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Donna Frye Sounds Off On State Of The City

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Aired 1/7/10

Donna Frye, elected to represent the 6th District on the San Diego City Council in 2001, is termed out at the end of this year. We talk with her about her advocacy of open government, the budget crisis of 2009 and what's next in 2010, both for the city and for Frye herself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. At the end of last year, These Days conducted a series of interviews with the members of the San Diego City Council. We talked about the highs, the lows and the challenges facing the city in 2010. But there was one city council member, who, because of scheduling conflicts, got away. This morning, we're very pleased to have her join us to conclude our series of city council interviews. I'd like to welcome Donna Frye, who represents the city's Sixth District. And Councilmember Frye, thanks for joining us.

DONNA FRYE (Sixth District Representative, San Diego City Council): Thank you for having me, and Happy New Year.

CAVANAUGH: Happy New Year to you. Now we started all these interviews in the same way, asking the council members to give us a brief reintroduction of themselves and their districts. So, if you would, start by telling us about the Sixth District. What neighborhoods are in it?

FRYE: Well, the Sixth District, I am fortunate to represent Clairemont, Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, Kearny Mesa, Linda Vista and about half of Mission Bay Park.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the demographics of that area in terms of income, use, age, the kind of problems your constituents face every day.

FRYE: Well, I think the problems are pretty much the same that people face throughout the city. But the population, it’s about 160,000 as far as the district that I represent. It’s predominantly white, probably, I’d say, about 70%, probably 15% Latino and about 10% Asian and about 5% African-American. Household income is probably $45,000 to $50,000, you know, based on the most current census data I have.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: It may have changed since, you know, obviously the last census data came out.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly.

FRYE: So…

CAVANAUGH: And you actually have been on the city council since 2001.

FRYE: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: Your background is as a community and environmental leader.

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now after all this time on the council and twice almost becoming mayor…

FRYE: Well, once becoming mayor and then…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

FRYE: A little problem with bubbles and…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

FRYE: …and how courts interpret voter intent.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed.

FRYE: That’s another interview.

CAVANAUGH: Well, my question actually…

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …is do you consider yourself a politician now?

FRYE: I – My job. I mean, obviously it’s a political job and I have to deal with political issues but as far as – I consider myself an elected official. I consider myself a public servant. I don’t think that my record necessarily reflects, oh, being what I would call the typical politician. I definitely will speak my mind and sometime to my – not to my own benefit because my primary interest is serving the public and telling them the truth and that is not always well received when it comes to election time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s move on…

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …to the issues facing San Diego.

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: 2009, as you know, was a year of big challenges for the – for San Diego.

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Were you pleased with how the mayor and the council dealt with that budget deficit, that nearly $200 million budget deficit?

FRYE: No, I’m – No. No, because, you know, I mean, I’m – I don’t know if it matters whether I’m pleased or displeased. I think what the issue is, is did it actually get the job done…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: …and it didn’t. I think given the circumstances and the path that, you know, has been followed, it was probably the best thing we could do at that particular time. However, you know, way back when I was running for mayor, I talked about the kind of issues that people really didn’t want to talk about and the fact that I believed the city was broke, they needed to come up with approximately $250 million on an annual basis in additional revenue to deal with the structural deficit and it might include, if it solved the problem, an increase in taxes. And that was not a message that was well received at that time.

CAVANAUGH: And is it being received at all now?

FRYE: Oh, absolutely, and it’s interesting because there was a report from the – I guess an independent group of thinkers put together the – a report for the mayor.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: And many of these folks are the same folks who did not have a voice and did not care to believe that the crisis that I believed was coming was real and, in fact, did everything they could to deny it. And I would say I’m very glad to see that they finally have gotten a voice and are finally speaking up because a lot of what they said in this report were things that, you know, they would talk about not in public. It was things that they would say to me, you know, sort of off the record, we really don’t want to stand up and say that, but I think everybody knew it. So, I’m optimistic.

CAVANAUGH: Now part of the same citizens task force report that you’re referring to…

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …included the option of the city perhaps considering bankruptcy. What do you…

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …think about that?

