Civility? We don’t need no stinkin’ civility

by Norma Damashek/ NumbersRunner

Remember when One Book, One San Diego was touted as a way to create community and pull all San Diegans together?  Now there’s a new communal project being broadcast over the airwaves, via editorial essays, at public forums. It’s the rage called CIVILITY. 

In San Diego we all know what civilitymeans: play nice, be polite, don’t get hot under the collar about political issues, no matter how important.  Strong feelings about the world around you?  Keep them to a whisper.  Better still, just keep your mouth shut.

At the risk of sounding uncivil, I’m going to come right out and tell you this: Mayor Jerry Sanders has betrayed the public.  How? by refusing to separate the communal public agenda from the financial agendas of the people who brought him to power – the heavy-hitting fraternity of property developers, hoteliers, bankers, sports team owners, and financiers.  They took up residence in the mayor’s office 7 years ago and should have been evicted.  He never showed them the door.

At the risk of sounding doubly uncivil I’ll tell you this: by climbing into bed with Carl DeMaio’s campaign and supporters, our avuncular Mayor Sanders revealed one of  his least endearing charms – the broken ethical/moral compass he uses to justify a long history of political ineptitude, questionable judgment, and cover-ups.

Before we pursue this subject further, let’s take two steps backwards for some pertinent information about our city and mayor.

Before Jerry Sanders took office as the 30th (give or take) mayor of San Diego our city was governed by a 9-member city council — 8 council members plus the mayor.  Under that system, the mayor was the leading member of the council but had only a single vote.  (Remember these former mayors? Dick Murphy, Susan Golding, Maureen O’Connor, Roger Hedgecock, Pete Wilson, Frank Curran – they all served as mayor under the previous ‘city manager’ system.)

 Under the old ‘city manager’ system a professional City Manager was appointed by the mayor and council to run day-to-day operations, oversee city departments, develop an annual budget, and be an all-around point man.  During those days the city often scored high points in the category of efficiency and good management.

 In 2005 the city of San Diego switched to a ‘strong mayor’ system.   Under our new system the mayor is the city’s chief executive.  He no longer interfaces with the public at weekly meetings of the city council.  He no longer votes openly on city matters, but he does have a powerful veto (which can be overridden only with a ⅔ vote of the city council).  Under the new system the ‘strong mayor’ is the titular head of city departments, controls the flow of city information, and puts together the city budget.

Jerry Sanders is the first mayor to operate under the new ‘strong mayor’ form of government.  The way the fable is told, the buck stops at the ‘strong mayor’ door.  But it hasn’t worked that way.  During his past 7 years in office, Mayor Sanders conducted the public’s business through private deals behind the closed door of his city hall office – well out of reach of constituents who come down to city hall to air their concerns… well out of reach of ordinary residents whose points of view have been — uncivilly — ignored.

In an equally destructive abuse of mayoral power, Sanders also ignored his responsibility to ensure honest and effective management of city business.  Instead, he surrounded himself with political operatives and flushed good city management down our faulty city drains by:

  • not knowing or caring enough to get a competent, professional city manager to oversee the city’s complex inner workings
  • looking the other way as the city’s day-to-day operations and city services fell into disarray from inadequate oversight of city departments, contracts, personnel, projects, and performance standards
  • deceiving the public with spurious budgets and fiscal forecasts to whitewash San Diego’s terrible financial and structural problems and keep downtown developers happy
So why did Jerry Sanders endorse Carl DeMaio? Is it because:
a) the mayor likes the councilman’s personality?
b) he believes DeMaio would do a better job as mayor than Bob Filner?
c) he approves of the dubious personal baggage DeMaio will lug into city hall?
d) he depends on DeMaio’s mastery of the art of falsification, prevarication, deception, and amoral glibness to protect his own failures during two terms as mayor?

Yes, you’re right.  It’s d.

In exchange for the mayor’s endorsement of DeMaio, DeMaio will protect the mayor’s reputation by hiding the fact that Sanders is leaving the city in abysmal shape, worse than when he first took the oath of office.  DeMaio will guarantee safe passage for self-serving downtown power players and provide them with exclusive rights to occupy city hall.  Was this pact made in heaven or made with the devil? — you decide.

