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.”
Marcella Di Michieli — energetic and voluble — begs to differ. “Vaughn Woods is the nastiest man I’ve ever met; he yells at our customers and sprays them with his hose; he sent me a psychotic email. Sand? Hey, it’s the beach — what does he expect? It’s sandy, it’s crowded, traffic is bad. We all knew that coming in; but in a small, popular beach area, it would be that way even without the kayaks. But we try to be good neighbors.” Bill Whitney, who owns several buildings on the “kayak strip,” comes down squarely on the side of San Diego Bike & Kayak, saying, “None of this would happen if Vaughn Woods complied with the local codes himself. He’s a hypocrite, someone who lives in a glass house.” Di Michieli also points to extensive community service performed by her outfit, including kayak tours for Southeast San Diego schoolchildren, whose visit to the Shores, claims Di Michieli, triggered a “derogatory racial comment” by Mary Coakley of the Shores Association. (Coakley didn’t return calls for the story.)
It could be argued that Di Michieli, a former triathlete, entered the kayak district (along with low-profile boyfriend Bauman) with a level of funding and marketing savvy not seen before in the once–quasi-bucolic storefronts of Avenida de la Playa. (Woods, for one, complains of San Diego Bike & Kayak’s “mass marketing.”) By all accounts (even from their foes), San Diego Bike & Kayak, bankrolled by Di Michieli’s father, Lorenzo Di Michieli, made an immediate splash in a business and neighborhood where newcomers (aside from tourists who spend money but leave quickly) are treated warily at best. Di Michieli says her company’s impact has been a positive one, punctuated by her enthusiasm for the niche trade. “It’s a privilege to be here. I love the business and I love the area. The Cove is a special place and a tremendous resource.” (The launch site at the foot of Avenida de la Playa is the only such facility within San Diego proper.) But she’s dismayed at what she sees as venomously petty attitudes. “Everyone’s throwing darts at us. Maybe they resent us because we’re successful.” Whatever the root cause, she says that hostility on the insular Avenida has extended far beyond the verbal: on more than one occasion, her kayak trucks have had tires slashed and windows smashed. She confides, “I have a good idea who’s doing it, but I’d rather not say.” (Several other kayak operators report similar vandalism to trucks, as well as threatening notes.)
I asked Di Michieli about the competition, many of whom are husband-and-wife teams: how much of the animosity has emanated from San Diego Bike & Kayak’s rivals versus from the ranks of the community at large? She replied, “This is a cutthroat business.” Conversely, Di Michieli maintains that there’s a palpable level of collegiality and cooperation among Shores kayak operators. Some of the other owners with whom I spoke expressed similar sentiments, albeit with an air of circumspection.
Sharon Luscomb says, ”It’s a tough business on this street.” Luscomb, coowner with husband Michael of La Jolla Kayak, says that her company and Di Michieli’s — referred to at times as the “big two” — are allies. She allows that San Diego Bike & Kayak, sporting hard-charging, younger owners without kids, is less of a “mom and pop” business.
Jennifer Kleck, owner of Aqua Adventures and La Jolla Sea (Cave) Kayaks, says that, unlike San Diego Bike & Kayak, she isn’t trying to expand her business, preferring instead to keep it at a sustainable level. Nonetheless, Kleck, who functions not just as an owner but as a certifier of kayak guides (she trains guides for all the Shores kayak concerns), says that she’s on friendly terms with Di Michieli and the other local boat bosses. Similar sentiments were echoed by Angela Harrell, coowner with husband David Teafatiller of Hike Bike & Kayak. According to Harrell, Di Michieli and Bauman are more driven than their rivals. “The business is all they have.”
On the other hand, John Metzger, owner of OEX Dive & Kayak, believes that San Diego Bike & Kayak is trying to drive him out of business. In June 2009, Di Michieli’s company, under the name LCDM Investments, LLC, filed an unlawful detainer action against OEX, alleging that they’d encroached on a portion of the building they lease from San Diego Bike & Kayak. Less than two months later, through attorney William C. Tayler, they sent a letter to Vladimir Balotsky in the city’s Real Estate Assets office, accusing OEX of violating terms of its concession agreement with the City; San Diego Bike & Kayak charged, among other things, that OEX had conducted tours with noncertified guides and had failed to enforce helmet requirements for participants. John Davis, OEX’s attorney, contends that it’s all gratuitous harassment, saying, “San Diego Bike & Kayak takes a scorched-earth policy toward my client. They’re bullies.”
