard of. If they did, they lost and lost ignominiously.” Also “a rarity” was making a career out of being a staffer, Sills says, unlike today. He says that he’s “sorry to hear” that some of the higher positions are taken by career staffers. “It’s good for the city to have new blood. When I was Bruce’s chief, we went out of our way to bring in people who were not” affiliated with the City.
When I mention that the chiefs won’t talk, Sills says he’s “surprised. When I worked in the County and the City, no one wrote the type of story you’re writing. If I could give them some advice — which they haven’t asked for — I would urge them to talk to you. They should be proud to tell their story.” He notes that in 1990 he would have spoken with a reporter. What’s more, his boss, Bruce Henderson, would have approved of it.
Does Henderson agree with Pat Flannery’s assessment of the chiefs and their staffs, that they’re a kind of shadow government? “I agree 100 percent. And that’s because most councilmembers are lazy. That was my experience. Politically they were active. But when it came to intellectually analyzing the problems that came before the City, I thought it pathetic.”
What gets Henderson’s goat is that councilmembers who want to be advocates for particular issues or neighborhoods don’t recognize their shortcomings. They don’t hire people “to give them independent advice” about things they don’t know — and voilà, another scandal.
Henderson says that the “net result” of hiring politically minded chiefs and staff is this: “a tremendous transfer of power to the mayor’s office. Even though there’s a lot of chatter, there’s very little effective oversight by councilmembers.”
To the City’s detriment, Henderson says, most chiefs and staff members gain stature and insure careers via long-term loyalty and unquestioning support of their council boss.
I say it’s a political gerontocracy.
“Which means?” Henderson says.
“He who’s been there longest has the most power.”
“I agree 100 percent.”