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On the Roundtable: The ruling on the pension board; the Chargers' miseries; and public reaction to the Navy Pier proposal.

December 2, 2011 1:35 p.m.

Guests: Graig Gustafson, reporter, San Diego union Tribune

Jay Paris, sports columnist, North County Times

Kelly Bennett, arts reporter, VoiceofSanDiego.org

Related Story: Roundtable: Pension Board, Chargers Miseries, Clipped Wings

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Friday, December 2nd. We'll be taking your calls on today's Roundtable topics. Our number is 1-888-895-5727.

I'd like to welcome today's guests. Graig Gustafson is reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune. Welcome to the show.

GUSTAFSON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Jay Paris sports columnist with the New York Times. Hello.

PARIS: Bonjour. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Kelly Bennett reports on the arts for VoiceofSanDiego.org.

BENNETT: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join this conversation. Our number, 1-888-895-5727. The legal dictionary defines the term indemnify as a guarantee against a loss which another may suffer. But that guarantee does not extend to millions in legal fees, according to one San Diego judge. Of the ruling stems from another legal proceeding connected with San Diego's underfunded city pension. So Graig, give us a background. Where did this promise to indemnify come from?

GUSTAFSON: To me, this strikes to the heart of how screwed up San Diego City hall was ten years ago. And just to give people a little history, what happened in 2002 is the city at this point to make a huge pension payment, so they asked the pension board to allow them to pay less. And in exchange, they would increase pension benefits. Now, the pension board members to their credit at the time said, well, if we do that, we'd like to have you pass a resolution indemnifying us because if this blows up in our face, we want to be covered. So the City Council did approve that resolution, and fast forward, these folks were charged both in federal and state court, some of them, different ones in different cases. And now this ruling this week was the judge said, no. The city does not have to pay the 5.5 million in legal fees that have built up for these criminal cases against these officials.

CAVANAUGH: I want to step back. The City Council offered the guarantee to these former pension board members. Would the members have agreed to the deal if they thought he'd be on the hook legally?

GUSTAFSON: I don't think so. That's why they requested this.

CAVANAUGH: So once the pension under funding was out in the open, all of this hit the fan. Those board members did find themselves in legal trouble. What kind of trouble?

GUSTAFSON: There were various investigations. The city hired outside firms to investigate on their own. And the city attorney refused to represent some of these city and pension officials. They had to get their own attorneys and then sent those bills to the city. You also had the SEC investigating, federal and state prosecutors filing charges against certain officials, which is what we're talking about here.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

GUSTAFSON: So there was myriad opportunities for them to wrack up legal fees.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How were the charges resolved?

GUSTAFSON: The state Supreme Court threw out the charges against five of the officials and they said that the former head of the firefighters' union, the charge could proceed against him. But the Bonnie Dumanis decided not to proceed with that case. She said that filing the charges and going through this whole process brought a lot of this to light, and it wasn't worth it to move forward with just one individual.

CAVANAUGH: In your article, in the UT, about this, and the judge's decision, you actually tell us how much each of the former pension board members wracked up in legal fees to defend themselves from criminal charges.

GUSTAFSON: The six of them combined was $5.5 million.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm wondering, could this be looked at as a simple issue of fairness? I'd like to get Kelly and Jay maybe to weigh in a little bit. If the pension board was supposed to guarantee no financial harm, was to be guaranteed against financial harm, and they were harmed financially, where does this -- does it seem fair to you that they are not getting their legal fees paid for by the city?

BENNETT: Well, I'm not a judge, but I do think it's interesting that the board passed this special or asked to have passed this special resolution to protect them even though there are some protections for them anyway as just a regular board member. There's some signal that this deal looks good, but it also has this really sort of scary cloud on the horizon, which maybe should have prompted somebody to say sooner this deal really all okay if we have to go to the City Council and say, hey, can you just make sure that we don't get sued or wind up in court, charged criminally for this later on?

GUSTAFSON: And I think that's what kind of -- some people, they look at that situation and say, well, if they were doing what they should have been doing, why would they have needed to ask for that special indemnity? So I think that -- when you're talking about fairness, I think some people who are upset about the pension scandal and how it's affected taxpayers would say they got what they deserved.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people just basically say, look, this whole thing was a big mistake, and anybody involved in it gets what they deserve. But even so, didn't some City Council members come under legal scrutiny? And weren't their legal bills taken care of by the city?