In an arena in which consensus is scarce at best, the kayak companies with whom I spoke didn’t dispute — notwithstanding the city’s mixed motives — that safety, notably as it relates to kayak congestion in the water, has become a legitimate and growing issue. For its part, the City of San Diego, seeing not only the chance to concoct a new regulatory scheme, but a golden opportunity to extract fees for its coffers, was eager to help — and the sacrosanct, virtually unassailable cause of safety was (as it so often is when new laws are imposed) the perfect backdrop. In the fall of 2008, a gaggle of bureaucrats — employees from Lifeguard Services, Park and Recreation Department, and Real Estate Assets — were assembled to put together a system for licensing the boatmen and allocating time slots among the tour companies, including San Diego Bike & Kayak. What followed was a bidding process in which kayak tour operators were invited to submit proposals — known in public-sector contracting parlance as RFPs, or requests for proposals. The aim, according to the City, was to make the waters safer by reducing the number of kayaks allowed at any given time; the “worthiest” operators would be granted the time slots deemed most favorable, with a cap on the number of weekend tours.
Each company was, and is, in the same relatively simple business: that of conducting kayak tours and renting kayaks. But San Diego Bike & Kayak’s approach to the hurdle posed by the “requests for proposal” process stood out. After extensive coaching from the Monger Group, San Diego Bike & Kayak submitted its paperwork on October 14, 2008. It was a thick, slick, and comprehensive sheaf of documents, nearly 200 pages long, which addressed the criteria with an eerie precision. (Curiously, page 44 of the submittal notes that “Nicholas Bauman…gained much of his kayak industry expertise by managing La Jolla Kayak while its owner was incarcerated.”) The other applicants apparently found the City’s requirements to be inchoate; their requests for proposal documentation was by comparison brief, informal, homemade, perhaps even amateurish. At the conclusion of the labyrinthine machinations — after the copiers had cooled and the paper cuts had healed — six tour companies, culled from a group of ten applicants, were ultimately awarded concessions. By mid-December, the city’s panel — utilizing criteria which included “responsiveness; professional experience; operating plans; financial capability; safety standards; and community service” — had reached its decision: San Diego Bike & Kayak had come in first.
Within weeks, charges of unfairness found their way to the mayor’s office. On January 9, 2009, Di Michieli and Bauman filed a protest, writing that the 15-tour cap imposed on all six vendors “would result in an improper reallocation of existing market share.” They also complained bitterly that OEX’s award of ten tour times was “disproportionately large” because OEX had been, in recent years, the smallest tour operator on the block.
Next, Vaughn Woods, in a document styled as a “Business Owner/Resident RFP Appeal,” wrote to the City, carping, “The …RFP legitimizes the ability of San Diego Bike & Kayak to disrupt…my business.” Not to be outdone, La Jolla Shores Association muckety-mucks Heaton and Coakley (the latter as chair of the Parks and Beaches Committee) weighed in, sending an impassioned letter to Sanders’s office that complained that the city had made its selections “without consideration of the length of time businesses have been in existence or community service they have provided.” The Association also decried the fact that La Jolla Surf Systems had been shut out and that “outside opportunists” — kayak operators without existing storefront operations in the neighborhood, or even worse, those lacking certain ill-defined historical ties to the town elders — were horning in on the action. Scolding the City for awarding slots to Aqua Adventures and La Jolla Sea Kayaks, Heaton and Coakley reserved their harshest brickbats for the top-dog status accorded to Di Michieli and Bauman, stating, “It appears that San Diego Bike & Kayak is being rewarded for bad behavior.”
