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Donna Frye Reflects On Council Tenure, Looks Ahead To Future


What kind of impact did Donna Frye have on the San Diego City Council? What will Frye do now that her tenure on the council has ended? We speak to Frye about her goals for the future, and look back on her nine years as the council representative for the city's Sixth District.

What kind of impact did Donna Frye have on the San Diego City Council? What will Frye do now that her tenure on the council is over? We speak to Frye about her goals for the future, and look back on her nine years as the council representative for the city's Sixth District.


Donna Frye, former San Diego City Councilmember who represented the city's Sixth District for more than nine years

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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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. One of San Diego's most high profile, unpredictable politicians finds herself out of a job this week. Donna fry who's been on the San Diego City Council for nearly ten years is termed out, and district six is now represented by newly sworn in council member Laurie Zapf. Donna Frye is credited with bring a new kind of politics to San Diego, along with her own special style, but will her push for open government survive without her being there? Donna fry is here in studio with us today, and good morning, Donna. Thank you for coming in.

FRYE: Good morning. I'm free.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're free. You're free to be here. You don't have to be on the phone.

FRYE: Right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You can actually be in the studio.

FRYE: Right, come and visit and see you in person.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's a pleasure to have you here.

FRYE: Oh, it's my pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to let everyone know that we're inviting listeners to join the conversation. If you'd like to have a question or comment for dona fry, if you want to tell us what you think Donna brought to San Diego politic, when you think she accomplished, give us a call with your questions and comments our number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895- KPBS. Well, know, you're free and I'm happy for you, but if it weren't for term limits would you have tried to stay on the council longer.

FRYE: Sure. Yeah, I would have served another term.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so what's your unfinished business with the council then.

FRYE: Well, I think probably the major issue again is the city's finances. Although I can't say I'm not glad that I don't have to deal with it. But I think that that's probably the biggest problem. And it's been the biggest problem since shortly after I was elected.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. So do you -- would you be working for certain things to be implemented along those lines if you were still on the council.

FRYE: Well, I've tried.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: With the reforms on -- with Prop D.

FRYE: Right, a variety of reforms. But it's not just Prop D, I think that -- I was looking through some old speeches of I rarely write speeches but I found 1 or 2. And one of the things that I think we still need to look at is eliminating the retroactive portion of the benefits that were granted back in 2002. That has added a lot of money to the unfunded liability. Now, as more people retire, of course, that becomes a vested benefit, and it still is a vested benefit. However, I think that would have a very good effect on reducing the liability. And I think there's a way to make that work. A lot of times people say, no, we can't make that work, well, I think it would.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, hearing you talk about that, I would say that there's probably a certain percentage of people listening to this who don't understand quite what it is you're talking about here.

FRYE: Okay.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But my point is.

FRYE: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you decided to run for City Council back in 2001, did you ever think you would hear yourself say something like that?

FRYE: No. [CHECK AUDIO] clean water, growth and development, then we had the energy issues that was just looming.


FRYE: You know, we had the deregulation, [CHECK AUDIO] that was one of the things I really focused on, was getting the city to be more energy independent, more self sufficient, energy retrofits and that's pretty mainstream right now. Of that's something that caught on, so I didn't have to spend that much time working on that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much did you know about the workings of city government back in 2001.

FRYE: Well, I knew quite a bit because of my own unfortunate personal experiences going down to City Council. I remember one of the most unfortunate was the city was trying to establish a business improvement district in Pacific beach where our business was then located. And we were told all along that we would get a vote. We would get to vote whether we wanted to self assess. Well, I went down to City Council because it had to go through a council action and was told by reading the docket that the rules committee had met and waived our right to vote. And I'm sitting there thinking, number one, what is the rules committee, and number two, how in the world can you waive someone's right to vote and waive your own rules? So that sort of got me more into the process, and then also with my husband, Skip, a lot of my friends that were surfing, they were coming into the surf shop all the time and telling me that they were getting sick. So I had an idea of how it worked. One thing I believed that if I became an elected official, that the public would be treated better. Because I would actually sit there and pay attention and listen to them, and I have done that. The other thing I believed which was not correct, was that I would actually be able to get documenties, and that was not always the case. I mean, it was pretty amazing, even to this day, how hard it is to get a basic question answered or just to get what I consider to be a, you know, a diminimus question, like how much street lights are there on such and such a street, it's like, well, we have to run it through the bureaucracy? Why? So everybody's a little bit more ham strung. Especially under this form of government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK AUDIO] so don't run for office if your main goal is to get public information.

