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Donna Frye muses on San Diego strong mayor and district elections

"Dick Murphy used to sit in closed session and tap his watch"

photo

“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.”

In the months after Frye joined the council in mid-2001, “I remember [Mayor] Dick Murphy used to sit in closed session and tap his watch and say, ‘Ms. Frye, take your concerns off-line. Everybody else understands this. You don’t understand it. You need to get up to speed. Don’t take up our valuable time.’ So I took him up on that, and I would meet with the city attorney and I would get every document, every piece of paper. And what I was being told in the council did not add up with what I was reading. At that point, in 2002, I certainly was not an expert. I had never read a bond-offering document, and let me tell you, I read and reread until I found things I did understand. In other words, you start with the things you do understand, and then you work out.

“You need to understand the job of the private sector,” Frye continues, “and its people and the attorneys who represent them. It’s to make a profit. You can’t get angry and become all shocked and surprised when they actually do what businesses do.”

And if you don’t want them to take advantage of you? “Look at the Padres, look at the Chargers,” she says. “They can run circles around us. So you have to do your research, you have to understand the consequences of your actions. And when you don’t think those things through and then it becomes shock and awe and you say, ‘Oh, my God, they’re doing X,’ ‘Uh, yeah, read the contract. You gave them the ability to do that. So why are you shocked?’ ‘Because that’s not what they said.’ Well, of course that’s not what they’re going to say. But read what’s in there.

“There’s an old lawyer joke that says, ‘You go ahead and write the contract, and I’ll sign the terms.’ That’s what would happen to us. So many times we were outmanned, outgunned, outsmarted. These guys get paid big bucks, and there’s a reason. They’re very good at what they do.”

∗ ∗ ∗

The Convention Center Facilities District proposed by Mayor Sanders was likely modeled on an existing organization, the city’s Tourism Marketing District, created in 2008. The latter is set to expire this year, but talks are under way to renew the district for 40 years, raising an expected billion dollars through the 2 percent assessment on hotel-room revenue. Unlike the 10.5 percent transient occupancy tax, about half of which goes into the general fund to pay for, among other things, road improvements and fire and police protection, the Tourism Marketing District’s assessment funds the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, long-term marketing, and selected tourism groups.

“So much money is being sequestered,” says Frye, “that the real question is: shouldn’t the public be able to weigh in in advance? And I mean weigh in by voting. [That this hasn’t happened] is why so often these large-scale-type projects take so long. The people who want to push them forward really don’t want the public voting on how the money is spent. And the reason they don’t is because they don’t want to do the work to potentially lose. So they try and figure out a number of ways to get around a real public process. That’s standard here in San Diego, and then they wonder why the projects take so long. They should do it right to begin with and go out and say, ‘This is why this is a great project and this is why that money would be better spent for hotel interests and Charger interests and convention center interests than your community interests — and because it’s good for you.’

“But does the public think the best thing is to have these hotel taxes be controlled by an unelected board of hoteliers and used primarily for hotel-type projects that will support the tourism industry? Do they think that’s the best use of that money? And that discussion has never taken place. The average person has no clue that this money has been essentially given away. It isn’t the hotel folks making contributions. They can call the money [assessments or] whatever they want, but it is tax dollars, paid for by the tourists, that have been locked up for 40 years, if this thing stands. That will make it impossible to ever raise the transient occupancy tax.”

∗ ∗ ∗

It was Mayor Sanders’s use of strong mayor powers that in April of last year collapsed the City’s planning arm into the Development Services Department. The move cut the number of planners and money spent on planning by more than 80 percent. “I don’t think most people realize,” Frye says, “that the City’s Planning Department has been decimated by the current administration. That to me is an appalling legacy to leave, that one of the things you did was to decimate the Planning Department.” Planning is about “a long- rather than short-term vision,” Frye says, “and not simply looking at permits and zoning and approving what the administration wants. Planning is a guard at the gate to make sure the city develops in a way consistent with all the planning that has gone into community as well as general plans.” The job of planners, according to Frye, is to create communities rather than simply to assist developers get what they want.