Back to civility.  If civility means a sweet smile while you repeatedly lie to the public… if civility means an amiable grin while you’re bullying your compatriots… if civility means fabricating facts to win at any cost… if civility looks like the cynical stage mask pasted on Carl DeMaio’s public face – you can count me out.

But when civility means saying what you mean and meaning what you say… respect for the public process and for tried and true good government principles… promoting public agendas over private agendas… electing a BETTER mayor to replace Jerry Sanders, not an incalculably worse one — you know can count me in.

Norma Damashek is a long-time civic activist who focuses on promoting decision-making that serves the public good. She has spearheaded community-based coalitions and served on city and regional-government task forces and as past president of San Diego’s League of Women Voters. She opines on her website NumbersRunner.


  1. avatarAndy Cohen says

    Doesn’t it also stand to reason, then, that the old city manager form of government was responsible for our city’s financial crisis? If no one is really in charge, then shit tends to go amok, and it did. The reason we elected to switch to a strong mayor form of government was so that we would actually have someone to take responsibility when things went bad…..and they went very, VERY bad under the old form of government.

    A city manager is not an elected official, and thus cannot be held accountable by the voters when things go bad. He also has no real authority. Lamont Ewell was a good and well intentioned guy, but ultimately he was powerless to do anything about the mess that was happening on his watch. And because he was not an elected official, it was easy to scapegoat him and say it was all his fault. That way no one has to take responsibility.

    Look, I get it: You don’t like Jerry Sanders. But I’m not convinced that he’s this evil, satanic pock on our city like some of you out there. Just because he’s a Republican doesn’t make him a bad guy or a bad mayor. The fact of the matter is that he took charge of this city when it was at its absolute lowest; when “Enron by the Sea” was what this city was known by. City Hall was an utter and complete DISASTER when Jerry Sanders stepped in. And Dick Murphy was quite possibly the most feckless and hapless mayor in this city’s history.

    For you to say, Norma, that this city is in WORSE shape than when Sanders was sworn in is complete and utter nonsense. It’s the height of stupidity. This city’s financial house is in order when it was not. Our credit rating has been restored. The pension system was well on its way to repair long before Prop B. The city’s services are slowly being restored to functional levels. He managed to do all of this despite the fact that this city and its residents have a history and a reputation for demanding services without wanting to pay for them. God forbid someone in this city should actually have to pay a 1/4 cent sales tax to pay for police, fire, and lifeguard services.

    San Diegans want a lot of things, but won’t allow the revenue streams to pay for them. You want fire pits at the beach? Pay for them. You want adequate lifeguard protection? Pay for it! You want to end rolling brownouts? FULLY FUND THE FIRE DEPARTMENT! You want your streets repaired and resurfaced? Pay for it! You want the water and sewage system updated? Fund it! But this city won’t because they don’t believe in paying taxes. So when shit doesn’t get done, instead of laying the blame where it belongs, we lay the blame on our elected officials who are left with no other choice but to find private sponsorships, for which they then get blamed for “cutting backroom deals” and “catering to special interests.” The reality is that we left them no choice. Perhaps if Prop D had passed Jerry Sanders wouldn’t have had to cut so many “backroom deals?”

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      I am no apologist for the City Manager form of government we had before. That being said, Mayor Sanders, strong mayor with a vengeance, has left the city worse off in significant ways. He has asserted control over information ranging from the American Recovery Act (stimulus funds) to the Capital Improvement Budget (CIP) and a whole lot in between. That means our legislative branch- the city council and their Independent Budget Analyst, and the citizens themselves depends upon what the mayor chooses to reveal and when he chooses to reveal it. This is not a viable system of checks and balances.
      His management model of Business Processing Re-engineering– the path to privatization, has dangerously reduced organic, inter-related systems of city services to their parts with the assumption that all of those parts can be centralized and made uniform. That is a hierarchical leadership style and it ignores reality. Departments are required to cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper.
      Sanders has institutionalized practices that are the antithesis to transparency and accountability. Combine that fact with the enormous pressures exerted upon our government by powerful private interests and you don’t get a pretty picture. No bouquet of roses in gratitude from me.