FRYE: Which I've done. [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking can Donna fry, and she is just released, been freed from her job as San Diego City Council member for District six. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Take us back to 2004, Donna. You know, lots of people still think you were robbed in that ride in election. What motivated you to run as a ride in candidate against Ron Roberts and Dick Murphy.

FRYE: Insanity. No, probably what it was is that a lot of people were asking me for whom was I going to vote. And I started asking myself that question, and I thought, I can't vote for either one of them. And people were very, very disturbed. They were talking about they don't really have a choice, it's the same old business as usual. And so about, oh, six weeks out of the primary or the run off, I thought, well, I'll give it a go. And I had sort of off handedly mentioned it to a reporter, and they reported Donna fry was thinking about running for mayor. Of the next morning, I got a call from my office manager and scheduler, and she says -- she never calls me in the good morningo I thought, uh-oh, and she says Donna, the phones are going crazy. And I said, what's the matter? What's happening? She says all my lines are lit up people wanting you to run for mayor. And it just sort of was one of those things of giving people a choice, I guess.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you get any criticism as, you know, that's a sort of a off handed kind of flippant way to run for a really important office in San Diego.

FRYE: Well, I don't think it's flippant. You know, I -- I personally think it's ridiculous that people spend, you know, 8, 9 years planning to run for office. I think, you know, a 6 or 8-week campaign is reasonable. I think that the voters, you know, can get a taste of it. We don't need to be beat over the head for 2 or 3 years that so-and-so's gonna be a candidate. Not to mention the fact that I like -- I like things that are spontaneous and things that occur naturally. Sometimes opportunities present themselves you can't plan for them. And you have to seize on those opportunities and be ready to sort of jump in. So I took it very seriously, which is why it took me so long to final he decide.


FRYE: You know, I believe that the public did deserve a choice, and that they felt that they did not have one. And I felt I would do a better job frankly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, amazingly, the amount of write in ballots exceeded the number of people who voted for don Roberts and Dick Murphy.

FRYE: Right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But nose ballots issue not quite a number of them, several thousands were eventually deemed not qualify bide a judge.

FRYE: Right. And it was interesting to watch that where people clearly wrote my name in. And the thing that was interesting, they applied the rules for county elections when then used the -- the rule that said if you don't fill in the bubble that it wouldn't count. Now, had that been City of San Diego rules, they would have counted it.


DEFENDANT: So for me, the idea of voter intention, if someone took the time to write your name on a ballot and spell it correctly, they knew what they were doing and they certainly voted. They weren't just augmenting the ballot, as the judge said. But you know, that's just part of life. You know, there's reasons for everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you ever think of pursuing that legally?



FRYE: No. First of all, I didn't have time, I was, you know, I was working as a council member. Second, we needed to have the decision. Because the city of really in a bad way, and there had to be some finality to it so that it had the leadership, whether it was me or someone else.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how do you think, the city would have been different if you had been elected mayor? If you had been -- if your election as mayor had been sanctified by the Courts, how's that?

FRYE: Well, I think first of all, that it would have given people a lot more hope that they can do a grass root it is campaign, and it can be successful. Because a lot of people that voted were very discouraged after their votes were thrown out. I think that the city would have been different in that people would have gotten a lot harsher dose of truth from me than probably they received. The and it would have been swift. One of the things that I saw very quickly is that the city was headed for, you know, serious financial disaster that we needed to do something quickly, and the information needed to get out. I don't know if you remember at that time, but there was all sorts of stuff where the auditors could not get information, are the auditors, I think that was KPMG, and then you had the San Diego City employees retirement system board members who would not provide documents and we were trying to get them to waive privilege. So there was a lot of closed government that literally I would have kicked open within probably kicking and screaming.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which is not an unusual sound that you hear.