GUSTAFSON: Yes. They had their bills covered. But you have to remember, what we're talking about here in these legal fees dealt with criminal charges. Now, everybody who had civil stuff, where the SEC was investigating or when the city hired outside firms to do investigations, all those bills were covered by the city. People hired outside lawyers because the city attorney wouldn't represent them. They had their fees covered, and that total -- it's huge. So the city has paid a lot of legal bills. And we're talking about criminal charges. And we can get into why the judge decided that.

CAVANAUGH: Is that what the city argued in saying they wouldn't pay these legal fees? These were criminal charges?

GUSTAFSON: Yes. What the judge ended up saying was that the city in 2002 passed this resolution. Three years later, these folks were charged with criminal charges. What the judge said was under state law, the city has an opportunity to choose to pay for criminal defense on a case by case basis. The city officials never got a chance to determine based on the charms that were filed -- charges that were filed whether or not to pay for these people's legal fees.

CAVANAUGH: And therefore it could just go on and on into absurdity.

GUSTAFSON: So the judge was saying what if somebody ripped off the city for $200,000 but the City Council indemnified them three years before? You and get away with anything? No, the city should be able to decide on a case by case basis whether the taxpayers should have to pay their legal defense.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So what was part of what the judge ruled this week. But just a few years ago, the city got a chance to rescind that indemnity, right? With these pension board members. Former city attorney Mike Aguirre asked the City Council, hey, take away this guarantee for these pension board members because they're wracking up some big legal fees.

GUSTAFSON: And he did that because he believed at the time that that indemnity resolution did cover criminal defense. And obviously the judge felt differently. But Mike did try to do that several years ago, and the City Council -- there wasn't enough votes to do it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the judge said a contrary ruling could lead to absurd results. What did he mean?

GUSTAFSON: What I said before. If you give somebody a blanket indemnification, then they can do whatever they want. In their role as whatever position they have with the city, they could get away with anything. They could steal from the city. So you could get to an absurd situation where somebody steals $200,000, and there have been parks employees who have been convicted of stealing $100,000 from the city, then the city would not only -- but they have to pay your criminal defense? That's absurd.

CAVANAUGH: But these people from my understanding, these former pension board members were put up on criminal charges for the very thing that they were indemnified against. It stemmed from the underfunded pension, right?

GUSTAFSON: Well, it stemmed -- they were charged because for conflict of interest because they benefited from the decision to increase benefits and under fund the pension system. They personally benefited am that was the argument from prosecutors.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

GUSTAFSON: And obviously the charges were dropped so nobody has been convicted of anything.

BENNETT: And if you have these kinds of boards set up within your city to decide things, like policies on how we're going to pay pensions, you have to have some assurance that the people who are operation in those positions have some obligation or fiduciary duty or some kind of connection to the right thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

BENNETT: The judge's mention of bad faith, I think was really interesting there. If you just say hey, can you cover me for everything that could come out of this decision that I'm about to make, there's likely something in that decision you're about to make that is -- quasi legal, perhaps.

GUSTAFSON: And we also have to hook at the fact that the city pays millions and millions of dollars for people who did not have resolutions for indemnity. They covered those legal fees. So this is a unique situation because of the criminal charges am.

CAVANAUGH: I want to throw this out and see what you think about this. This could be seen as the city arguing against a guarantee that it made to the pension board members. And at the same time, there are some city leaders who seem to blame the pension problem on city workers. So can this be seen as the City of San Diego trying to absolve itself of all responsibility of this pension debacle? It's like it's not me, we didn't really guarantee you indemnity. We didn't really guarantee you more benefits. It's you guys. It's your problem. What do you think?

GUSTAFSON: Well, that's -- I mean -- I don't view it that way. I think the city was in this case facing to pay $5.5 million, and they fought it because they dibble the taxpayers had to pay that. The city has paid ten fold for the pension scandal, and they're still paying for it. The taxpayers are paying for it today with the budget and the pension payment continuing to increase. So I guess I don't view it that way.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Jay, will we ever hear the end of this bad decision by city leaders to under fund the pension? It just seems to come back like a bad penny.

