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“In the old days, you had kingmakers who would put in the people they wanted over the objections of those in the community,” says Donna Frye.The former city councilwoman is speaking of the two major changes in San Diego government over the past quarter century: district-only council elections and the “strong mayor.”

Before 1990, candidates for city council were nominated in the districts they hoped to serve but elected by the entire city. Then, in 1988, citizens voted to elect future members in district-only elections. Some believe that the change put pressure on members to play to their districts’ constituents and that the interests of the city as a whole suffered.

Twenty-two years later, San Diegans voted to eliminate the position of city manager and make permanent a strong mayor form of government. One argument in favor of the move was that it helps offset councilmembers’ parochialism.

Frye acknowledges that some councilmembers give “great deference” to pet projects in their districts. But she believes the council is capable of “coming together and acting in the best interests of the city. And I like district-only elections,” she says. “People that live in the community should be able to vote on their own representation. It also allows people who aren’t as well funded to launch campaigns.”

It’s not parochialism that Frye worries will threaten the interests of the city. “It turns out,” she says, that as a form of government “the strong mayor has not been that effective.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Frye has been out of office for more than 13 months. I am sitting with her in the Clairemont home she shares with her husband and mother. She wears beige slacks and a burgundy-and-beige striped blouse. Occasionally, she brushes back wisps of hair that want to sneak over her eyes. After her father died 11 years ago, says Frye, “My husband and I moved into my mother’s house. It’s the home I grew up in.”

Frye, who is 59, now works at Skip Frye Surfboards, the business she co-owns with her husband. It’s not been all work since leaving office, however. “In September,” says Frye, “Skip and I did the 20th annual Paddle for Clean Water. We paddled around the Ocean Beach Pier on a 12-foot-7-inch surfboard we had never christened.” Prior to politics, she was well known for efforts to stop ocean pollution.

It was environmental activism and service on Pacific Beach’s town council and planning board in the 1990s that propelled Frye into the political limelight. In 2001, she won a special election to replace Valerie Stallings, who had resigned after she was outed for taking gifts from Petco Park developer John Moores. Over the past year, when people have asked Frye whether in 2012 she’ll run for mayor, as she did twice previously, she has denied any such plans. Reminded that she also has said she’s not ruling it out, she replies, “I’m not ruling out being a matador, either. Who knows what’s going to happen? But I want to be doing something else now.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Has Donna, as her colleagues and the public alike got used to calling her, noticed how much Mayor Sanders wants an $800 million Chargers stadium and an expansion of the convention center, which could cost as much as $575 million? “Yes,” she says, “but I’m not really paying attention until I start reading the documents about how those plans will be financed.”

Last May, as a start to financing the convention center expansion, Sanders proposed the establishment of a Convention Center Facilities District. Under the plan, hotels would be assessed 1 to 3 percent on each room night, depending on proximity to the convention center. The district would be overseen largely by “representatives of the hospitality industry.” In November, the Port of San Diego announced it might be willing to kick in $60 million over 20 years, and the City identified the Redevelopment Agency and the City’s transient occupancy tax as other sources of revenue. A public hearing to establish the district was scheduled for January 24. Hoteliers are expected to vote on it in April and the city council in May. There will be no vote by the public.

Until the California Supreme Court recently gave Governor Jerry Brown the go-ahead to abolish redevelopment agencies, both a new Chargers stadium and an expansion of the convention center seem destined for the East Village, site of Petco Park, built almost eight years ago. For a new Chargers stadium, the Sanders administration has already hired Lazard, Ltd., a New York consulting firm, to help put together a financing package. According to the Union-Tribune on October 13, the City would pay roughly half of the annual debt service, or about $38 million. It is hoped that a number of other governmental entities in the county will kick in the other half. The financing would be complicated, but Sanders has said that firms like Lazard are good at “out-of-the-box thinking.”

Petco Park became the linchpin for John Moores’s 26-block redevelopment of San Diego’s East Village. Many in the city remember how by 2004, after Moores had gotten the city council’s approval, he backed off promises made to voters and city government. He increased the size of several buildings from 6 stories to over 20, halved the size of the park outside the stadium, and reduced by one-third the number of affordable housing units the deal called for. Plenty of expensive condominiums were built, however. Today, condo occupancy rates all over downtown are suffering as a result of too much building in East Village.

