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2005 - The City of San Diego's Leadership Dance

2005 has been a year of amazing twists and turns of fortune at the city of San Diego, the most unusual year in the city's history as far as changing leadership is concerned. KPBS reporter Alison St.

2005 has been a year of amazing twists and turns of fortune at the city of San Diego, the most unusual year in the city's history as far as changing leadership is concerned.

When the year began, San Diegans thought Mayor Dick Murphy would be the one to try to pull the city out of the turmoil created by a ballooning pension deficit, shrinking credit ratings and corruption inquiries. But as the year progressed, dramas unfolded that generated one astonishing turn of events after another.
KPBS reporter Alison St. John takes a look back.

Last January, then Mayor, Dick Murphy, had it right when he made his state of the city address

MURPHY: "Our challenge and my determination is to restore the public trust."

The city of San Diego was reeling from a year of revelations, waking residents up to the fact that their placid city by the sea was no longer basking in the sun but was threatened by ominous thunder clouds, and deceptive undertows. What the city needed was a good leader to guide it through the storm ahead. But, Murphy had the burden of being the same leader that was carrying the torch when the city's pension problems were generated. And, it turned out, his write-in opponent in the November election, councilwoman Donna Frye, had apparently won more votes than he had. His leadership was not confirmed until Judge William Bremmer ruled in early February that just over 5,000 ballots should not be counted, because voters had not filled in the bubble when they wrote in Frye's name.

BREMMER: "In this case the ballots where the ovals was not filled in the conclusion is that those people did not vote so that those ballots should not be counted."

The ruling didn't bolster Murphy's authority for long. Buffeted by bad news including a Newsweek article calling him one of the worst mayors in America, Murphy called a press conference on the top floor of city hall, at the end of April.

MURPHY: "You know, a good leader needs to know when it's time to move on."

Murphy resigned, announcing his departure as mid July. He named as his interim successor - until a new mayor could be elected in the fall - promising young city councilman Michael Zucchet. But the baton did not pass smoothly. Five days after Murphy left city hall, on July 20th, Zucchet held his own emotional news conference, after he and fellow councilman Ralf Inzunza were convicted on corruption charges.

ZUCCHET: "I announce today my resignation as a member of the San Diego city council, I believe this decision is in the best interest of my city council district and of the city of San Diego."

The city council was leaderless - and down to six people instead of nine. Federal investigations continued to percolate ominously in the background, consultants continued to charge the city millions to investigate financial decisions, and the city was still banned from the bond market and getting deeper in debt by the day.

The city attorney, Mike Aguirre, jumped into the leadership vacuum to launch his own investigations, and accused Murphy and some council members of securities fraud.

AGUIRRE: "and what we find as we unravel the city finances is one layer of fraud after another."

After some quick shuffling, the city council voted to appoint Councilwoman Toni Atkins as the deputy interim mayor. When she gave up the temporary leadership role of the nation's seventh largest city last month she looked back on it with slightly bemused satisfaction.

ATKINS: "I must say for a girl from Appalachia, I grew up in a house with no running water, not many people have gotten to do what I have gotten to do."

Meanwhile, the race was on for the real mayor, someone elected to handle the responsibility of the new strong mayor position that starts in January 2006.
In the late July primary election, out of a field of 11 candidates, Councilwoman Donna Frye, the only woman and the only Democrat, did not muster an outright majority vote but came out triumphantly in the lead.

DONNA chant.
FRYE: "My main message is open honest government, clean up the pension mess and make sure that the public interest is represented."

But Frye's popularity in the neighborhoods was not a match for the financial backing or influential support that former police chief Jerry Sanders mustered, and in November Sanders won the mayor's seat.

Cheering Jerry..
SANDERS: "San Diegans have chosen to clean house at city hall and make city government more accountable to you and your neighbors."

In the new city government that goes into effect next month, the mayor will be the CEO of the city, but the council, or legislative branch, will balance that power. City councilman Scott Peters, elected its first president this month, will have a leadership role to play.

PETERS: "This is a big step for us to grow up as a city, we've elected a mayor who can be held accountable, now we have a legislature that will operate independently and I'm just so honored to be the first president of that, it's just a great feeling."

Finally all the pieces are in place and the scene is set for San Diego to move ahead under new leadership, people who have the faith and hopes of the electorate and their colleagues behind them.

SANDERS: "Beginning January first, San Diego city government will begin the most sweeping reform in its history. There will be a new structure, new faces, new ideas and a new commitment to transparency, accountability and customer service."

No doubt Sanders hopes next year will be somewhat less full of unexpected drama. But there are no guarantees. Alison St. John, KPBS news.