FRYE: Well, I think that that course of action was originally proposed by Pat Shea when we had the mayor’s race. And his belief, and I think it had a lot of merit, was that by doing that, you could put together a comprehensive plan and actually come up with a solution that would take care of all the problems simultaneously. And that has great merit. I’m not sure at this point whether or not we’re going to be able to do that or whether there’s the stomach for it. But I think what the beauty of bankruptcy is, is that it does take care of the problems. You go in, you do it once, and it sort of solves all these issues. Now absent, you know, the City actually doing something this year, I think that it’s something that is going to have to be considered.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Council member Donna Frye, who represents the City’s Sixth District, and it’s part of our series of conversations with San Diego City Council members. And, Councilmember Frye, you know, a lot of municipalities have been doing these budget fixes because they’re seeing these shortfalls now.

FRYE: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: And to the best of our knowledge, the deal that was just struck fixes the problem but what is left to cut if we do find there’s another mid-year deficit?

FRYE: Well, there’s going to be. It’s not if, it’s just when. So the issue becomes that we have promised benefits that are not sustainable and the structural imbalance is – There’s only a couple of ways it can be solved at this point and part of that must include a fix for the City’s pension issues. Some of those are going to have to be, you know, hammered out in court, I think some of them that are relatively simple fixes, and I’ll give you one example. Just a day or two ago, councilmember DeMaio and I put out a memo requesting that the mayor’s office actually perform and complete the actuarial studies on DROP and retiree health. These studies were supposed to have been, you know, at least started if not completed over three years ago for the DROP and I believe about two years ago for the retiree health. The actuarial analysis is due next month. I don’t even think it’s been started. So what we’re asking for is that this item be docketed, that if it’s not going to be discussed by the mayor or taken care of by the mayor, that – and if there isn’t adequate progress, that we transfer the funding and hand that task over to the Independent Budget Analyst so we can actually get these studies completed because a lot of the issues we cannot deal with until we have the information. And, you know, it’s certain things that could be done that don’t require court fights and battles that we have the ability to do are not getting done.

CAVANAUGH: There seems to be a great deal of frustration when you count – when you recount what’s going on with this report that’s not there. For nine years, you’ve made it your business to master the problems and the failings of this whole pension problem…

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …the city employees’ retirement system. I wonder, what is your analysis of why it continues to take so long to come – to get to the bottom of that?

FRYE: You know, the issue as far as completing the actuarial study for DROP, I could – I really cannot tell you. It’s a requirement of the municipal code that the DROP benefits be cost neutral. I mean, it’s clear. Everybody agrees to it. It was part of the labor contract with the police officers to do this study, so why it has not been done, I cannot tell you. And I can only say that rather than trying to figure out why they’re not doing it is to demand and to take action and reappropriate the funding because that really is our only tool under this current form of government. We have the ability to do the appropriations and to reappropriate the money and get it done. In other words, we have to insist that it gets done and take that action ourselves, and the same thing with the retiree health because then we can actually have the discussion. Some of the benefits, I believe, are just not sustainable and I am not trying to harm people, I’m not trying to scare people that have already retired. What I’m trying to do is to make sure that not only the current retirees but the retirees coming after them actually have a pension system that is sound and sustainable and they can rely upon and not have to go through this for another ten years wondering if they’re going to have benefits, wondering if the money’s going to be there. It’s not to harm anyone, it is to try and make it financially sound so that people can finally just, you know, have that peace of mind that I believe they deserve.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye. And you just mentioned your collaboration with councilmember Carl DeMaio. One of the things that you perhaps differ on, however, is the cost cutting benefits to be gained through managed competition. Do you support outsourcing through managed competition?

FRYE: I think that there are some things that probably could work. I think that the belief that all things will be solved or many things will be solved simply by doing them more cheaply is not – it’s not well founded and I don’t see the numbers to support that. I have seen additional costs when contractors do not perform the work the way they should. I see a lot of litigation, I see a lot of additional management that is needed in order to make sure the contract are actually being carried out. So I think that, you know, to look at managed competition as some sort of panacea to solving the City’s problems is just – it’s a fool’s errand. It’s just not true. I do see some benefits to it to certain services, I think that it probably makes sense and I, you know, I’m certainly open to it. But one of the things, again, that has not happened, there has not been one or any managed competition proposals brought forward to the city council. So how would I know?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: Until something is actually brought forward.

CAVANAUGH: There’s been some criticism that the city council’s dragging its feet on – by putting more restrictions on what managed competition should be like.

