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Mayor Sanders Urges S.D. To Build For The Future

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Aired 9/18/09

Mayor Sanders encouraged San Diego to move forward with $1.6 billion in building projects that include a new City Hall, a new library downtown, and an expansion of the convention center. Why does the mayor believe these projects will help San Diego become a "great city"?

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Above: The editors discuss whether the recession is really over. They take a look at both President Obama's speech on regulations and Mayor Jerry Sanders recent speech on city building projects.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): A very experienced investor Warren Buffett put it this way: The economy has sort of plateaued at the bottom right now. So assuming that billionaire Buffett knows what he's talking about, Andrew, is this the time for the mayor of San Diego, which has more than a 10% unemployment rate, it's a city looking at a $100 million budget deficit, and living in a state where one in eight, as we said, is without a job, is this a time for the mayor to be advocating for three big new public buildings? And that's exactly what Mayor Sanders did at a well publicized speech this week.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, Voiceofsandiego.org): It is, and I'm going to – I'm going to take a step back from answering the question right away to sort of set the foundation, which…

PENNER: Okay.

DONOHUE: …is, I mean, he's very clearly, I think, starting to look at the end of his tenure and trying to formulate some sort of legacy and his legacy is to be pushing forward in these projects. And he stepped out with, I mean, a very – a very strong and almost abrasive speech chastising anybody who's against these projects and making it clear that these are going to be his legacy. Now he runs, I think, a pretty high risk in that. First of all, he was elected as somebody who was just going to be a meat and potatoes guy and actually fix this budget deficit that's been plaguing the city now for a decade and that is a job that's not quite finished but he's saying we need to be pushing ahead on these projects. Now this is something that got his two predecessors in quite a bit of trouble as well in Susan Golding and Dick Murphy, which is sort of ignoring the meat and potatoes of the – of what the city is supposed to be doing and pushing ahead.

PENNER: Explain meat and potatoes. What does that mean?

DONOHUE: You know, I mean, we have, like you said, we have severe budget deficits in the city and it's not just because of the economy, it's a structural budget deficit. That means we're spending more money every single year than we bring in. That means we're having problems picking up trash, we're having problems keeping bathrooms working at the beach. We're having problems with our basic infrastructure, and at the same time, we're not taking care of those things. We're looking for ways to try to fund a convention center expansion, we're trying to build a library that we have no money to build, and then we're also looking at the city hall.

PENNER: Okay, those are the three projects that he was talking about.

DONOHUE: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: And I just wanted to be clear on something and that is that when we talk about the mayor being near the end of his tenure, he came in in the middle of 2005, he took over for Dick Murphy.

DONOHUE: At the end of 2005.

PENNER: At the end of 2005. So he's only really run on his own in 2008, hasn't he?

DONOHUE: Yeah. I mean, he ran in the special election in 2005 and then because – because Murphy resigned in the first half of his term, he just filled that term. He has this now term that he won in 2008 and then he can't run again for mayor because of term limits.

PENNER: And he can't, so let's – That first term, even though it wasn't an absolutely full term…

DONOHUE: No.

PENNER: …that's considered a whole term.

DONOHUE: Exactly.

PENNER: Okay. So he can't run again, and that's why you're talking about his legacy.

DONOHUE: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: Tony, does it seem early for him to be thinking about his legacy?

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): No. We are not only edging towards the end of the Jerry Sanders era, we're also edging towards the end of the strong mayor experiment. Voters can either yea or nay here in, I think, two years. And the question is…

PENNER: Explain that.

PERRY: Well, you may remember for most of San Diego's history, the real power was the city manager, and the mayor was merely a member of the council with one more vote, no veto, no budgetary power, and he needed to accumulate power through his wiles, which good mayors did but nothing statutory. Changed that a couple of years ago, pushed basically by sort of establishment figures who liked the idea of a strong mayor. Okay, we have it but it's only for a couple of more years and then voters will have to either say we like it, we don't like it. So I think, to a certain degree, Jerry is saying if we're going to stay with this strong mayor system, I've got to look like a strong mayor possibly more than I have before. I also think it's Jerry's declaration of independence. If the Union-Tribune was still owned by the Copleys and Bob Kittle was still the editorial page editor, I would say it was his declaration of independence against the Copleys. They're gone but I still think he is declaring independence from a kind of thinking that grips San Diego. Now, declaring your independence and then fighting the war to win your independence, in other words, finding the money for this stuff are two separate items.