During her mayoral campaigns, says Frye, “I wanted, but did not have the time, to caution people about the strong mayor form of government. I call it the neutering of the city council. Previously, if we voted on something and the city manager didn’t do what he or she was supposed to do, we had some power. We could remove that person. Now, if we say we want money allocated or we want this done or that done and the mayor doesn’t do it, we don’t have any real authority to penalize. We do have the budget, and there are ways to bring people into compliance by withholding funds, but most councilmembers don’t have the stomach to take on the mayor. So it was frustrating for me as a city councilmember to watch votes taken by the council appropriately, legally, and watch the mayor refuse to carry them out.”

Then, says Frye, there was “the amount of money that the mayor wants to be able to move around as he sees fit after the budget has been approved. I fought that for over a year and thought that the council would stand up with me, and they did not. They essentially gave away a great deal of their own authority to determine how funding is spent. An example that happened very quickly was the mandatory recycling ordinance, especially its construction and demolition aspects. I had worked on that for many years, the council had finally approved it, and we were going to set up different types of recycling at [the Miramar Landfill]. But the mayor came in and said we’re not doing that. We did eventually get it done. Thankfully, there was a committee I was chairing, so I had the ability to docket things. The mayor’s people said they were not ready, but we had already voted to do it. Then they weren’t going to allow any of their staff to show up at the committee to give us information. So I issued the first summons from the council to the mayor in San Diego’s history. Our city charter, under the strong mayor, allows a councilmember to issue a summons to compel a member of the mayor’s staff to show up. There was a big fight over it, but long story short, they showed up.

“I also finally got money put into the budget for emergency homeless shelters so we could finally fund things in advance and not wait until the last minute and go through the crisis management we usually go through every year. It was the only item in the budget that the mayor vetoed.”

Frye believes the strong mayor provision was “very poorly written, because it was done by the seat of people’s pants. There was no thoughtful discussion in advance,” she says. “The City sometimes wants to jump into something that’s going to have very serious repercussions. When you rush things through like that, you don’t have the ability to think about what the consequences of your actions are going to be. And that’s why there are so many bad decisions made. It’s so San Diego.”

Because the mayor is no longer a member of the legislative branch, he does not have to follow the “collective concurrence” provision of the Brown Act, a state law passed in 1953 to prevent city and county legislators from deciding public issues in private, before they’re discussed in an open forum prior to voting. “The Brown Act is one of my favorite pieces of legislation ever,” says Frye. “But often, the council meetings were what I used to call ‘the show.’ What the mayor’s office does is send their staff down to the tenth floor prior to meetings, walk the floor, and get their five-vote majority. Then they docket the measure. That’s how the game’s done. The mayor does not have the restriction that I would have as a councilmember. There are things that do not go on that docket until they know they’ve got their five votes. They also pull things from the docket at a moment’s notice, and I can only speculate that something happens, and they realize they don’t yet have the votes. It’s all legal, but it flies in the face of open government.

“But once in a while,” says Frye, “democracy would spring forth, and there would be a raucous, wonderful discussion.”

A recent new threat to open government has been councilmembers’ use of electronic devices during council meetings. Through texting, emailing, or cell phone conversations, another set of meetings can be going on outside the reach of public ears. “It might be both sides of an issue trying to communicate with either members of the city staff or with other councilmembers,” says Frye. “You could be present at a meeting and not know it was going on. It’s very easy for someone to text the question they want the councilmember to ask. Or, ‘This is how the motion should read.’ When councilmembers are meeting, they should be tuned in to the particular item being discussed. And to have these communications taking place in plain view, yet no member of the public is seeing them, that is a concern. There are now many ways to get around compliance [with open government]. It seems to me that at a public meeting, the only thing you should be listening to is what the public is hearing. The city council is not a [venue] for shadow meetings within the real meeting.”

The Comprehensive Pension Reform plan is another development that has gained steam since Frye left office. It will go on the ballot in June. Frye approves of much of it, thinking the cap on pensionable pay is reasonable. She also supports the measure’s attempt to shift more risk in the pension system from the public to employees, though she’s not convinced that 401(k) plans will work in the long run. “People believe that if you just push employees over into a 401(k), we taxpayers are saved. No, we’re not, because for one thing, there will be new costs of making the transition from what we have now. And there may be litigation.” She worries about “the public getting saved again, as was done by [Mayor Pete] Wilson in removing city workers from Social Security, then by the tricks of Golding, Murphy, and now Sanders. I’m not sure we can take much more of being saved.”