FRYE: No, I don’t think that’s accurate. The – You know, I mean, that’s what a lot of people say but, again, the facts don’t support that. The reality of it is, is that there was litigation filed by some of the city unions because they did not believe that the City negotiated in good faith, and they were proven to be correct. And so there is, you know, ongoing discussions. Now because the mayor’s office is in charge of the meet and confer process, to the extent that we can provide direction and say here’s what we’d like you to do, we have done that. But that was, again, only after councilmember DeMaio and I put out a memo and said we want this docketed in closed session because almost a year had gone by with no reports, no discussions, you know, related to that. You know, you can only – you can only vote on something that’s before you and if it never comes, you know, you just have to become more and more insistent. So…

CAVANAUGH: Now we just touched on the idea that bankruptcy is perhaps an option that the City should be looking at.

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: What about new fees and new taxes? I know that there’s a great deal of opposition towards that on the city council. Would that ever come before voters, do you think?

FRYE: Well, I think, again, I think that you have to look at all options and you certainly want to look at that as a last resort, and I’ve always supported that. If it’s – If you can put together a comprehensive plan, and I had proposed, again, when I was running for mayor many moons ago, had talked about a comprehensive plan that I sort of jokingly referred to as bankruptcy lite, which took the concepts of bankruptcy and how you would put together a bankruptcy plan and to deal with the issues but you wouldn’t actually call it bankruptcy. You would work together, come up with a comprehensive plan and if it was necessary in order to make sure that the structural deficit was actually addressed, if it included increased taxes then, yes, that would be part of the mix. And I think that, you know, people need to understand things cost money. I mean, that is the reality. There are no free services. Things cost money and the cost to provide those services goes up. It goes up with almost anything that a citizen will do within their life, whether it’s groceries, whether it’s their gas and electric, whether it’s their cell phones, costs go up.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Councilmember Frye, 2010 is your last year on the council.

FRYE: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: You’re termed out.

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: It’s been – long been rumored you may be considering a run for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

FRYE: Right, and I am considering that. I have not made a final decision and I do expect to do so within the next probably, I don’t know, five weeks or so. I just am not sure how I can best serve the public and what’s going to make me the happiest…

CAVANAUGH: Well, what…

FRYE: …so when I look at those two things…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

FRYE: …I have a lot of thinking to do about it so…

CAVANAUGH: Well, what is attractive to a politician about being on the Board of Supervisors?

FRYE: Well, it’s not, quote, being on the Board of Supervisors or being on the city council, what’s attractive to me about public service is the ability to give the public a voice in an arena where they may not have one and feel that there’s somebody there representing them that actually will ask the questions that when they’re sitting at home watching us on television, say, God, why doesn’t somebody ask that question? Why doesn’t somebody say that? So – And also, too, to make sure that people want to engage in government, to try and show them that pretty much anyone can get involved and anyone can be successful doing it.

CAVANAUGH: Now the same people who start those rumors about the County Board of Supervisors and your future also seem to think that you would really shake up that board. Do you think the board needs to be shaken up?

FRYE: I don’t know. I know, it’s always funny. I think for me, the, you know, some of my really, you know, deep issues that I really care passionately about are always the open government…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: …the public right to know, the environment, you know, making sure that people are treated with courtesy and respect and opening it up so that it’s accessible and people feel that if they come down and show up, that it actually is going to matter. You know, so I guess if that’s shaking it up, I guess I probably would.

CAVANAUGH: Well, talking about your move towards open government…

FRYE: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …how do you say San Diego City government now rates on its openness and its transparency?

FRYE: Much better. We’re doing much better as far as closed sessions, as far as, you know, public, you know, the ability for the public to comment and speak and be part of it. I think where we’re still failing and having probably the most difficult time is trying, and this is as an elected official, too, this is not just the public, it also applies to me, the ability for us to get information, in a timely manner, that’s accurate. That has been one of the biggest problems, you know, trying to find out what’s going on, trying to get information. We now have this strong mayor form of government so I can’t pick up the phone and call the city manager and say you get me that information now. You know, now I have to sort of request it and say could you possibly get us this information, we’d sure like to have it. So that, to me, is probably one of the biggest, you know, problems that we still face.

CAVANAUGH: So is the strong mayor, strong city council, temporary institution that’s going on now that’s going to be on the ballot this year…

FRYE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …do you think that system is working?

