Why San Diego city manager Jack McGrory quit the Susan Golding team

The convention center, the stadium, the ill-fated library plans

— In the end, it was a fatal combination. The gawky, jock-obsessed control freak and the ambitious small-town politician. Jack McGrory and Susan Golding. They were an odd pair, thrown together by political circumstances. Golding, elected mayor in 1992, inherited McGrory, the city manager hand-picked just a year earlier by her predecessor, Maureen O'Connor. McGrory came out of Boston via Colgate University, with a stint as an infantry officer in the marines, and then settled in as a midlevel bureaucrat at San Diego's city hall before destiny called. Golding was a state college administrator's daughter who used her personal attachments to two powerful men to enter politics. Neither, it was whispered, was big on substance.

During their honeymoon year, both projected a naivete that seemed difficult to contrive. First there was Golding's plan to buy an aging downtown high-rise - the old Bank of America building at Seventh and Broadway - and turn it into a new central library. McGrory stood at Golding's side, nodding when the mayor announced to the press that the idea would save taxpayers money. Behind the scenes, librarians were aghast at the plan, pointing out that renovations to the structure would cost far more than building from scratch. But even as the plan got deeper into trouble when the building's owners refused to sell, McGrory defended it.

Eventually, both backed away from the notion, but not before taxpayers had been forced to spend more than $100,000 on wasted studies. Three years later, Golding announced yet another library proposal, again put together by the mayor in private with no public discussion. And once again McGrory was by her side with his endorsement of a plan now expected to cost far more than $100 million, if it is ever built. Already, taxpayers have been forced to front more than $3 million in fees for architects and planning while costs and controversy mount.

The pattern has been often repeated. Both McGrory and Golding liked to concoct pet projects behind closed doors, sources say. And they didn't like outside interference. "All that crazy stuff - the sports arena, the library, the Alex Spanos stadium giveaway - sprang straight out of their heads," says one long-time city hall insider. "They both think they're brilliant human beings, and everybody else is an idiot, and that's a pretty dangerous way to think, especially when you're supposed to be protecting the taxpayers. If they wanted something, they grabbed for it like greedy bastards, and eventually they paid the price."

Neither McGrory nor Golding was big on consulting others about their plans. Under the city charter, the city manager is supposed to run the city without the day-to-day interference of the mayor and council. The council, which includes the mayor, can hire and fire the manager with a majority vote but isn't supposed to pressure him to get its way. Policy is supposed to be made during the council's public sessions.

McGrory and Golding stretched that limitation, and some sources say broke it, in their pursuit of personal power. "They often met secretly and worked out the details of a deal before it got to council," says another city hall insider. "The stadium and the library are just a couple of examples. Don't forget the Republican convention. That was Jack and Susan's masterpiece. Somebody spent $30 million on that, and nobody can produce the paperwork to account for it."

In the past, when city fathers considered big-spending items, they formed task forces to hash them out through the give and take of exhaustive public meetings. Under McGrory, the procedure was different. He made all the crucial decisions, announced them as done deals, and when reporters or members of the public had the temerity to ask for more information, their calls went unreturned, and they were forced to hire attorneys to invoke the state's public records act in order to obtain even the most rudimentary information.

An early example was McGrory's plan for a downtown sports arena, which Golding made her "top priority" of 1993. "It will be a catalyst for both residential and commercial development," she told the L.A. Times, "and a signature structure that celebrates downtown San Diego as a place where people want to live, work, play, and visit." Skeptics pointed out that the city had little prospect of getting an nba team to play in the new arena, but McGrory brushed them off, and Golding shepherded his plan to spend more than $1.5 million on architects and planning studies through the council. The arena is "on a fast track, and it's going to remain on a fast track," McGrory said in February 1994. "At some point, the members of the city council are going to have to make some hard decisions." Chimed in Golding, "I want to send a strong message to the nba that the mayor and the council want a new sports arena and are willing to build it."

The fast track, as it turned out, went nowhere. McGrory eventually wrote off more than $2 million on planning studies and staff overhead when the project was abandoned in 1995. Instead of acknowledging their failure, however, Golding and McGrory moved onto what they thought were greener pastures: the expansion of the stadium in Mission Valley and the implicit, but secret, commitment to a new baseball park downtown. Critics claim the stadium was McGrory's waterloo. McGrory insists it was the biggest victory of his career. Either way, it was a watershed for both Golding and McGrory. Until the stadium deal with Alex Spanos exploded into the public consciousness late in 1996, the pair had been on a roll, with much of the success attributed by many to McGrory's stonewall tactics. Chief exhibit: the '96 Republican convention.

In early 1995, the city council voted to give McGrory exclusive control over financial terms of the convention, allowing him to spend city money without further public review. Although costs climbed to historic proportions, estimated at more than $30 million, the convention came off without any embarrassing hitches and Golding, the event's chief San Diego patron, advanced her personal political agenda. With help from high-ranking executives at the Union-Tribune, who squelched a wide-ranging investigation into costs by the paper's reporters, public criticism of the cost overruns was muted. McGrory, who at one time had promised a detailed accounting of the financing arrangements, never produced one.

The stadium turned out to be a different story. Back in November 1993, when the group that then owned the Padres first called for construction of a new baseball stadium, McGrory rejected the notion. "An interesting idea, but it's not going to work out financially," he told the Union-Tribune. "We've got a great stadium. We think it's very well maintained, it's got a great grass surface, the best in the National League, and it's a good baseball stadium."