If the mayor’s pet projects were to go forward, and even if they were approved at the polls, what would be the odds that San Diegans would get what they’re promised? Frye does not blame developers for broken promises. They usually have the authority to break them. “Read the documents,” she says. “Read what it is you are voting on, and understand the consequences. And there’s a difference between an objective report and one done by the cheerleaders. Forget the boosterism and the peer pressure that says everybody has to vote for this. You don’t.”

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x76 Jan. 25, 2012 @ 12:42 p.m.

Donna Frye is one of the only politicians I respect. Remember when she WON the Mayoral race? Only to have it stolen due to some obscure technicality? That was San Diego at it's worst.


barryjantz Jan. 25, 2012 @ 3:46 p.m.

Technically, it was before 1989 (not 1990) that "candidates for city council were nominated in the districts they hoped to serve but elected by the entire city."

The first district-only elections were in 1989. In those days, the city council elections were held in odd numbered years.


monaghan Jan. 25, 2012 @ 9:09 p.m.

Nice interview by Joe Deegan with former City Councilmember Donna Frye.

Frye remains intelligent, thoughtful and principled. During her years in office, she took a lot of guff from people with half her qualifications at City Hall. Until we get Bob Filner for Mayor or return to a city manager form of government, Donna is better off paddling her longboard around the OB pier because this city has been sold to the highest bidder(s) by our termed-out "strong" Mayor Jerry Sanders.


SurfPuppy619 Feb. 7, 2012 @ 1:25 a.m.

5.She will always be "Mayor Frye" to me. == Uncrowned Mayor for sure.

Although I hated her idea of her raising the sales tax to pay the million dollar city pensions.....


Ponzi Jan. 26, 2012 @ 8:12 a.m.

Thank you for your service Donna Frye. You were the one politician that kept things real.


patflannery Jan. 26, 2012 @ 10:29 a.m.

Nice job Joe. Donna is a classy lady and we owe her a lot.

I wish somebody would hire her as a columnist or commission her to write a book.


dwbat Jan. 26, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m.

Frye represented the best of what we consider public service to be. Too many politicians are interested more in their own careers, and how much money they can make (legally or illegally) down the line. When she spoke up at Council meetings, you always knew she had something very worthwhile to offer. She is the "watchdog" that we need now at the Council, but no longer have.


Twister Jan. 26, 2012 @ 2:04 p.m.

Yeah, Donna stuck her lovely head into that nasty meatgrinder called San Diego politics, and never got the appreciation she deserved. She found that she couldn't kiss all the boys, and had to cut some things off that she found counterintuitive, but that's the price that has to be paid to maintain your sanity when you're in that business.

The tag-line from the old radio show, "Gunsmoke" said "It's a chancy job, and a little lonely . . ."

A LOT lonely, eh Donna?

In that business enemies look like friends and friends look like enemies--it's SO confusing . . . A well-crafted lie is still a lie, eh?

Me, I'm an anarchist in the original sense, and a fan of the Occupy Movement.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Jan. 27, 2012 @ 3:23 p.m.

I have to laugh when people sit in the comfort and safety of their American homes and type on their $1500 laptops, "I'm an anarchist."

No, you're not.

You think you want anarchy? Go to Mogadishu, Somalia. Go to Haiti. Anarchy reigns in those places. You won't like it.

Your comfort, your safety, your laptop are all made possible by the non-anarchy (read: order, rule of law) of the first world.


nan shartel Feb. 5, 2012 @ 12:46 p.m.

hey Joaquin_de_la_Mesa

Twister may be sleeping under a bridge and commenting from a computer at the public library 4 all u know

no ones like Anarchy but when any economy becomes so corrupt it's hidebound Anarchy often becomes the next step to create a new sanity

tear it all down and start over again is risky to be sure...but as we see from historical references Anarchy at it's best it provides ulitmate personal liberty, no corrupt government, no annoying political parties, no bureaucracy, no mindless patriotism/nationalism

If you want to understand what the word "anarchy" really means, I recommend reading either "Anarchy" by Errico Malatesta or "The ABCs of Anarchism" by Alexander Berkman. Both are good, very simply written introductions to anarchy as a political philosophy. Anarchy doesn't mean chaos and breaking things, it means collaboration and cooperation by individuals out of enlightened self-interest.

don't we all wish that the Congress didn't have such non collaborative and non cooperative bent

limited by party lines and personal self interest and aggrandizement thinking...

they need to learn about Anarchy!!!

u r only stating ur view of how Anarchy seems to u with ur limited knowledge of the subject Joaquin...not the true meat and bones of the Philosophy

wid ya on this one Twister!!


