Norma Damashek accuses Jerry Sanders of speeding toward strong mayor

Mike Aguirre told to stop using the word "corrupt"

— 'They're all marching to the same drummer. Nobody is supposed to get out of step. The rule is to obey orders." That's activist Norma Damashek talking about city government under Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former police chief, and his chief operating officer, Ronne Froman, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral. "The police force is a quasi-military organization." The mayor's background "falls into the military model," and Froman, his second-in-command, can't shake her spit-and-polish roots, if she is even trying to do so. "There are tight controls and lines of authority. That is appropriate to a military, but a democracy dies if that's what you do."

In particular, Damashek and others are deeply concerned about the double-time pace at which the mayor's hand-picked charter review committee is trying to push through changes that would concentrate power in the mayor's office well beyond the scope of the so-called strong mayor concept.

Damashek has put her finger on a major problem of the Sanders administration: it is not compatible with democracy. "City employees are fearful to speak and directed not to speak," says Councilmember Donna Frye. "The public persona is 'I have an open government and people are free to speak,' but heaven help them if they do. They are not going to be long for this world."

"Somebody should give Ronne Froman a copy of the Federalist Papers," says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Those papers spell out protection of individual liberty, describing "checks and balances, separation of powers -- the essence of representative government," says Erie. Today's city hall is all about "the Navy culture of command and control. Sanders and Froman represent that authoritarian culture" that has dominated San Diego for a century and once again is worsening. "Froman has complained to the mayor's charter committee about interference -- but she was complaining about people who were just doing their job in a democracy."

The mayor's charter review committee is made up of 15 citizens, and a majority are lawyers, lobbyists, and toadies of various kinds representing the establishment, particularly developers. It's the plutocracy stumping for autocracy. The committee leaders are trying to get recommendations to the council by September 14 so the package can go on the ballot as early as February or perhaps June. Either date would be far too soon; the first meeting was only in April. The debate over such changes should take years and involve the public.

Damashek attended a meeting of one of the subcommittees. "Julie Dubick [Sanders's director of policy] was at the meeting, directing the whole event," says Damashek. "She is the mayor's envoy to the committee, keeps them in line, keeps them from straying from what they are supposed to be talking about. It is not independent. The mayor set up this committee and issued statements on what he wants them to do."

A representative of the city attorney's office was in attendance. "Dubick told that person to tell [City Attorney] Mike Aguirre that he has to stop using the word 'corrupt.' This is a public meeting, Aguirre is an elected official, and the mayor's messenger is giving instructions [to him through his representative]."

This is the typical military mentality: the way to handle corruption is to issue an order forcing people to stop talking about it. One of the 15 members of the charter review committee (a member of the small minority representing communities) remarks, "The way to end corruption is to let the sunshine in. But I have never heard anything like that mentioned in any of the meetings."

(As Matt Potter revealed in a recent Reader column, Julie Dubick's husband was representing Sunroad Enterprises in a tax matter at the same time the city bureaucracy was giving the developer the go-ahead to complete a building that defies Federal Aviation Administration and California Department of Transportation height guidelines near airports.)

Damashek and the two minority committee members I interviewed report that the committee and subcommittee heads, along with a paid consultant, keep taking small-arms potshots at Aguirre. Again, this is typical military. The district attorney, attorney general's office, U.S. attorney's office (with Carol Lam now gone), the police and sheriff's offices are all in the pocket of San Diego's big money. Only Aguirre is fighting corruption. So Sanders and his committee heads want to make the city attorney's post an appointed one. Former mayor Pete Wilson was invited to address the committee: "Wilson wanted more positions that are now elected to be appointed; he tooted that horn, particularly regarding the city attorney," says one minority committee member.

Similarly, the committee heads want Sanders, in effect, to control the naming of a city auditor rather than having it an elected post. At one meeting, Andrea Tevlin of the Office of Independent Budget Analysis said that Sanders's system for controlling the auditor post is outdated, remembers Damashek. "Nobody is recommending that kind of system now," Damashek says. "But the mayor wants it. It looks like it is independent but isn't. It's a matter of keeping control of information so typical of the military mindset."

Tevlin reports to the council, not the mayor. At one committee meeting, Froman made "inappropriate" remarks about Tevlin, according to one minority committee member, and just recently the mayor's lackeys said they wanted to look at the independent budget analyst's job. That is hardly surprising: the word "independent" is in Tevlin's title. That's anathema to the military. One committee member recalls a discussion of whether meetings might be held out in the neighborhoods. The committee head was against doing much of it. "All these things are decided by the mayor [and his inner circle] when we are not around," says the member, who adds, "I'm beginning to think this charter committee is just for show. I'm being used." Communities are being shortchanged; the outsiders "are thinking of submitting a minority report."

Sanders/Froman have a military communications machine. "Our City must speak with one voice at least with respect to the departments under my command," Sanders said in a note to staff August 4 of last year. "Employees in mayoral departments should reflect the opinions of my administration when speaking with the news media."

"The employees are supposed to write down and report whatever information councilmembers, the city attorney, or budget analyst request," says Frye. "The most difficult thing today is getting accurate, timely information without having to go through the spin machine."

"This Navy culture will grow with Ronne Froman; many more things will have a Navy twang," says a pro-community member of the charter review committee. This member thinks the military mentality will particularly affect the business process re-engineering initiative, along with companion plans to outsource government work to the private sector under competitive bidding. "This is a carbon copy of what the Department of Defense and Navy started doing in the mid- to late 1990s," says the member. The problem is that Sanders is counting on re-engineering to provide big savings, but he won't get specific on just what that entails.

That's happening in the military, too. These processes "can make sense in some situations, but they are not all-encompassing, and some say the government is not saving what it says it is saving," says the committee member. In San Diego, there will be one big risk: when work is outsourced to the private sector, "A contributor base is developed. It funds the mayor's campaigns."

Says Erie, who is writing a book for Stanford Press, Troubled Paradise: Fiscal Crisis and Political Turmoil in San Diego, "This administration needs a check on executive power. It's an imperial government with no checks, beholden to wealthy contributors, particularly developers."

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