FRYE: No, no. But government belongs to the public. I mean, it's something that I think people forget of it's not about spending and it's not about getting out just what is helpful or makes you look good, it's really important to get everything out there. Because a lot of times the stories are pretty boring. The stories that really get legs are the ones where you can't get the information so the story becomes we can't get the information. When you do, you sort of go, EH. It's not all that exciting, but by keeping it out of the public. When someone can't have something, they want it all the more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very true. I'm speaking with former San Diego City Council member, Donna Frye, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's take a call now. Erica is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Erica, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Well, first I'd like to say happy holidays. And I actually work for Sullivan solar power, and I'm so happy that I'm on the road right now. Being able to tune in. And I would just like to commend Donna for all of your hard work. I met with you on several of occasions and you've been so extremely progressive on the council as far as environmental policy. The energy efficiency, conservation block service. There's actually some federal funding that was coming from that was basically going to be stored to jobs that weren't going to be locally created, and Donna created a subcommittee that really brought in the community's input and made sure that it was going to create local jobs and benefit and affect all of San Diego. So it wasn't just gonna be something that was decided by other powers. So I just wanted to say how greatly you are gonna be missed. And we really appreciate everything that you have done for our city.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Erica, thank you so much for the call. I appreciate it.

FRYE: That was an interesting time. And I -- and I know Erica, I'm grateful for your work. And thank you for that. But what had happened is that the city had received funding and there was not going to be a public process on how that money was going to be spent. And because of that, I pushed and pushed and pushed with many others from the community, including Nicole Caperts with the environmental health commission, and a lot of others, bill powers, and some really, really smart people who said, look, let's get a committee together. Let's have an actual public process and involve, you know, the community. Because it's community money issue it was to create jobs, it was part of the stimulus package, I believe. So we pushed and pushed, finally got the committee set up, I chaired that, and we completed our work in six weeks which I told them we could. And it's worked out really well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm just wondering, we're coming up on a break, but since you've been on the council, have been able to make it any easier to get documents, to get information?

FRYE: Yes.


FRYE: Well, one of the things that I did is I was able to get a ballot measure into the city charter, and that passed by 80 purpose of the vote. But essentially what it did is it shifted the burden of who had to -- how you would get government information. For example, there had been court rulings that said that the person requesting the information had to sort of prove why they should have it. This shifted the burden back to the government saying you have to say why they shouldn't. So it sort of rided that. But that's in the city charter right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that's something you're taking some pride in.

FRYE: Yeah.



MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Donna Frye, we will continue our conversation ask take your calls as These Days continues. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guest is Donna Frye, she is not representing District six on the San Diego City Council examine. She is here with us today to talk about her time on the San Diego City Council. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Donna, I want to talk to you about your famous boycott of the city's closed session meetings. And before you take us through the tall boycott, I read that you attended some of those closed session meetings, and you say that what went on there was horrendous.

FRYE: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about that.

FRYE: Well, I'll give you a couple of examples of the first was one day there was an item talking about a sewer cost to service study. Heme just explain what that is. The sewer cost of service study is something that sets the costs in order to set the rates. And it's very important because it makes sure that the rates are distributed equally among all users. That particular cost to service study showed very clearly that the residential or the, you know, the average water user was subsididesing through their rates large are users. And I'll never forget that meeting where they said we're just not going to release it to the public. And they took a vote. And I think it's one of the few times I actually jumped to my feet at closed session and I was going nuts. And I didn't know what to do. I mean, I voted no, and I voted against it. And I said you can't withhold public information. But the problem was I had -- I was relatively new on the council. And we had been cautioned that you cannot discuss what goes on in closed session. Of and so the problem was -- my dilemma was how do I get this document out to the public without violating the Brown Act? So it was difficult, and I finally did manage to get it out, and that was probably one of the worst closed session meetings. Not to mention the level of discourse that went on.


FRYE: And for me, it was quite juvenile. And it was -- people would talk over one another. It was sometimes just chaos.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People used to argue that council members [CHECK AUDIO] really speak their minds and negotiations can take place. That's not the kind of mind set you have about the way government should work.

FRYE: Well, I do. There are times when you do need to go into closed session. And the Brown Act, you know, allows for that. You go into closed session when it's in the best interest of the public to do so. If the public -- for example, if you're negotiating a contract and you don't want the other person to know what your bottom line is, you certainly aren't going to take that out into public. If you're involved in litigation, and you, you know, again, trying to reach a dollar amount that you're -- that you will not go above or below, you don't want that to get out to the public. But unless it's in the best interests of the public. And certainly keeping information from the public was not. So under the confines of what's allowed in the Brown Act, fine. When it protects the public.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you basically boycotted the closed session in 2004. Tell us what happened.