But many working-class folk like the new idea. To Frye’s mind, “What’s happening is working-class people are being turned against working-class people. Lucky me,” she says, referring to a mailer from Carl DeMaio that highlights the high pensions of some city workers. “The majority of the large pensions that are used as examples by the reform people — pensions that are as much as $200,000 — are not the pensions of rank-and-file union members. They are management pensions, and management personnel are not under union contract. So, I don’t understand why those pensions haven’t already been changed.”

∗ ∗ ∗

What has Frye taken away from her sojourn in the public arena? “Don’t take things personally. It’s politics,” she says. But watching her cast solitary “no” votes so many times made one wonder how she took it. “There were times when I would come home at night and just feel so isolated. I’d start questioning myself and say, ‘Why did I do that?’” She learned, though, that “you have to be able to trust yourself enough when that voice comes, or that instinct or that contraction in your stomach; you can say, ‘Wait a minute, something isn’t right here.’ And that you’ll have the fortitude to take a position.

“And when I was first elected, one of the things I really decided was to not become what you’re fighting against.” The struggle was largely against cronyism. “And Democrats are just as prone to fall into bad behavior as their opponents,” says Frye, who tells me that the most significant friendships she made during her time in politics was with husband and wife Pat Shea and Diann Shipione. Shea was one of Frye’s Republican opponents in the 2005 mayoral race, won by Jerry Sanders. In 2002, Shipione, a member of the retirement board, blew the whistle on the negative cash flow taking place in the pension system. “Diann came into the city council that November and made some of the most difficult statements about what she believed was happening, all the while being treated like a fool. I so admire her and so respect her.”

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Tom Morey – the Boogie Board's early years

"I don't think it's just a fad"

photo

“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.”

In the months after Frye joined the council in mid-2001, “I remember [Mayor] Dick Murphy used to sit in closed session and tap his watch and say, ‘Ms. Frye, take your concerns off-line. Everybody else understands this. You don’t understand it. You need to get up to speed. Don’t take up our valuable time.’ So I took him up on that, and I would meet with the city attorney and I would get every document, every piece of paper. And what I was being told in the council did not add up with what I was reading. At that point, in 2002, I certainly was not an expert. I had never read a bond-offering document, and let me tell you, I read and reread until I found things I did understand. In other words, you start with the things you do understand, and then you work out.

“You need to understand the job of the private sector,” Frye continues, “and its people and the attorneys who represent them. It’s to make a profit. You can’t get angry and become all shocked and surprised when they actually do what businesses do.”

And if you don’t want them to take advantage of you? “Look at the Padres, look at the Chargers,” she says. “They can run circles around us. So you have to do your research, you have to understand the consequences of your actions. And when you don’t think those things through and then it becomes shock and awe and you say, ‘Oh, my God, they’re doing X,’ ‘Uh, yeah, read the contract. You gave them the ability to do that. So why are you shocked?’ ‘Because that’s not what they said.’ Well, of course that’s not what they’re going to say. But read what’s in there.

“There’s an old lawyer joke that says, ‘You go ahead and write the contract, and I’ll sign the terms.’ That’s what would happen to us. So many times we were outmanned, outgunned, outsmarted. These guys get paid big bucks, and there’s a reason. They’re very good at what they do.”

∗ ∗ ∗

The Convention Center Facilities District proposed by Mayor Sanders was likely modeled on an existing organization, the city’s Tourism Marketing District, created in 2008. The latter is set to expire this year, but talks are under way to renew the district for 40 years, raising an expected billion dollars through the 2 percent assessment on hotel-room revenue. Unlike the 10.5 percent transient occupancy tax, about half of which goes into the general fund to pay for, among other things, road improvements and fire and police protection, the Tourism Marketing District’s assessment funds the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, long-term marketing, and selected tourism groups.