Twister Feb. 6, 2012 @ 2:49 p.m.

de la Mesa may or may not be misdirected, but he does have an ACTIVE MIND. Who knows what slings and arrows of outrageous fortune he has had to tolerate--or not.

But the substance of his complaint has validity. The news media (and OUCH! other writers) commonly label hooligans, etc. as "anarchists," and have trashed the original meaning of the term. Even when I took pains to stress that my anarchist-leaning personality was of the old-fashioned kind (the kind that fashioned [the] US out of outcasts from King George III's tyrannical grip on basic freedom), and, in the case of Haiti, from absolute slavery. The people of Haiti have had trouble with various forms of slavery ever since. Such is the stuff of history that I believe Sam Clemens referred to as "the goddamned human race." Eye-more-ronic!


Twister Feb. 5, 2012 @ 9:45 p.m.

Note that I said I was an anarchist in ORIGINAL sense. That's what Nan's talking about.

BTW, Somalia and Haiti, and the rest of the "Third World," (nauseating appellation) are in trouble largely because of so-called "First World" looting of their natural resources and abuse of the Earth. Haiti started as the result of a rebellion of African slaves, and they gained their independence only a few years after the USA was formed, also by rebellion against authoritarianism.

I talk about issues here, not personalities. I generally speak to the Forum, and I make no presumptions about members of the Forum; I consider all to be equal.


Alex_Finlayson Feb. 2, 2012 @ 9:14 a.m.

A few years ago, I wrote a story for the READER on my local branch library in North Clairemont. It was a love letter, really, and an expression of gratitude to the city and to my local librarians. However, when I contacted the Information Officer of the San Diego Library System-- the Information Officer!-- she had been forbidden to talk to me by the Mayor's Office. I called Donna Frye, my city councilwoman, for an interview, and within minutes, her Press Secretary had relayed my request and Donna called me back. Donna Frye's willingness to talk to me (as reporter AND taxpayer), to answer questions, and to reveal what she knew about library funding skullduggery forever sealed my admiration of her commitment to the city and her representation of its citizens.

Thank you, Joe Deegan, for reminding me that San Diego is capable of producing honest,qualified leadership.


InOmbra Feb. 3, 2012 @ 3:57 p.m.

Great interview, Joe. We have always admired your reportorial skill. Donna, thanks for your service and your diligence, and now for your observations and insights.

I would add one thing: we HAVE learned to read the contracts and understand the terms, but that hasn't protected us. It hasn't been unusual in the past 20 years to have our mayors and our city attorneys, among other things, conveniently "interpret" existing contract clauses to favor those who have the power, or to overlook noncompliance, or to introduce Muni Code changes to do end runs around inconvenient state laws.

The most recent manuever involves the Convention Center Financing District, Jan Goldsmith saying, "There is nothing wrong with testing the boundaries of the law if that is what the client wants to do." Really? Who pays for the test (the test being a "validation" lawsuit, which asks a Superior Court judge to give consent to testing the boundary of the law)? Who is the client? Goldsmith basically summarized by saying that if no one sues the City when it tests legal boundaries, then OK! That's the same as the saying, "if a bear...in the woods, and no one sees it, did it really ...?"

It is very, very discouraging. The less powerful people's only resort is almost always a lawsuit, an overwhelming burden.


nan shartel Feb. 5, 2012 @ 12:58 p.m.

oh and Donna was and is VERY kool eh!!!


nostalgic Feb. 6, 2012 @ 3:18 p.m.

Can Donna run for the city council again? After all, she's had a vacation from what has to be the world's worst job for someone like her. We need her BACK!


tomjohnston Feb. 6, 2012 @ 10:59 p.m.

You can check the city website to be sure, but I believe that even after reaching a term limit, someone can run again for the same office after someone else has served in it.


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