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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.”

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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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