However, despite their winning proposal, the principals of San Diego Bike & Kayak weren’t exactly overjoyed; Di Michieli and Bauman viewed their win as a pyrrhic victory at best, claiming that the net result of the process would — as they’d feared — boil down to a drastic diminution of their market share. Before they signed the licensing agreement, Di Michieli and Baumann, working both directly and through Jack Monger, continued to beseech the City for better terms. They requested numerous modifications to the terms of the concession, looking for ways to preserve the market edge they’d built. The City, they felt, didn’t understand the kayak business. They’d incorrectly delineated prime and nonprime times for the kayak tours, granting San Diego Bike & Kayak a number of unusable slots.
Along the way, Jack Monger pulled out all the stops. On March 6, 2009, he emailed David Sandoval, deputy director of the City’s Real Estate Assets Department. “Our client is absolutely distraught.” Fairly demanding a personal meeting, Monger stated, “It’s time for a conversation involving April McCusker (of Real Estate Assets), San Diego Bike & Kayak, you, and me.” Three days later, Sandoval replied: “I see no valid reason for a meeting.”
Whatever their merit or the standing of their authors to lodge them, the protests were brushed aside by Sanders’s office, who utilized gatekeeper Stephen Lew, director of community outreach, to quash criticism. On April 1, 2009, their attempts to secure a better deal rebuffed, San Diego Bike & Kayak entered into a contract with the City for a one-year term, which has subsequently been renewed for 2010–2011.
As it happens, San Diego Bike & Kayak donated $2500 to the strong-mayor campaign in 2009. Was the modest contribution an attempt to grease the skids? Di Michieli, although admitting that her company had never contributed to a political campaign before, denies the connection. She maintains that “We’ve always been interested in politics.”
When I asked Jack Monger whether his firm had recommended that his client throw a few kayak bucks to the strong-mayor campaign, he said, “I don’t remember whose idea it was.” When I asked Monger why San Diego Bike & Kayak chose to make this their first — and only, to date — monetary contribution to a political cause, he snapped, “My client just likes good government.”
Good government apparently makes good friends. Curiously, the mayor, the Mongers, and San Diego Bike & Kayak keep popping up together — as they did in the January 15, 2010 online edition of San Diego Metro Magazine, where Sanders and San Diego Bike & Kayak were dubbed, along with a handful of others, “Metro Movers 2010.” After expressing their gratitude to cosponsor Monger (along with the misnamed law firm, “Hicks,” Fletcher & Mack), the Metro mavens went on to laud the honorees. Praising the kayak company as “one of the few businesses to support” the City’s regulatory efforts at the Shores, they wrote, “San Diego Bike & Kayak has become the role model for how a business that operates in public areas can be very successful while at the same time being mindful of how their activities impact the surrounding residents.” About Sanders, they gushed: “[His] steady, determined demeanor…has helped him resolve so many important issues over the past six years.” And the Metro folks brought out their crystal ball, stating that Sanders’s “strong public-approval rating is likely to result in voters making the strong-mayor form of government permanent when the issue comes before them in June, 2010.”
City of San Diego officials did not return phone calls concerning this story.
Pulling the Puppet Strings
By Don Bauder
In days of yore, the king and his retinue resided in a magnificent castle on the top of the hill, while the peasants below groveled to stave off starvation. Look at San Diego today. The downtown luxuriates while the neighborhoods and the infrastructure rot, and maintenance is ignored. Downtown sparkles while the potholes deepen. Because the real-estate establishment controls most of the politicians, taxpayers’ money continues to be steered downtown.
Now, the king and his courtiers want to put a moat around that glistening downtown in the form of Proposition D, or the strong-mayor initiative, on the ballot June 8. The downtown overlords say it will provide more accountability in San Diego government. Actually, it will guarantee that there will be less accountability, and even more power concentrated in the hands of the royalty. More deals would be made in secret.
To get an idea of how this downtown group operates, go to the ballot arguments. Five people, including Mayor Jerry Sanders, urge a “yes” vote. One is Adrian Kwiatkowski, listed as past president of Rancho Peñasquitos Town Council. However, Kwiatkowski, a lobbyist employed by the Monger Co., gets paid for stumping for Prop. D. In a moonlighting venture, Kwiatkowski has a for-profit company, the Strong Mayor–Council Institute that proselytizes for centralization of mayoral power all around the country, including in ailing cities such as San Diego, Las Vegas, and Fort Myers, Florida.
