Some enterprises signal what’s going on inside by hanging a red light outside. Mayor Jerry Sanders has revealed what’s going on inside his administration by setting up a group of committees to carry out his goals. Officially, the name is “Mayor’s Civic Leadership 2009–2012.” It should be named “San Diego Belongs to the Lobbyists.”
Verily, the Sanders committees are so loaded with registered lobbyists — mainly working for the real estate development industry — that there should no longer be any doubt about who runs the City.
There are 51 members of committees pushing community projects such as a new stadium for the Chargers. Of those, no fewer than 20 are registered lobbyists. (Some serve on more than one committee.) And those who aren’t registered lobbyists are long-term corporate-welfare mendicants. Most significantly, I don’t see even token representatives from community planning and environmental groups, or even labor. “In other cities, these committees are balanced; they put environmentalists on them, union people. I don’t see that in this town,” says activist Mel Shapiro.
Councilmember Donna Frye, political scientist Steve Erie, and former state legislator Jim Mills express the same sentiment: Sanders’s committees are almost wholly made up of downtown boosters who want to use taxpayer money to pay for splendiferous structures instead of repairing the rotting infrastructure or helping the needy. Redevelopment, which was intended for truly blighted areas, “has been totally subverted to corporate welfare,” says Erie, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Other California cities use redevelopment funds for “affordable housing, undeveloped neighborhoods — for public purposes. As the City’s financial situation becomes ever more precarious, the grandiose plans of downtown boosters grow ever greater.”
And that’s what Mayor Sanders’s committees are all about: grandiose structures such as a football stadium and convention-center expansion that line the pockets of real estate developers and their lobbyists while stealing money that should be used on necessities.
Observe the mayor’s committees. One of them is devoted to studying a new civic center, which the mayor is pushing. There are 13 people on the committee. Nine are registered lobbyists.
Here are the lobbyists and their affiliations:
• Sherm Harmer, chairman of Urban Housing Partners, whose clients include downtown’s struggling Smart Corner and Navarra Property Management. Harmer is a longtime leader of the Downtown Residential Marketing and Builders Alliance.
• Shirley Horton, former state legislator who now heads the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
• Donna Jones, of the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, whose lobbying clients include Black Mountain Ranch, Irvine Company, Lennar Communities, and McMillin Land Development.
• Craig Benedetto, of California Strategies, whose lobbying clients include the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and BOMA San Diego, an outfit that provides information on office development and leasing.
• Paul Robinson, a lawyer whose firm does lobbying for Shea Homes and Shea Properties.
• Robert Lankford, of the development firm bearing his name and a member of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
• Keith Jones, representing the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and a principal of Ace Parking Management.
• Tom Sudberry, of Sudberry Properties, a big developer.
• Lani Lutar, a lobbyist for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which does not represent the average taxpayer but does flak work for well-heeled members who seek taxpayer money for real estate projects that ought to be financed with private capital.
And what of the four members on the civic center committee who are not registered lobbyists? Well, Mike LaBarre of Fehlman LaBarre is an architect (now planning a building at 11th and B) and Greg Mueller is a principal of the architecture firm Tucker Sadler. Lee Burdick is a lawyer with Higgs Fletcher & Mack and a commissioner of the Port of San Diego. Reid Carr is with an advertising company that works for such clients as Sempra Energy. His firm brags that visitors can watch Padres games from the company’s balcony.
It is no secret that the City of San Diego is on the financial brink. Does anyone think that the members of this committee, all with a stake in downtown development, will carefully weigh the City’s fiscal condition when deciding if a civic center is really necessary? Silly boy/girl.
The mayor’s finance committee crossed him up. It put out a draft study, as reported by Voice of San Diego, that actually told the truth: the City suffers from a structural deficit that can’t be patched up with onetime measures. Employment should be cut sharply, and taxes may have to go up. If such measures fail, San Diego should consider bankruptcy. Sanders angrily dismissed the report. But here’s the key: only one member of that committee was a registered lobbyist.
Other committees should be more obedient. For example, 5 of the 11 on the group looking into charter reform are registered lobbyists, including chairman John Davies, whose law firm represents numerous operations such as Kilroy Realty and the Building Industry Association of San Diego. And 9 of the 22 members of the committee looking into streamlining permit processing are lobbyists, including Marcela Escobar-Eck, the onetime director of the City’s Development Services Department. A non-lobbyist on that committee is Jim Waring, Sanders’s former real estate czar who left under a cloud.
Among other members of Sanders’s committees are the usual suspects: Ben Haddad, chairman, and Ruben Barrales, president, of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce; attorney Lynn Schenk; port commissioner Steve Cushman; and chief executive of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation Julie Meier Wright.
“It would be a good idea to broaden the membership of these action teams,” says Frye. She fears the result of these stacked committees will be more misrepresentations to voters. “We need to stop telling people that there will be free civic centers, free football stadiums. Nothing is free. Somebody will pay for it. If it comes from redevelopment money, it still comes from taxes.”
Says Mills, former president pro tem of the state senate, “The Redevelopment Agency owes a lot of money to the City of San Diego. The redevelopment money should be used for paying for the consequences of redevelopment. The infrastructure is in bad shape, but we keep building new buildings. We have cast-iron water mains over 100 years old.”
Frye and Shapiro keep demanding that redevelopment funds be paid back to the City. “I keep sending emails, asking when this will be on the agenda,” says Shapiro. “Council and the mayor won’t touch it. Councilmembers like redevelopment in their districts.”
Finally, Erie sees good omens. “This is the last gasp of the old guard desperately trying to hold on,” he says. He compares Sanders’s committees with the elite, Waspish Committee of 25, created in the 1950s in Los Angeles. It controlled hospitals, foundations, cultural institutions — almost everything. But the Committee of 25 lost its power. “Smart cities diversify the stakeholders, have labor, environmentalists, minorities at the table. They look to the 21st Century. But this San Diego crowd looks toward the 19th Century. It’s sad.”
Redevelopment funds are concentrated downtown, says Erie. “In other big cities, the money goes to the neighborhoods.” Erie’s upcoming book, due late next year or early in 2011 from Stanford University Press, is titled Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis, Growth and Governance in San Diego.