PARIS: What strikes me is did anybody raise a red flag at the time when they tried to first do this or did anybody have any vision? It seems like we're going to cover ourselves so what are you trying to cover yourself from down the road here? I'm just -- when this first went up was there any hundred cry?

GUSTAFSON: Well, absolutely. Diane chippion who was a board member at the time was raising the red flag. And I think -- I wasn't here at the city covering it at the time, but I know the history. And chippion was telling people, don't do this. And they did it anyway. So perhaps that's why they wanted an indemnity.

CAVANAUGH: Is this like a hall mark, Kelly of San Diego now? As I say, like this bad penny that we're going to hear about again and again? Or do you see it fading away?

BENNETT: The obligation to figure out what mess there still is and what conditions in the years in that case going forward, I don't think at all is fading. This is a huge, huge, huge deal in the City of San Diego. And it just doesn't -- you can't look at any other issue in the city, from the budget, you know, any kind of line item in the budget without talking about the pension, which is really frustrating.

GUSTAFSON: I think you'll see this fade away in about 50 years when the last person retires who benefited from the deals of 2002.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Now, judge Dado called this a tentative ruling. What comes next?

GUSTAFSON: It's a tentative ruling. Tentative rulings generally are eventually made a final ruling. But he's given the plaintiffs the expension board members a chance to argue why he is potentially wrong and that they should have thirds requirement fees paid, and they'll be hearing in January.

CAVANAUGH: So we'll be talking about this again.

GUSTAFSON: Maybe.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, thank you all for a very good discussion on this.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Graig Gustafson, who is with the San Diego Union Tribune, Jay pairs, sports columnist with the New York Times, and Kelly Bennett, arts reporter with VoiceofSanDiego.org. The only thing about the San Diego Chargers that's red hot right now is speculation on who will replace coach Norv Turner. Chargers fans have watched the season get worse and worse, and now many are at the boiling point. If you've got an opinion about the Chargers' season, call us at 1-888-895-5727. Jay pairs, to start with, give us a round-up of how bad this season has been.

PARIS: Well, to get a sense of it, the opening kickoff of the season to the other team was returned for a touchdown. Okay? So it's kind of been downhill since. When you look at this season at 4 and 7, it's been a disappointment to Chargers fans. You have to look back more. And this has been a gradual erosion of this team, this brand, this organization, 13 and 15 over the last 28 games probably won't make the playoffs this year at two straight years without a playoff. One playoff win in four years. Those are some stunning numbers considering the talent they thought they had here. When that happens in this business, it's wins and losses, it's who's going to go. In my business, I hope Norv Turner stays and AJ Smith stays because they are golden. We can write about these guys all day. You're always routing for the story, and there's certainly much to write about down there.

CAVANAUGH: Just to round out some of the statistics, do the Chargers have a six game losing streak?

PARIS: A six game losing streak, longest one in ten years. Riding the caboose in the NFC west, three games behind with five to play. If you believe in a holiday miracle, maybe they can right the ship. But they've got a long way to go, a lot of teams to climb over, and it's just not clicking. And I've been covering them since 92, and followed them before that, and through their worst year, the Ryan leaf years, I don't think I've ever heard or felt the disconnect from the fans and the team. There's winning and losing, but a lot of times, they're losing but they're still our guys and we're going to pull out of this. Now there seems to be this adversarial relationship between the fans and the press, and the 41s office. And everybody butting heads.

CAVANAUGH: Is it the coaching or the playing or both or what?