On its website, the institute says it is “a United Generic Corporation enterprise.” So what is that? “That is an error; it should not be on the website,” snaps Kwiatkowski, explaining that the company was once set up for tax purposes. State records show its status as “suspended.” When questioned, the lawyer who set up United Generic, John W. Howard, initially couldn’t remember or find anything about it. “The only corporation we formed for Adrian was the Better Government Association,” says Howard.
Hmm...the Better Government Association, once headed by corporate welfare booster George Mitrovich, was set up to push the strong-mayor concept not long after the century’s turn. John Moores, then major Padres owner, and Malin Burnham, real estate mogul, tossed in $50,000 for a study of the idea. Mitrovich pledged to raise money to reimburse them. Howard (after finally remembering United Generic) recalls that he was involved in those early days of the strong-mayor movement, along with Mitrovich (not surprisingly, a Howard client), Kwiatkowski, Moores, Burnham, and other downtown kingpins.
So, with all his involvement, why did Kwiatkowski only list his Peñasquitos bona fides on the ballot argument? “Anybody can sign a ballot argument,” he huffs. But, says Councilmember Donna Frye, an opponent of the measure, “He [Kwiatkowski] is a lobbyist for Prop. D,” raking in money at the job. That should be disclosed.
In 2004, the downtown royalty was horrified. Frye was elected mayor on a write-in vote. That meant the first strong mayor would be Frye, an enemy of the monarchy, which then successfully challenged her victory in court. The first to file suit to negate her election: John Howard. Surprised? (Howard claimed he was doing so on principle.)
On January 1, 2006, the city began a five-year test of the strong-mayor idea. The test expires December 31, and the backers want to make it permanent. A new council district would be added, costing a million dollars a year. The number of votes needed to override a mayoral veto will go from five to six — a daunting two-thirds vote. The mayor may attend council meetings but can’t vote. Frye says that makes the mayor more remote from and less accountable to voters.
During this experimental period, accountability has diminished, says Frye. “With the strong-mayor form of governance, I do not have a strong remedy if the mayor’s office doesn’t give me information,” she says. She has had to use a legal summons to force a mayor’s representative to respond to her, file suit against the city to compel it to use honest ballot statements, and file a public records act request to get information.
The strong-mayor experiment has been a complete flop, claims Norma Damashek, president of the League of Women Voters. There still is no comprehensive plan to save San Diego from bankruptcy. Mayor Sanders has removed those who dared to be ethical. Rick Reynolds and Lance Wade refused to erase public records and were fired. City Auditor John Torell departed, complaining that Sanders’s minions did not “foster or encourage contrary opinions” and didn’t respect independence of an auditor. Bill Sheffler was removed from the pension board because he was an independent voice. Ronne Froman was the mayor’s chief operating officer; she was asked to do an investigation of the infamous Sunroad scandal. She resigned, and Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, of the purported Office of Ethics and Integrity, did a pathetic whitewash.
“The strong-mayor idea is a government that deals more with politics than with efficient management,” says Damashek. “Everything that goes out to the public is tightly controlled. What do they want to make sure the public doesn’t know? The financial/fiscal reality. They want the trophy projects downtown, but the city is rotting and crumbling on the inside.”
That’s true of city government, too. Employees are fearful of retribution, says Frye. Damashek says that despite the tight control of information released to the public, the structure is loose on the inside — “each department doing its own thing.” The mayor’s only interest is his public image.
Meanwhile, the budget, pension, and capital improvements deficits spiral out of control. Pension and retiree payments will eat up 22 percent of the annual budget this year, says Damashek, but the independent budget analyst, who reports to the council, can’t get timely information from the mayor’s office. A mayor who doesn’t have to attend public meetings has much less direct contact with constituents. He or she can flash smiles during the election campaign and then retreat to the back rooms for decision-making — with the downtown real-estate overlords pulling the puppet strings.