PENNER: Okay, so let me turn to our listeners on that. The speech said we should expand the convention center, build a new public library downtown, and also create a new city hall. What is your impression of doing those things right now especially when so many people are in survival mode and the city hasn't even agreed on winter sleeping quarters for the growing homeless population. A lot of our Iraq veterans are out on the streets, and this is a problem. But I'd like to get your impression. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Okay, so we're now down to the point where the mayor talked about, Tom, talked about dreaming big, thinking big, and actually calling people who said, whoa, whoa, that's more than a half a billion dollars you're talking about when people are going hungry, he called those people defeatist.

TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, I think they're realists. I wouldn’t call them defeatist. This speech came out of the blue and the big question I had, as one who observes the local business community, is how are we going to pay for this? For example, expanding the convention center, tourism is down 30% from a year ago and, you know, where is the money going to come from? Are you going to add money to the taxes that people pay for their hotel rooms? I don’t think so, it's going to further depress the hotel industry. So it's kind of odd that the timing and the placement of these ideas in, you know, in front of a larger group that we're going to move forward with these projects. I just don't see it happening but…

DONOHUE: Yeah, it sort of…

YORK: …maybe I'm missing something.

DONOHUE: It sort of bordered on the line of disingenuous in a number of different things. I mean, the first one is saying that anybody who questions these deals is a defeatist and is a backward-thinking person who doesn't want – who wouldn't have even wanted running water to their home or sewers. I mean, the fact of the matter is, he has no financing plan for any of these projects so there's not even anything to really, you know, sink your teeth in to be for or against. The second one is he was saying he's going to pay the full pension bill but, you know, as we speak right now, the pension system is debating a measure that the mayor's office has pushed to actually make that bill smaller, so to say he's just going to pay the bill is a little bit disingenuous. And then the third part was saying that San Diego's become a model in the national media for how to turnaround the government based on two sort of spurious articles in Governing magazine and a bizarre article in the New York Times so it was, you know, we've become accustomed to spin from this mayor's office but this one bumped up really close to the line of, you know, being disingenuous.

PENNER: And do you think it's all about a legacy? I mean, might this be political speak to prepare voters for something big like a campaign announcement? Maybe Mayor Sanders has some political ambitions beyond being mayor of San Diego.

DONOHUE: We've been repeatedly told that he does not so, you know, I don't really know if it's – He was starting to get, I think, a lot of pressure because of these projects and a lot of criticism, so it may have been, you know, his response to it. But the fact of the matter is, this was his first address on finances since he declared – since he had an emergency address in October of last year when the whole, you know, global economy was collapsing. This is his first financial speech and, really, you didn't get a whole lot on how he was going to solve the city's financial problems. It was more about going after those people who have questioned his building plans.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Are we ready for a new city hall and expanded convention center and a new library? And where would the money come from? Let's hear from Steve in Vista. Hi, Steve. You're on with the editors.

STEVE (Caller, Vista): Okay. Good morning, everyone.

PENNER: Good morning.

STEVE: I'd like to comment about the mayor and his ideas of these buildings. I was about to do a remodel on my house and I noticed that my sewer line needed to be worked on and the electrical needed quite a bit of work, and for the mayor to ignore these – the infrastructure of the city, the roads, the sidewalks, the sewer system, the water system, that's like me remodeling my house and not looking at the guts of the house first. Thank you.

PENNER: Okay. Well, that's an apt analogy, I guess. Tony, what do you think?

