By Norma Damashek
In my previous commentary, Poor Mayor Faulconer I used words like inconsequential… vacuous… lightweight… ineffectual… to describe San Diego’s current mayor. Judging from readers’ responses, those adjectives seem to be right on target.
But the nagging question about how a political nonentity like Kevin Faulconer could run unopposed for a second term as mayor with nary a single qualified opponent willing to challenge him – has taken a new turn.
Gretchen Newsom – community activist, chairperson of the Ocean Beach town council, rejected contender for a temporary council appointment when Faulconer moved from his council office into the mayor’s office – shocked everyone at the recent County Democratic Party convention when she took the stage to declare that she would step into the void and challenge Faulconer in his run for reelection.
It was a strategic and gutsy decision that ought to put both the labor establishment and the local Democratic Party’s stagnant, bumbling, delinquent leadership to shame.
(To be fair, Newsom is not the first person to step forward to challenge mayor Faulconer. She joins Greg Morales, Latino activist from District 9’s Encanto neighborhood, whose candidacy was written up in CityBeat last month.)
Gretchen Newsom’s deus ex machina bombshell was a stimulating rush for many San Diegans in chronic despair over the barrenness of our city’s political landscape.
I, too, entertain moments of hopefulness that a new generation of smart, principled, thoughtful, outspoken, public-minded, courageous individuals are working in the wings, honing their skills to eventually run for political office. So what makes me skittish about the present scenario?
It’s not so much the lopsided David v. Goliath odds between financially and organizationally undernourished newbies and a propped-up incumbent mayor heeling to his fat-cat political handlers.
What’s so screwy is that San Diego voters seem to believe that the mayor’s job can be done by any Tom, Dick, or Harriet.
But in a complex city like ours it takes professional wherewithal and specialized talents to do right by the public.
(Not that our batting record is encouraging. For a reminder of the long odds in a city like ours, refer back to my report on getting away with murder.)
Up till a decade ago the full city council (which included the mayor) would hire a professionally-trained city manager to oversee city business. Once we inaugurated a “strong mayor” form of governance the process became more politicized. The “strong mayor” (Jerry Sanders, Bob Filner, Kevin Faulconer) now has exclusive power to hire and fire a personal manager, directly answerable to him, to oversee city departments.
We put our faith in the mayor to hire a trustworthy and qualified manager with integrity and loyalty – not just to the big boss but to the public at large. It’s a daunting job to supervise the whole gamut of public services: police, fire, financial, trash, utilities, streets and sewers, city computer systems, city property, contracts, neighborhood services, planning, construction permits, economic development…
But faith won’t suffice. Reports from the city’s independent auditor show how often the mayor and his second-in-command manager have fallen short in the management and delivery of public services.
On the list are management failures to adequately regulate/enforce city laws and codes… failure to improve skeletal staffing levels in vital city departments… failure to address the backlog of basic infrastructure needs… failure to eliminate fraud and waste in city contracts… failure to track and manage the undergrounding of power and utility lines… failure to account for misspent funds appropriated for the Balboa Park Centennial celebration… failure to act on accounting discrepancies with Rural/Metro ambulance services… failure to permit in-house monitoring of police sexual misconduct complaints… failure to provide adequate management of capital improvement projects…
Obviously, running city government is not a job either for professional charlatans whose talent is pulling the wool over public eyes or for well-meaning amateurs with minimal expertise and shaky backup support systems.
Ironically, the cynical vacuum in leadership and vision in the local political scene has set us up for a dismal choice between an unworthy known and an untested unknown.
We run the risk of drifting into tea party territory where a term-limited, shrunken role for government is glorified and the necessity for well-organized, experienced, enlightened politicians is devalued. Let’s not go there.
John Lawrence says
What are the chances of going back to the type of government we had before the “strong mayor” came into being and would that be a desirable thing?
norma damashek says
There’s really nothing magical about the old City Manager system — plenty of internal malfeasance in the old days, as I know you remember.
We did get a couple of bonuses when we brought in a strong mayor system. One was the office of Independent Budget Analyst (who does a reasonably good job a lot of the time, given that her boss is the city council and she has to be careful around the mayor if she wants the cooperation for information from mayor-controlled city departments).
The other bonus was a much more independent city auditor. He’s San Diego’s best and least appreciated watchdog.
bob dorn says
Neighbourhood activists go to City Hall to beg for infrastructure maintenance while the Republicans seek to expand the Convention Center and erect another stadium with public money. Do we build new schools? Why do we have to wait decades for a single new fire station? San Diego is modelled after the predatory Republican state that has evolved nationally, where only the military and the intelligence complex can rely on funding, and the Republicans can safely threaten to close down government if it funds Planned Parenthood. It’s probably not possible to be a part of something you want to kill, but if the Republicans continue to shut down all but the police and military functions of government tthey’ll do a hell of a lot of damage before they’re finally defeated.
Vox Populi says
The clueless are over-represented – in Congress, in much of the news media and unfortunately, in local government…’right here in River City’
David Roknich says
It’s true that the office of City Manager is political. Regardless of the surrounding political structure. Civic Management, as a field of study, is dominated by Republicans in the first place, but there are other issues. Briefly, I would suggest the complete abandonment of the single manager in favor of a staff with divided authority, except in the smallest cities, where the choice between “Strong Mayor” or Council-Mananger system is chosen pragmatically, and not etched in stone when one or the other goes awry.