A year later, when the team was sold to computer software mogul John Moores, McGrory made no attempt to extract a promise from Moores to keep the team in San Diego longer than the 1999 expiration of the team's lease at its Mission Valley stadium. Under terms of the lease, the City could have vetoed the sale to Moores under certain circumstances, a power that sources say would have given the City greater leverage in negotiating a new lease on favorable terms to the taxpayers. Instead, McGrory allowed the sale to proceed unhindered. Immediately after Moores closed the deal, he began talking about two options after the lease ran out in 1999: a new, taxpayer-financed stadium or moving the team to another city.

Meanwhile, the Chargers had made it to the Super Bowl and owner Alex Spanos was leaning hard on Golding for a better deal in Mission Valley. Under McGrory's direction, the City had been meeting with Spanos even before the trip to the Super Bowl. When Golding accompanied Spanos back from the team's defeat in Miami in January 1995, the deal - including a controversial 60,000-seat-per-game ticket guarantee virtually dictated by Spanos and his attorneys - was ready for public consumption.

The "great baseball stadium" that McGrory had praised the year before was to be closed in and customized for football. The deal was rushed through the council that spring. When a reporter asked for reports on construction costs and lease-term comparisons that had been prepared by a city consultant to the Spanos talks, she was told that the material had been destroyed.

McGrory made no secret of his love for sports, and he hung out at the city council's private stadium box during games. He liked to swap sports stories, and he had a memory for even the most trivial statistics. At 6'7", he was a standout player in high school basketball. When Richard Rider and Bruce Henderson first challenged the Spanos deal in court in late 1995, McGrory was livid. On his recommendation, the council spent more than $500,000 on the expensive downtown law firm of Luce, Forward in a bitter fight against Rider's efforts to put the project on the ballot. Many observers say it became a personal vendetta, and McGrory's words seemed to bear them out. "We kicked their butts all the way to the supreme court," McGrory liked to say after the City won when the state supreme court declined to hear the case.

Perhaps that was why McGrory was so adamant about moving in the bulldozers that night in late December 1996, after more than 60,000 San Diego voters had signed petitions calling for an election on the Spanos deal. As the fight over the stadium heated up during early 1997, McGrory's rhetoric became ever harsher. Henderson and Rider were "urban terrorists," he said in a speech to one community planning group. He announced he would sue them to recover punitive damages for delaying the stadium expansion. A friendly judge eventually ruled that the petition drive was meaningless and that the City could proceed with its sweetheart deal with Spanos. McGrory was jubilant.

But the victory soon turned Pyrrhic, at least for McGrory, who had carried the water and taken the flak. First there was the question of the Padres, who had sat by while McGrory handed out the goodies to Spanos. Now it was their turn, and they made it clear they would bolt town if they didn't get a new stadium of their own, on equivalent terms. As a result of the commotion over the stadium, polls showed high levels of public skepticism about any new ballpark, and politicians of all stripes pledged to put it on the ballot. McGrory's trademark secret ways were repudiated by an opportunistic Golding eager to distance herself from the controversy. She formed a task force to hold hearings. McGrory was edged to the sidelines.

Then, too, another shoe, the ticket guarantee, began to drop. Sixty thousand seats a game, it turned out, were a lot to sell, and McGrory, who said he was counting on the Chargers, had no experience selling them. Establishment business figures, who during the controversy over the Spanos deal said they would have no trouble unloading the seats, made themselves scarce. The San Diego International Sports Council, a group the city council had been counting on to sell tickets to the public, submitted a bill for $15,000 to cover just one month of its activities, which was paid out of tax money. McGrory and his lieutenants failed to return phone calls to explain. By last month, it was clear that the City would face festering problems that would continue to highlight McGrory's deal with Spanos. No judge could save him from that.

McGrory was also finding himself marginalized in the battle over expanding the downtown convention center. He had bet all his cards on a legal battle with the Rider group to keep the expansion off the ballot. Many felt he had no choice. The cost of the project had soared from $140 million to $211 million in less than two years and threatened to go even higher. Many inside city hall believed the heat of an election campaign would kill the idea once and for all.

The strategy seemed to be working. A financing deal had been secretly cobbled together between the Port of San Diego and the City. No election would be needed. As with the stadium, bulldozers were about to roll. Rider's lawsuit had been dismissed by local judges, and the state supreme court rarely took such cases for review. But the dice rolled against McGrory, and the seven justices in San Francisco decided to hear Rider's arguments.

Facing the possibility that the court would throw out the entire plan, or at least delay it for a year, it became obvious that McGrory's stonewalling tactics had failed. Downtown business moguls, including Douglas Manchester, who controls the hotels directly adjacent to the convention center, began to cast about for a fresh strategy. McGrory remained adamant against an election, but Manchester, who had staged an initiative measure in favor of moving the airport to Miramar, had the money to buy his way onto the ballot and around the city council by collecting signatures. The game no longer belonged to McGrory.

In less than a year, the neat, sequestered, well-controlled world of Jack McGrory seemed to be unraveling. Golding had wilted under the stadium fire and was preoccupied with her own exit strategy, her campaign for the U.S. Senate. When Golding called on him to deliver the city for the gop convention, McGrory had loyally produced. He had also delivered for Spanos, who was one of Golding's chief political money men. But that was yesterday, and McGrory's baggage was beginning to pile up. Last week, he resigned.

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