PERRY: I don't think much of that analogy at all actually. You know, government is different than your own issues on your own block and your own house. What I do think is, I'd like to see where the money's coming, too. I was hoping in that speech he might say, and by the way, it is time to end the free pickup of trash in the city of San Diego, the only city in the country, large city, that does that. If we come into the modern world and charge just the average of large cities, we're talking $65 million a year. There's a whole bunch of stuff like this. We talked a minute ago, or I did, about the psychology of consumerism. The consumers have to be confident in the future before they do anything. I think that's what the mayor's speech was all about. I think he's had a belly full of the gloominess and the sort of we know the cost of everything, the value of nothing. The sort of Libertarian-themed media seems to feast on that. And I think he was trying to change the mentality of San Diegans. Good luck on that because it's very, very ingrained in San Diego to expect lots of good things from government without really having to pay for them.

DONOHUE: But this is exact – I mean, I don't know how this is changing anything. This is exactly what the city…

PERRY: No, this is…

DONOHUE: …has been doing for decades, which is…

PERRY: Exactly.

DONOHUE: …doing big projects, not paying attention to its basic infrastructure and not finding any way to pay for…

PERRY: Well, we can…

DONOHUE: …them to put us in more long term debt.

PERRY: We do have a bit of a history of even under the teeth of bad economic news moving ahead with large items. I give you Horton Plaza, opened in the teeth of a recession. A lot of public subsidy for that, a lot of nay-sayers, and it worked and it worked marvelously. And then, of course, there's Mission Bay Park. There's a number of things. It has happened before. Again, I'd like to see where the money's coming from but I don't think we ought to just dismiss the mayor as just blathering someday to the Taxpayers Association.

PENNER: Okay, well, I'm not going to dismiss your future comments but I am going to have to hold them up until after the break. We'll be back in a moment. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

# # #

PENNER: And we're back with the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner. Tony Perry is here from the Los Angeles Times, along with Tom York from San Diego Business Journal, and Andrew Donohue from Voiceofsandiego.org, and you. We're talking about the mayor's speech this week in which he proposed a pretty big build-out in downtown San Diego, a new city hall, expanded convention center, a new library. And we're taking your comments on that, so let's hear from Bob in Bankers Hill. Hi, Bob, you're on with the editors, and you live pretty close to downtown.

BOB (Caller, Bankers Hill): I do, and thank you very much for the discussion. One thing that's missing in all of this discussion is the three projects the mayor has outlined are all projects that can be, if they are doable at all, are projects that are financible without public votes. If the convention center's going to be expanded, it almost certainly will occur as a result of voluntary increases in hotel taxes and related convention center oriented businesses downtown. If the library is built, it's going to be built exclusively with non-general fund revenues, not requiring any increase in general taxes or a public vote. And if the civic center's going to be done, it's going to be done through a combination of private investment dollars and existing funds already being spent in the general fund. So what is common about all these things is they can be done by action of the council, the mayor, and willing participants in industry. None of them require a public vote and I think that that's what's missing in the discussion. If you want to allow people to pay for trash collection in San Diego as they do everywhere else in America, requires a public vote. If you want to increase fees for stormwater, which we should do, requires a public vote. Politics is the art of the possible. What Jerry Sanders is doing, in my opinion, is trying to get done what we can get done.

PENNER: Okay, very, very interesting comment. I'm going to hold that comment and I was going to take one more but we were running out of time so let's talk about Bob's comment. This is something that could be done with action by the council but the council represents the people so, in a way, isn't that involving the people? Andrew?

DONOHUE: Well, he's saying that, you know, politics is the art of the possible and I think, you know, that everything he laid out is a great example of that but, you know, one thing that the mayor kept touching on in this speech was how – is all the tough decisions he's made. But, I mean, this proves – his example shows that these are the easier decisions to get done. He's never once, I think, been up front with people about how we do need to raise more revenue in the city and the different ways that you can do it. And those are the hard decisions, those are the tough leadership decisions that I think that we elect people to make. There's a sort of idea that San Diegans don't like tax increases but there's never been a leader who's stood up and tried to take us to where we need to be and stood up and told us the truth of where we are right now so that we can actually fund those things.

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Andrew. And, gentlemen, I'm going to move on now because I want to give a fair amount of time for our next subject.

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