FRYE: Yeah. Well, there's a couple of things that were happening. One of the things is there was a lot of negotiations going on with the Chargers. There were so many closed session meetings about it, but what was really disturbing is we'd come out of closed session, and sometimes within minutes a reporter would say, oh, we've heard from the Chargers that this this this. And again, we were cautioned not to talk about closeds sessions. So it was sort of a one decided discussion with the Chargers seeming to know exactly what was going on, and us as elected officials sort of being ham strung in being able to respond and speak because you didn't want to disclose what happened. I finally left, I just said I'm boycotting it until these rules change. And some significant changes were made. I boycotted for thee weeks. Of and probably one of the things I like the most is we have a court transcriber in there, so everything that's said is transcribed. Now, the public does not have access to that. But a judge does. So if some member of the public thought maybe there was some violations or problems, then you would have a transcript. You could take that to a judge. But the best part about it is it shows very clearly what's going on, and if someone says this happened or that happened, you can pull back the transcript and say, now, here was the motion, here's what happened. And it protects the council members. It protects the people in closed session. During all those pension talks back in 2003, I would have loved, had well been a transcript so that the public could have seen what we were actually told and what we weren't told.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Donna Frye, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Patrick is calling from the Imperial County. Hi, Patrick welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are you?




NEW SPEAKER: I was lucky enough to work on the write in electoral [CHECK AUDIO] the thing that struck mean the most, when we would do our phone venting [CHECK AUDIO] and you would know if somebody was registered as a Democrat, an independent or a Republican, and the thing that struck me was how many people who identified as Republicans were completely supportive of her in her -- in her mayoral race. It was -- you don't see a lot of crossover voting like that in San Diego, and that was when I thought, well, geez, maybe she's not a chance.


NEW SPEAKER: And don, it was a pleasure and print to be able to work with you during that time. [CHECK AUDIO] and I hope we have not seen the last of you in San Diego politics.

FRYE: Oh, you haven't even seen the beginning of me. I haven't even started yet.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Patrick, thank you for the call. Let's hear from Paul in ocean beach. Good morning, Paul, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning.


NEW SPEAKER: So it's interesting that finally the mayor has come around to the idea that the trash fairy doesn't exist, and that people's trash doesn't automatically disappear into thin air for free. And it's amazing that another counsel member, counsel member DeMaio is grandstanding over this, ask saying oh, this is just a drop in the bucket when clearly somebody has to pay for trash pick up. And I think this is it a long time coming for the mayor and for the city to finally admit that people have to pay for their own trash. Of and I just wanted to know what Donna thought about this.


FRYE: Well, I think that necessity is the mother of invention. And when you need to find money, there's many ways to find it. But one thing as far as the trash, that does have to go to a vote of the public. And I suspect you're going to have to also have a cost of service study done, and a few other odds and ends of so it's sometime something that would happen all that quickly, which is unfortunate. I think it could. And I think it does need to go to a vote of the public. It's probably 22, maybe $30 million. I think that you'd probably be looking at. I'm guessing on those numbers. So don't quote me. But yeah, we have to look at everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to go back to the previous call because he mentioned, you know, there was this sort of crossover appeal that you had when you did run for mayor.

FRYE: Uh-huh.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But -- and people have mentioned the fact of maverick and unpredictable, when they talk about you on the council. Do you think though perhaps if you had forged some alliances with the power structure that you -- more -- deeper, more reliable alliances with the power instruct, that you might have been able to get more things done?

FRYE: Probably, but the thing is is that sometimes in forging alliances there are lines that you need to cross that I don't choose to cross. . I don't know exactly how to explain that. I would say during Proposition D, one of the things 457ed, is that many in the business community who generally didn't come to my office or show up, started showing up, started talking to me, started working with me. And I would hear quite often, we don't always agree with you, but we trust you, we know you do your homework, and we believe, you know, that you'll work hard, that it's a sincere effort.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so what lines would you have had to cross? Would you care to tell us about that?