PARIS: Add it all up. It's a little bit of everything, but at the top is your roster. You're only as good as -- if you got good ponies, they can pull the cart. If they don't, you're in trouble. And the draft decisions of Mr. Smith, AJ Smith, have conditional been poor. And that's how he constructs his rosters through the draft. A lot of guys do the draft and free agency. He's not a free agency guy. If his drafts continually fall off the table, it catches up with you. And that's really what's happened here. The last 3 or 4 have been subpar. And it's -- you got to have those ponies to pull that cart. And the Chargers simple -- their talent level simply doesn't match up. You take that a step farther and with the coaching and Norv Turner. When he was hired five years ago, it was extremely unpopular. He was a 2-time failure in Oakland and Washington. And while bright, his offensive mind is rarely questioned, people were up in arms to let Marty Schottenheimer go, while the disappointment there, they lost the playoffs. They were 14 and 2. And maybe if you would have brought in somebody who was dynamic and a proven winner, maybe everybody would have gotten on board. So right off the bat, Norv was swimming upstream, really. And when the losses continued, whatever little equity he had, it went away fast.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your call, talking about the Chargers at 1-888-895-5727. Tom is on the line from San Diego. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: My comment was the fact that AJ has really not done much. All the -- before was done by John butler, in fact, if you remember, he brought Drew Brees in and Tomlinson and traded down Michael Vick went to Atlanta. And we got Brees and Tomlinson. That's when everything started. So AJ really hadn't done that much. So if AJ goes, Norv goes, both of them need to go.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. So everybody's on the same page, AJ Smith is the Chargers' general manager, and you have a column about him today, Jay, in which you kind of share this caller's sentiments.

PARIS: The drum beat is certainly loud for letting Mr. Turner go, Norv Turner. But I don't know why you would keep the guy who hired him, as Tom the caller pointed out. AJ Smith had a great trade with Philip rivers and Eli manning, but his signature hire was Norv Turner and bring him in. And this didn't work. If you let go of Norv, the pool of candidates to replace him would be so much smaller if you kept AJ because of his persona, his arrogance, his gruffness. That's known in legal circles and he's known as a tough guy to work for, you know? And I'm not sure why you would get rid of the coach and have the guy that messed up that hiring last time get one more swim at it, unless you truly believed in it. I think they'd be better served having both the guys leave, well compensated. Let's not cry any crocodile tears here, and start fresh. Because dean Spanos, the Spanos family is going to have to sell this team very hard next year to either downtown San Diego -- and that's why it's almost a sports story, it's a business story, and it's a political story. They need to get the political chips in order to try to build that stadium with taxpayer assist apse. How do you go to those taxpayers and say we're going to give Norv and AJ Smith, who I call the lord of no rings because he acts so regal and he hasn't done anything, we're going to run these guys out there again, and can we have your taxpayer money and keep having tickets and can you buy the jerseys? Or he's going to have to sell that organization to Los Angeles. And if you go up to LA, and Mr. Smith tries this arrogant act up there, you got the Lakers the dodgers the U, FC, that won't fly up there. Mr. Spanos almost replaced Chargers fans with Chargers customers. What are you selling your customers? This brand has grown steal. It isn't successful, and it's so toxic that the fans are mad, Smith and Mr. Spanos, they're under rocks, they won't come out, won't talk to the media. There's not a lot of really leadership being shown here. And I know if an owner comes out, or a general manager comes out, he's going to say something, it probably won't translate into a win next Sunday, but at least the fans know that, sure, they're in it like I am. They're just as frustrated as I am. Just to hear that voice, it's easy to be a leader when the confetti has been shot out of the cannon after a big win. But where are these guys during the six game losing streak?

CAVANAUGH: Kelly, the San Diego Chargers, in fact San Diego sports fans get a rap like that too because they're kind of described as fair weather fans. If the teams are winning, they love the team, if they have a bad season, they don't show up and they don't care.

BENNETT: Well, it's a fair weather city. There's a lot of other stuff to do if your team is losing. There's that argument that extends all the way across all sorts of things in San Diego. The arts people that I talk to all the time complain that they're competing not just with other theatres or other music groups in town, but they're also competing with the sunshine. And so there is something about being a fair weather fan that comes with living in a fair weather city. And I wonder if -- it does sound like the extrapolation that this just isn't about the sports, it's about politics and business, ooze the team tries to figure out what happens next, I do think it'll be interesting to see how that hits the general population that at the moment isn't exactly thrilled about how the team is doing.

CAVANAUGH: Right. As far as I can see, there is not necessarily an overwhelming ground-swell at this moment for a Chargers downtown stadium. So how important do you think it is whether or not the Chargers bring us a winning team or a losing team when we go to the poles next November?