“So much money is being sequestered,” says Frye, “that the real question is: shouldn’t the public be able to weigh in in advance? And I mean weigh in by voting. [That this hasn’t happened] is why so often these large-scale-type projects take so long. The people who want to push them forward really don’t want the public voting on how the money is spent. And the reason they don’t is because they don’t want to do the work to potentially lose. So they try and figure out a number of ways to get around a real public process. That’s standard here in San Diego, and then they wonder why the projects take so long. They should do it right to begin with and go out and say, ‘This is why this is a great project and this is why that money would be better spent for hotel interests and Charger interests and convention center interests than your community interests — and because it’s good for you.’

“But does the public think the best thing is to have these hotel taxes be controlled by an unelected board of hoteliers and used primarily for hotel-type projects that will support the tourism industry? Do they think that’s the best use of that money? And that discussion has never taken place. The average person has no clue that this money has been essentially given away. It isn’t the hotel folks making contributions. They can call the money [assessments or] whatever they want, but it is tax dollars, paid for by the tourists, that have been locked up for 40 years, if this thing stands. That will make it impossible to ever raise the transient occupancy tax.”

∗ ∗ ∗

It was Mayor Sanders’s use of strong mayor powers that in April of last year collapsed the City’s planning arm into the Development Services Department. The move cut the number of planners and money spent on planning by more than 80 percent. “I don’t think most people realize,” Frye says, “that the City’s Planning Department has been decimated by the current administration. That to me is an appalling legacy to leave, that one of the things you did was to decimate the Planning Department.” Planning is about “a long- rather than short-term vision,” Frye says, “and not simply looking at permits and zoning and approving what the administration wants. Planning is a guard at the gate to make sure the city develops in a way consistent with all the planning that has gone into community as well as general plans.” The job of planners, according to Frye, is to create communities rather than simply to assist developers get what they want.

During her mayoral campaigns, says Frye, “I wanted, but did not have the time, to caution people about the strong mayor form of government. I call it the neutering of the city council. Previously, if we voted on something and the city manager didn’t do what he or she was supposed to do, we had some power. We could remove that person. Now, if we say we want money allocated or we want this done or that done and the mayor doesn’t do it, we don’t have any real authority to penalize. We do have the budget, and there are ways to bring people into compliance by withholding funds, but most councilmembers don’t have the stomach to take on the mayor. So it was frustrating for me as a city councilmember to watch votes taken by the council appropriately, legally, and watch the mayor refuse to carry them out.”

Then, says Frye, there was “the amount of money that the mayor wants to be able to move around as he sees fit after the budget has been approved. I fought that for over a year and thought that the council would stand up with me, and they did not. They essentially gave away a great deal of their own authority to determine how funding is spent. An example that happened very quickly was the mandatory recycling ordinance, especially its construction and demolition aspects. I had worked on that for many years, the council had finally approved it, and we were going to set up different types of recycling at [the Miramar Landfill]. But the mayor came in and said we’re not doing that. We did eventually get it done. Thankfully, there was a committee I was chairing, so I had the ability to docket things. The mayor’s people said they were not ready, but we had already voted to do it. Then they weren’t going to allow any of their staff to show up at the committee to give us information. So I issued the first summons from the council to the mayor in San Diego’s history. Our city charter, under the strong mayor, allows a councilmember to issue a summons to compel a member of the mayor’s staff to show up. There was a big fight over it, but long story short, they showed up.

“I also finally got money put into the budget for emergency homeless shelters so we could finally fund things in advance and not wait until the last minute and go through the crisis management we usually go through every year. It was the only item in the budget that the mayor vetoed.”

Frye believes the strong mayor provision was “very poorly written, because it was done by the seat of people’s pants. There was no thoughtful discussion in advance,” she says. “The City sometimes wants to jump into something that’s going to have very serious repercussions. When you rush things through like that, you don’t have the ability to think about what the consequences of your actions are going to be. And that’s why there are so many bad decisions made. It’s so San Diego.”

Because the mayor is no longer a member of the legislative branch, he does not have to follow the “collective concurrence” provision of the Brown Act, a state law passed in 1953 to prevent city and county legislators from deciding public issues in private, before they’re discussed in an open forum prior to voting. “The Brown Act is one of my favorite pieces of legislation ever,” says Frye. “But often, the council meetings were what I used to call ‘the show.’ What the mayor’s office does is send their staff down to the tenth floor prior to meetings, walk the floor, and get their five-vote majority. Then they docket the measure. That’s how the game’s done. The mayor does not have the restriction that I would have as a councilmember. There are things that do not go on that docket until they know they’ve got their five votes. They also pull things from the docket at a moment’s notice, and I can only speculate that something happens, and they realize they don’t yet have the votes. It’s all legal, but it flies in the face of open government.