FRYE: And I've been criticized for this. One of the things under the Brown Act is that you're not supposed to form a collective concurrence, meaning that you're not supposed to get together with a majority of your colleagues in order to make a decision in advance of the public hearing. And I take that very seriously. And so I was regularly criticized for that, for not going around and counting my votes in advance of a vote. It sort of defeats the purpose of the public hearing. So a lot have said you need to do that. Did I have an idea where people might be? Absolutely. Did I know for certain? No. And I think those lines need to be respected, because once you cross them, you really can and never come back.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Donna Frye, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And you can go on-line to comment, Days. Yvonne is calling, she is a District six resident, and Yvonne, good morning, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, Maureen. Hi, Donna.

FRYE: Hi, how are you?

NEW SPEAKER: Fine, thank you. You just used one of my lines issue I did not always agree with you on your actions, but I did appreciate the fact as a woman, you went out against the tide on occasion. And having done that in my career. I really appreciate. Because it's not easy.


NEW SPEAKER: But here were my questions, Donna. After terming out,ure eligible for any of the benefits that we hear daily about the city emmiees getting?

FRYE: Yes.

NEW SPEAKER: Are you eligible for retirement and for health and dental coverage, perhaps?

FRYE: I don't know about dental. I do know that, yes, I do get a pension. I don't know the exact dollar amount, but I think it's around $20,000 a year.

NEW SPEAKER: Okay. And you do have health benefits also?

FRYE: Yes.

NEW SPEAKER: Okay. Continued health benefits.

FRYE: Yes.

NEW SPEAKER: And do these begin immediately or when you reach retirement age?

FRYE: I've reached retirement age. [CHECK AUDIO] [CHECK AUDIO].

Involved in public service since I was a little kid.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the major criticisms, at least, that people on the center to center left make about San Diego is that people want services but they're not willing to pay for them. Do you think that that is one of the fundamental problems that we have here in San Diego?



FRYE: And I -- and I have to sort of explain that. I think that when I talk to people in the public, I don't think most people would mind paying for services. But I think right now that there's such a distrust of government that they don't think if they give the government anymore money it will make any difference or anything will improve. So that has to shift. But I think if the public believes that it would solve the problem, they would have supported it. I don't think that the public believed it would solve the problem, and they certainly did not trust the collective government structure. Maybe some individuals they trusted. But as a group issue it was sort of like, government, we don't trust them, we're not giving them anymore money. Solve the problem and come see us later.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're talking about Prop D.

FRYE: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How big of a problem is that that that didn't pass.

FRYE: Well, I think it's a huge problem because I think one of the things that would have been helpful is to have the ability to thoughtfully work through the reforms that this would have allowed us to do, knowing that there was a revenue stream so that it wasn't going to be as political. It would have helped depoliticize it, and given people a little breathing space. Now I think with the run up for the race for mayor, 2012, I think you're going to see a lot more vitriol, a lot more grandstanding, a lot more name calling, a lot more finger pointing and I just don't see how all that's very helpful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. This is our final call from Mel in it Hillcrest. Good morning, Mel, welcome to These Days. Ful.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, I want to map out your future for you.


FRYE: You and a few others.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, in 2012, I want you to run for mayor, and in your campaign, which will probably be opposed by Carl DeMaio, you say that when you win you will hire Carl DeMaio as chief operating officer. Because Carl has a lot of talent. But you have something else that we want in a mayor, and that is heart.

FRYE: Mel, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mel, thank you for the call. So are you contemplating a run for mayor in 2012.

FRYE: No, no.



MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Not contemplating it, but not ruling it out.

FRYE: No, and I have learned, and the thing is, when I answer the question yes or no -- unless I answer it yes, which I'm not going to, but if I say no, and I change my mind [CHECK AUDIO] I'm not being coy. I need some time to just decompress. Of I need some time to clean my room, to go through all these documents, to get rid of stuff and sort through things and just -- you know, it's very cathartic to be able to walk into a room that is not full of binders and city documents and campaign stuff. I just want to -- I just want a little time. And I want some time with my husband. And I want time with my mom. And I want to be able to have a holiday where I'm not called back into council and be able to get up in the morning and say I can do this or not. You know? So I'm looking forward to that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Donna Frye, I'm glad you found a little time before the cleaning begins to come in and speak with us. Thank you so much.

FRYE: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with former San Diego City Council member, Donna Frye, if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Coming up, NPR's most controversial stories of 2010. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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