GUSTAFSON: Well, I think you need to remember when the Padres were pushing for Petco Park, they went to the world series, and then there was a public vote shortly thereafter. It wasn't a binding vote, but it let -- the public was in favor of a new stadium. I think it is important that the Chargers -- if they're winning, everybody -- it's like a free PR campaign, you know? For our stadium. And I think it's important for them to win if they want to get a stadium done. Now, having said that, the political hurdles to getting a stadium downtown are there. I talked with mayor Jerry Sanders yesterday, and it's one of the things he wants to do before he leaves office is to get a public vote on the stadium and he told me yesterday he plans to release a financing plan for the stadium in the first 3 months of next year, and start gaging public reaction to that, and hopefully getting it on the ballot in November.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Dan is calling us from San Diego. Hi, Dan. Are you with us? All right, we'll talk Thomas in the east county. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. The comment I'd like to make about the Chargers is that they've made all these promises, and they just don't come true. Then they expect the people to come up with tax money to buy them a new stadium, I just don't think that's fair. If they want to produce, fine. But if they don't want to produce, then send them north. Send them to LA.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thomas, thank you for that comment. Where is dean Spanos with all this misery going on?

PARIS: Well, yesterday, he was at a Rick Perry fund Raiders in Sacramento. He's a member of the 4-person financial leadership team for Mr. Perry and his run for presidency, which is another great line for me and fun to talk about because all Rick Perry is talking about is limiting government is less government. So he's backing that guy, and then next year he wants to go ask the city governments to build a stadium. It seems to me he's talking out both sides his mouth there. Dean is around, but dean is not really -- he's not a guy looking for that red light on the camera even in the best of times. But what I'm surprised that he's allowed this to happen. Who's the boss here? Why can't the general manager get along with -- this isn't Philly or New York. Most of the media guys are regular guys. You at least get along with them or be available. Why does he treat explayers -- there's a toxic aroma in that locker room. He hardballs his best players. Last year, he kept Marcus McNeil, and Vincent Jackson out, he's mocked Ladainian Tomlinson. And Spanos on could say, knock this off. And the last caller, we were sold when they let go of Marty Schottenheimer, this was the guy to take us over the hump. Instead they have been sliding back down the hill on the other side. And I think it's true of San Diego sports fans in general, they are a patient bunch. And I commend them. Let's look at the Padre situation, they did vote that through, $400 million, because that would let them complete at the highest levels. Their payroll now is half what it was at Qualcomm stadium. You've got this beautiful ballpark, and a team that's minor league quality. Let's face it. There's one reason they ought to be mad. Now they got their Chargers over here who keep promising super bowl this year, and look who we have, and now we got the right coach, and they fall flat on their face.

CAVANAUGH: So your concept is that they're a lot more loyal than they're giving credit for.

PARIS: I think so, and I commend them for raising a ruckus. Dean Spanos was booed at the Junior Seau ceremony, whenever you're a team owner and you're booed in your own stadium, you better wake up. It's a big business, and they're making a lot of money, but they can make more, and it seems like that loyalty is still there, but the fans aren't feeling the love coming the other way.

CAVANAUGH: Well, who would you -- OKAY, so let's say that the 41s office does get rid of both the general manager, AJ Smith, and coach Norv Turner, who would you like to see come in?

PARIS: A bill cower, June Grduen, who won a super bowl with Tampa bay, who does the Monday night game. Somebody with strong leadership and comfortable in front of a microphone. Among his drawbacks is that he's not real -- these an Xs and Os guy. He can draw out a new play on the back of a cocktail napkin in a minute, buzz he's not really comfortable in the media.

CAVANAUGH: Is that important?

PARIS: This day and age, you're selling. You're always selling your product. A head coach has to do more than figure out whether No. 22 or No. 24 should be in the game. He's the face of your franchise. He's going to get the most media time. That's the guy the fans are going to see the most. And especially in this day and age of the media world, you better have somebody who's comfortable in front of a microphone who can think on his feet, and he'll be there when the things go bad.

CAVANAUGH: Lorenzo is on the line from La Mesa. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: My question is, everything I've read has indicated that AJ Smith is a very unpleasant fellow to deal with. In view of attitude over the years, and because the Chargers want to move to LA, let's assume that, are the owners of all the other teams have to agree -- it's like three quarter vs to agree to let them go. Because of the ill-will AJ may have created, do you think the owners will just say you're not the team that's ready to do this? Jackass is?