FRYE: I think that there are parts of it that are working. I think the best part of that was the establishment of the independent budget analyst and also a city auditor that, you know, is semi-independent. I still have my doubts about that but as far as the fact that the mayor is not present at council meetings, that the public does not have access to the mayor the way they used to, and that the mayor is not seated with the council and voting and making decisions where people see him or her on a regular basis and have direct ability to, you know, talk to him or her, I think has been a failure in that regard.

CAVANAUGH: And would you propose changes to it then?

FRYE: Well, I don’t particularly care for it. Like I said, there are parts of it that I like but I think that, you know, the jury’s still out. I did not support it when it was, you know, on the ballot the first time and, strangely enough, Jerry Sanders and I actually signed the ballot measure against it. So I’ll be curious to see if he’ll sign it now. So…

CAVANAUGH: Let me – let me take you to…

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …some of the construction projects that have been…

FRYE: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: …talked about in San Diego.

FRYE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about possibly a new library, possibly a new city hall. I know that you voted with the council to have the library out for bids, the library construction out for bids…

FRYE: Yeah, to get the information on what it would actually cost.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

FRYE: I thought that was, you know, whether or not I supported it, I thought it was a reasonable request of the people that had been working so hard for so many years and had been given sort of the green light to go ahead. I wanted that information. That does not mean that I will necessarily support spending the money.

CAVANAUGH: How about construction on a new city hall?

FRYE: Well, again, I want to see the numbers.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

FRYE: I want to see that the numbers add up. If, you know, if it can be shown that the public would actually save money and it would go to a public vote, because that’s what had me furious when this vote came forward the last time. There was no commitment by the council to, you know, require a public vote and I believe that that is absolutely necessary and must happen. Otherwise, I would never support it.

CAVANAUGH: And now that the Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL, there is this idea that the Chargers stadium – a new Chargers stadium downtown might actually be constructed with some public money. Do you…

FRYE: Umm, well…

CAVANAUGH: …support that idea?

FRYE: …again, that would have to go to a public vote. I do not support using public money to subsidize sports right now. I do not believe that that is the most critical issue here facing the City of San Diego. I mean, when we’re cutting jobs and we’re cutting fire, cutting police, you know, reducing hours at Park and Rec centers, I have higher priorities and I believe the public does as well. But, again, no matter what would happen, that would also need to go to a public vote. I mean, you know, the public needs to have a voice on these long term indebtedness because there will be a lot of, a lot of money that these projects are going to cost and if those are going to be our priorities and that’s how the money is going to be spent, then the public has a right to vote on that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I mentioned, this is your last year on the San Diego City Council. You said that you have a lot of thinking to do...

FRYE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …that you’re thinking about a lot of different options for yourself to remain in public service. Would you share any of those with us? What are some of the things on your mind?

FRYE: Well, again, one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is make sure that people believe that they can make a difference. And there’s a variety of ways to have people, you know, succeed. I think that I would always have to be, and I will always have to be somewhere where I can make sure that other people are successful, that other people feel that they can accomplish things, where other people feel that their voices matter and they make a difference. And to the extent that that would be public office or, you know, going back and becoming a, you know, rabble rousing community organizer, whatever the case may be, that is always something that I consider probably first and foremost. You know, I just think sometimes people – and also humor. You know, one of the things that I love to do is to say things or to do things that give people, you know, a sense of laughter and fun. I mean, government doesn’t have to be dire and serious and, you know – you know, you’re allowed to have fun in life and you’re allowed to have dreams and you’re allowed to have, you know, you’re allowed to have fun with your friends.

CAVANAUGH: Some…

FRYE: You know…

CAVANAUGH: Some comedy political theatre then in your future?

FRYE: Well, some days I think it’s comedy political theatre. I don’t think that’s by design. I think that’s, you know, just because of some of the knuckleheads and some of the goofy stuff that goes on. But, you know, sometimes, yes, I absolutely will go out of my way to try and, you know, give people a giggle. You know, I think that’s a good thing.

CAVANAUGH: Councilmember Frye, thanks so much for joining us.

FRYE: Oh, you’re most welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Donna Frye, who represents the Sixth District in the City of San Diego. And you can post your comments about this segment or any segment you hear on KPBS at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Coming up, what does the Bible actually say about homosexuality? Stay with us as These Days continues right here on KPBS.

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