“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.”
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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.”
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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.”