PARIS: It's possible. But if they get their money, they could care less. And those owners, Lorenzo is right, it's got to be a three quarter vote, but there's going to be a relocation fee. Somebody's going to have to write a real big check. And if those owners, they're like the oil barons, if you write the check, if you got the money, it won't matter who's there. If you pay the freight, they'll be able to go. But he brings up a good point. And that reputation -- he embraces it. Of that's what he wants to be. That's his persona, and that's what he wants to project out. And I think when they were winning early on, people said, oh, he's our guy, he's our tough guy. But when things have gone bad here, and he's disappeared, and his rosters haven't worked out, people are saying, can't we do better?

CAVANAUGH: From all you've heard, Kelly, about back and forth about whether or not the Chargers are gonna leave San Diego, and so forth, what's your gut feeling about that? Could you think if they had their way, the Chargers would leave San Diego or stay?

BENNETT: I have no way of gaging that. The people that I talked to in the course of my work though, especially in east village, don't want to see a charge stadium downtown. They see that part of town as being already occupied by one big sports stadium, and they don't want to see another one because there has been a big impact on the arts. So as much as I can speak to, are that's the public sentiment I hear.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of public sentiment do you hear, Graig?

GUSTAFSON: About?

CAVANAUGH: About the Chargers staying in San Diego or leaving. If they had a choice, there's a lot of people who say that perhaps LA won't want the Chargers after all. But if nay had their choice, what have you been hearing?

GUSTAFSON: Well, I think if -- I'm sure the Spanos family, if they had a choice, they would prefer to stay in San Diego, and get a lot of taxpayer money for a new downtown stadium. That's what they have been will saying all along. Whether that can happen or not is the question. And if it gets it the point where they don't think that that is going to happen, I don't see why they wouldn't pull up stakes and if to LA to a new stadium because that's what they want. They want a new stadium, they would prefer it to be in San Diego, they say downtown is the only sight, but if that's not going to happen, they're not going to stay at Qualcomm, I don't think.

CAVANAUGH: Wee talked to Mark Fabiani here on a number of occasions on this show, and I don't know. Sometimes I think oh, he's saying this because they really -- they have a secret plan to leave the city. And then sometimes I say, no, they really do want to stay here. What's your take on that?

PARIS: I think they want to stay here. And I think they've proven that. That has been almost a ten-year trek where they found the estate, and that won't work. They could have left a long time ago, really. If they do go to LA, the company up there, they want a portion of the team. They're not just going to build a stadium and hope they can sell some peanuts. They want a fraction of the team. What the Spanos family has to decide is if owning 100% of the Chargers is worth as much in San Diego or 80% in LA. There's still a lot of hurdles for that LA to go, but that said, that's the entertainment capital of the world. And that LA live facility up there is amazing. It's like Vegas, you know? And every restaurant and bar and everything. So there's a lot of energy going up there. Upon you can see the NFL rolling out the red carpets and having the movie stars sitting in the good seats. And it's going to fly. I think the Chargers would like to stay, but I think while those guys own a sports team, they're businessmen, and they're going to look at the bottom line.

CAVANAUGH: We have to move onto our next topic. But I want to thank you all for this discussion.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Graig Gustafson, a reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune, Jay pairs is sports columnist with New York Times, and Kelly Bennett is the arts reporter at VoiceofSanDiego.org. Now, backers of a development plan for Navy pier held their first round of public meetings this week. Of the plan includes more parking, a public park, an amphitheater, but some of the most pointed comments were directed toward the proposed sculpture on the waterfront called wings of freedom. And we invite our listeners to join us on the phone at 1-888-895-5727. Or on twitter at KPBS mid-day. Kelly, you were at the meeting they just mentioned. How many people would you say attended?

BENNETT: I think there are between 75 and 100 people crammed into a pretty small room. It was definitely fight quarters.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about this proposal. What is it going to look like, how much is it going to cost?