      • avatarAndy Cohen says

        So you don’t think the fact that this city has a history of demanding services without providing the means to pay for them might have had something to do with your assertion that “departments are required to cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper?” Remember that this mayor did try to pass a sales tax increase that he asserted at the time (and still does) would have largely, if not completely, put an end to that. We’ve demanded that our city government get smaller, more efficient. But we’ve also demanded more and better services; we demand new roads and for our sewer system to get fixed when it disintegrates on us. We also won’t allow them to do anything about a stadium that costs the taxpayers $17 million every year to operate.

        You accuse this city and this mayor of corruption. OK, maybe you have a point. But perhaps you might consider that it is corruption brought about by necessity? By the necessity of having to find new and creative ways to pay for things the taxpayers won’t? For example: We complain about the city selling corporate sponsorships to our beaches in order to raise money to pay for the lifeguards and maintenance of public land. And we complain about the fire pits at the beach areas being removed due to lack of funding for upkeep; and when they get corporate sponsorships in order to keep them in place for another year, we complain about that, too. At what point do we, the voters, take responsibility for not providing the resources that would allow our city government to keep up with our demands?

        • avatarAnna Daniels says

          Corruption isn’t brought about by necessity. Corruption is the complicity between powerful special interests and our governing bodies. The goal is personal financial gain, at the expense of the public good. Corruption is corrosive to democracy. It is toxic.

          • avatarAndy Cohen says

            First of all, I don’t think that there has been any actual corruption going on in City Hall, with the exception of the hotel tax for the convention center expansion. That whole deal stinks to high hell, and it of course was led by the esteemed mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio. Other than that, there is no proof as of right now that any of our public officials have done anything untoward for direct personal gain.

            Instead what has happened is that some of our public officials may have made some deals that we don’t like, and that appear untoward and highly favorable to the “special interests.” This, I argue, has been brought about by necessity, because they’re trying to fund projects and services that the taxpayers refuse to pay for.

            DeMaio’s intentions behind the convention center deal may be another story, but I don’t think you can discount the fact that the rest of the City Council may have gone along with it because they didn’t feel that there was any chance the voters would pass a tax increase to pay for it, particularly in light of what happened with Prop D. The assumption may have been that promoting a hotel tax increase in the normal way would have led to huge resistance by the hotel owners, which in turn would have led to likely defeat at the ballot box.

            You can use this same metric with the Balboa Park renovation. They didn’t think they could sell it to the public, Irwin Jacobs comes along with a pile of money to do it his way, so they went along with it. Certainly that’s the rationale Todd Gloria used when he voted in favor of it.

  2. avatarbob dorn says

    There certainly was plenty of chicanery during Council/Manager/Mayor governance, else we couldn’t have had the Golding era turn into the Murphy era and bankruptcy. But now? Who knows what Sanders is doing? Do reporters get his appointment calendar routinely, as they used to do? Do we know whom he meets?
    The previous system was messy and noisy but there was a vestigial sort of checks and balances system, and the manager had to come to the council meeting and answer questions. Who answers questions now?

  3. avatar says

    Plenty of people in San Diego have warm and fuzzy feelings about Mayor Sanders and it’s clear how unsettling it is when they’re asked to open their eyes to reality and substitute fact for wishful thinking.

    San Diego continues to be in DEEP financial trouble, made much worse by a mayor who either refused to or was incapable of tackling big-time city problems. He gets an A, however, for protecting the financial interests of a long line of city and county cronies and for keeping the lid on — until he sails off into a plush, well-pensioned retirement. He got his and his associates are getting theirs — that’s apparently all that matters.

    Does he rank as one of our worst mayors? Could be. Time will tell whether we can recoup what’s been lost during the past 7 years of evasion, deception, and manipulation. Could it get worse? Yes! And Sanders is right there, willing to send us over the cliff with his endorsement of DeMaio.

    Please don’t be confused — this has little to do with our form of government. ‘Strong mayor’ or ‘city manager’ systems both require elected and appointed officials with intelligence and integrity to make and keep a healthy city.

  4. avatardoug porter says

    And let us not neglect the “business improvement districts” when it comes to potential sources of corruption during the sanders era.

  5. avatarNadin says

    Here is a great read for all, Paradise Plundered. No, this does not go back to the Sanders Administration, but rather all the way back to the 1870s… and it is a matter of culture, as in political culture. It’s just gotten worst. At least Horton (who was far from a saint) cared about the city. I am not so sure about Manchester.