“But once in a while,” says Frye, “democracy would spring forth, and there would be a raucous, wonderful discussion.”

A recent new threat to open government has been councilmembers’ use of electronic devices during council meetings. Through texting, emailing, or cell phone conversations, another set of meetings can be going on outside the reach of public ears. “It might be both sides of an issue trying to communicate with either members of the city staff or with other councilmembers,” says Frye. “You could be present at a meeting and not know it was going on. It’s very easy for someone to text the question they want the councilmember to ask. Or, ‘This is how the motion should read.’ When councilmembers are meeting, they should be tuned in to the particular item being discussed. And to have these communications taking place in plain view, yet no member of the public is seeing them, that is a concern. There are now many ways to get around compliance [with open government]. It seems to me that at a public meeting, the only thing you should be listening to is what the public is hearing. The city council is not a [venue] for shadow meetings within the real meeting.”

The Comprehensive Pension Reform plan is another development that has gained steam since Frye left office. It will go on the ballot in June. Frye approves of much of it, thinking the cap on pensionable pay is reasonable. She also supports the measure’s attempt to shift more risk in the pension system from the public to employees, though she’s not convinced that 401(k) plans will work in the long run. “People believe that if you just push employees over into a 401(k), we taxpayers are saved. No, we’re not, because for one thing, there will be new costs of making the transition from what we have now. And there may be litigation.” She worries about “the public getting saved again, as was done by [Mayor Pete] Wilson in removing city workers from Social Security, then by the tricks of Golding, Murphy, and now Sanders. I’m not sure we can take much more of being saved.”

But many working-class folk like the new idea. To Frye’s mind, “What’s happening is working-class people are being turned against working-class people. Lucky me,” she says, referring to a mailer from Carl DeMaio that highlights the high pensions of some city workers. “The majority of the large pensions that are used as examples by the reform people — pensions that are as much as $200,000 — are not the pensions of rank-and-file union members. They are management pensions, and management personnel are not under union contract. So, I don’t understand why those pensions haven’t already been changed.”

∗ ∗ ∗

What has Frye taken away from her sojourn in the public arena? “Don’t take things personally. It’s politics,” she says. But watching her cast solitary “no” votes so many times made one wonder how she took it. “There were times when I would come home at night and just feel so isolated. I’d start questioning myself and say, ‘Why did I do that?’” She learned, though, that “you have to be able to trust yourself enough when that voice comes, or that instinct or that contraction in your stomach; you can say, ‘Wait a minute, something isn’t right here.’ And that you’ll have the fortitude to take a position.

“And when I was first elected, one of the things I really decided was to not become what you’re fighting against.” The struggle was largely against cronyism. “And Democrats are just as prone to fall into bad behavior as their opponents,” says Frye, who tells me that the most significant friendships she made during her time in politics was with husband and wife Pat Shea and Diann Shipione. Shea was one of Frye’s Republican opponents in the 2005 mayoral race, won by Jerry Sanders. In 2002, Shipione, a member of the retirement board, blew the whistle on the negative cash flow taking place in the pension system. “Diann came into the city council that November and made some of the most difficult statements about what she believed was happening, all the while being treated like a fool. I so admire her and so respect her.”

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18

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.

Jan. 25, 2012

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.

Jan. 25, 2012

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.

Jan. 25, 2012

She will always be "Mayor Frye" to me.

Jan. 26, 2012

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.....

Feb. 7, 2012

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

Jan. 26, 2012

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.

Jan. 26, 2012

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.

Jan. 26, 2012

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.

Jan. 26, 2012

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.

Jan. 27, 2012

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!!

Feb. 5, 2012

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!

Feb. 6, 2012

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.

Feb. 5, 2012

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.

Feb. 2, 2012

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.

Feb. 3, 2012

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

Feb. 5, 2012

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!

Feb. 6, 2012

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.

Feb. 6, 2012

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