GUSTAFSON: The pier is adjacent to the midway museum, and it's museum official who is have brought this forward to the port to say this is what we want to do. It's a couple layers of a parking structure that I think brings the total parking spaces up to more than 500 spots there on the pier, then on top of the parking structure, they want to bring some green space and put a park on top, which is one of a long string of things in San Diego being proposed to have these green roofs. But specifically a park on top of something. And then at the end, there would be the alpha~ theatre where the hope would be the San Diego symphony could play its summer pops concerts. They have been hopping around. As things change along the waterfront, the city wants to lock in a spot where they always do their summer concerts. And then on either side of that amphitheater, there would be what they're calling this iconic architectural element, which is one of the -- one of them is 400 feet, and 1 is 500 feet. These wings or sails that extend off the edge of the pier, in the minds of the people putting this forward, to really define a particular image for an icon for San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that was in an article on VoiceofSanDiego.org that made me understand the size of these wings is that most of the tallest buildings in downtown San Diego are approximately 500 feet tall. So these would be almost as tall as the tallest buildings downtown.

CAVANAUGH: The tallest buildings are one American plaza, Manchester Hyatt, and symphony towers. So the tallest wing is 500 feet tall. It is adding one more dot on the sty line there -- more than a dot, I guess. It's a giant wing. But that is in that same ball park.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we know from our website that the proposal for Navy pier particularly the wing sculpture has sparked a lot of debate. I'm wondering what were some of the comments you heard during this meeting, Kelly?

BENNETT: It's interesting because I think the negative, the pointed stuff that people are feeling about this plan comes across a lot more comfortably. The adjectives fly when someone doesn't like something. But there seems to be an almost split amount of folks who think this is awesome. I have always wanted a bold plan for the waterfront, and here it is. There was a guy at the meeting who said this is -- I've been waiting and praying for this, for something to define San Diego. He was a sailor, and there are a lot of folks from military backgrounds who said that they appreciated that there could be kind of a version of this or a meaning of this, one of the potential pieces of this could be honoring of the military, and the military's footprint in San Diego. But there are of course a lot of people who really don't like it, who don't like that this plan was put together without really a lot of public input until now, that it's coming to them and it's kind of presented as here's the rendering, he's the concept, and please support it. And we're going forward. I think there's a lot of people who -- a few the other night who called it a monstrosity. There were people commenting about the size, about the view of the water front that already has been impacted by the midway itself, are the aircraft carrier, when you look that direction, you don't see the water. You see a giant ship. And here's another piece next to it that would somewhat impact that view as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, part of the overall plan, I believe, is that the four story building in front of the USS midway museum is gone. So you have a clearer point of view, at least to see the USS midway.

BENNETT: Exactly. I was -- I met with several of the backers of the plan yesterday, with Hal Sadler, and the CEO there, and also with Maylen Burnham who's been pushing this plan. And Maylen was saying that people who complained about the midway being -- blocking the view, now the midway has become the view. And his point is that in this case, the sails or the wings could become the view that you see. And obviously if you don't like it, then you don't want it to become the view. But for some people, I think it could be something that they see as a golden gate bridge or as a St. Louis arch or something when they're flying back into town --

CAVANAUGH: That defines the city.

BENNETT: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: Let me invite our listeners to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. One of the selling points, I think, Kelly, for the wings of freedom sculpture is that it's paid for, right?

BENNETT: Right. The philanthropist, Denny Sanford from South Dakota has pledged to pay for $35 million toward the cost of the structure that would be this icon.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Jay, do you think that San Diego needs an iconic image like this? Like the wings of freedom sculpture at Navy pier? Apparently some people have commented during this public hearing said they have been waiting for it.

PARIS: Kelly didn't mention it, but they were gone that build a stature of Norv Turner there. So the wings are a lot better than that. You know, I guess so. It's always fun flying in to San Diego, I peek out and see Balboa Park. That's my signature thing. And the California tower. And that's kind of where I think of San Diego. It's interesting. I will say that. And it seems awful big though, to me. That's -- those are some big buildings you mentioned. And you hate to wall off that beautiful -- the water is our signature thing, really. But if you've got somebody who wants to pay for it, that's half the battle right there. It'll be interesting though. I've heard pro and con on it as well. Which every big art project like that sees.

CAVANAUGH: Why are we hearing about this now? Is there a rush to get this approved in one way or another?

BENNETT: You know, it's kind of a hurry up and then go through a lot more process. In this case, there are a couple more public meetings, there's one next Tuesday, one Saturday, where they're going to be directing opinion. Then the midway museum and the architects will take that public feedback they've heard, and their plan, to the full port commission in January, January 10ththed. Of so then with that, the port can decide whether or not they want to include that plan in their larger plan for the waterfront. So the backers of this plan want to get that included in the overall framework for what would then go to the coastal commission. So though it's kind of a quick deadline now, or it was going to be, but they pushed it back to January, there's still probably a year at least of public discussion about this as these various levels of decision makers weigh in on what needs to happen. The coastal commission requires things that are on the waterfront to do certain -- to care for certain requirements about parking and views and about notifying people around, looking at alternative sites for whatever it is they're trying to build. It will probably be a while before they would actually start erecting the titanium wings.

CAVANAUGH: This entire development is estimated I think between 65 and $75 million. And we started out this conversation talking about our carb-strapped city with the pension burden. And we just talked about a new Chargers stadium. Is there a certain incongruity in the building projects that are being put forward, where on the one hand the City of San Diego doesn't have a lot of money to throw around?

GUSTAFSON: And that's been the debate for the past 2 or 3 years. Same thing with the downtown library, which they started building even though they didn't have the money to finish the project. And they're still I believe less than 30 million short. And so -- the same thing with the Chargers stadium. How much taxpayer money is going to go into that? And with this project at Navy pier, as long as there's no taxpayer money coming from the city's general fund, that's been mayor Jerry Sanders's mantra for the past few years. As long as it doesn't tap our daily operation budget, then all power to --

CAVANAUGH: Build away.

GUSTAFSON: Well, within reason. And I think that -- that's probably the way it's going to be for the city in the foreseeable future because you just can't -- with the city struggling, look at library hours, library hours are a fraction of what they used to be ten years ago. Beaches and parks aren't as clean as they used to be ten years ago, and it's because the city has had to cut and cut and cut. So anybody that thinks they're going to get money from the City of San Diego is delusional probably. Now, that doesn't -- saying that, there's still redevelopment money that could be used for certain projects downtown, which is what the Chargers are looking at using for the stadium. I just think it's a tough road to hoe if you're looking for any money from the city of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And I think it's off-putting for people to hear about this without knowing the details of the funding sources and so forth. On the one hand, we have no money. On the other hand here's another multimillion dollar project be built downtown.

BENNETT: And I think that creates a false argument as people are weighing in on this. There's the argument out there, I think that people say, well, we have crumbling streets or we have people going hungry in San Diego. Well, the funding sources to care for our streets and to provide food assistance to people are incredibly different, incredibly diverse. We'd be hard pressed to get Danny Sanford to give us $30 million to put into the general fund. If a philanthropist is going to come forward and says I want to do something, it's likely not going to be I'm going to help pay your bills for the month. And I think there's something probably true in that you never have money to do something that is different from something you've done before. In this case, there is an element of these guys are saying we're trying to do something new, we're trying to do something bold. We're trying to raise the money so we don't have to even go to the public at all. Then they would even give -- the project would essentially become another port park. So it would somewhat become public.

CAVANAUGH: In the minute or so we have left, it seems like San Diego, whenever there's a public art proposal, it just becomes this highly charged controversial thing.

BENNETT: It's huge.

CAVANAUGH: Right? And people's emotions seem to get stirred by this. I think there was that Neptune statue that people hated. People have wide opinions about that kissing statue at the pier from World War II. And now this wings of freedom.

BENNETT: And there was another one on harbor that was an artist named Nancy Rubens who had a bunch of boats put together, now a version of that or a piece of that is at the museum of contemporary art in La Jolla. Yeah, I think it's kind of like our collective living room. What is the waterfront going to look like? And if you can't decide even within your own family what other you're going to put up on the wall, how is a county of 3 million people going to come to a consensus on what it is they want to see there? And I think that's where some of the discomfort coming from seeing a plan already paid out with all these fancy conceptual drawing. People are, like, wait a second. You're going to put that in a living room? I didn't even know that was on the table. Now as they start learning more about it, how it's going to be paid for, what it could look like or how it could look like, that's when people are starting to say, okay, what do I really think about this now that I'm not surprised by it

CAVANAUGH: Maybe they should just install the surfing madonna. Everybody will love that.

BENNETT: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank my guest, Graig Gustav son, Jay Paris, Kelly Bennett. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENNETT: Thank you.

GUSTAFSON: Thanks for having me.

BENNETT: Thanks.