Nov. 28 2012 09:42 AM

An editorial retrospective on the outgoing mayor’s tenure

Sanders on the campaign trail in 2005
Photo by Daniel Strumpf

This past weekend, sometimes rational U-T San Diego columnist Matt Hall declared that Jerry Sanders is the best mayor in the history of San Diego. Yikes! The glorification of the termed-out leader has begun. During the next week or so, city muckety-mucks will heap praise upon Sanders for taking a city buried deep in scandal and red ink, fixing it up and making it look shiny and new.

In our editorials, we’ve often said how fond of Sanders we are, as a genuine person, but it was almost always like anesthetizing him before we went in with a scalpel and started carving him up for his policies.

During the past week, we went back and read all of the editorials we wrote about Sanders and decided to use the exercise as a retrospective on his tenure, CityBeat-style. Man, pretty much the only thing we ever liked was his about-face on gay marriage. The rest of it’s a criticism cavalcade.


Probably the first words written in CityBeat about Sanders came after he spoke at a May 2005 forum of potential Republican special-election candidates to replace Dick Murphy as mayor. Editor David Rolland wrote, “Call me crazy, but I like this fellow. Maybe it was because he seems like kindly Uncle Jerry who’d give you the shirt off his back if you found yourself shirtless. Maybe it’s because he refused to take [then-chair of the local Republican Party Ron] Nehring’s bait and attack Donna Frye. Maybe because he wants to reappoint whistleblower Diann Shipione to the city’s pension board.”

Less than three months later, though, during the primary-election campaign, we were bemoaning Sanders’ lack of clear ideas and squishiness on taxes. Early on, Sanders positioned himself as a steadying force who’d get San Diego back on track in the wake of a series of scandals, and he was forced by challenger Steve Francis’ hard line on taxes to eventually take a tax hike off the table. Francis didn’t make the runoff election.

In October, just before the runoff election between Sanders and City Councilmember Frye, we were skeptical that Sanders’ proposed reforms would solve the city’s financial problems and dismissive of his suggestion that the city could borrow money to pay off its pension obligations. In our endorsement of Frye, we criticized Sanders’ inability to articulate—in an interview with Kelly Davis—any semblance of a vision for the city.

“Sanders fizzled out after about seven minutes,” we mocked, “relying on canned campaign material like ‘living within our means.’” We also worried about his plans to streamline the permitting process for developers.

After he beat Frye, we praised his sober characterizations of the city’s finances and his decision to forego pomp and circumstance for his inauguration, but we had lingering distaste for his denigration of Frye’s integrity during the campaign.

After Sanders’ first State of the City speech in January 2006, we said, “CityBeat didn’t support Sanders; we found the campaign his advisors ran for him distasteful. But, in our view, he’s off to a great start, and, as long as he remains his own man and stays true to his own values, he’ll do just fine.” We added, “It was positively delightful knowing that the city insiders were in the audience squirming in their seats when Sanders said, ‘San Diego’s municipal government has failed its citizens and become an embarrassing and corrupt impediment to progress.’” 

We were hopeful of an alliance between Sanders and corruption-hunting City Attorney Mike Aguirre, but we continued to state our concern that without tax hikes, city services would crumble.

Soon, Sanders had gotten down to the business of pension reform and managed competition, pushing two initiatives on the June 2006 ballot: Prop. B would require voters to approve any new benefits for city employees while Prop. C would allow increased outsourcing of city services to the private sector. We didn’t like either one of them—Prop. B because it was unnecessary and Prop. C because we thought it would lead to people getting less in salary and benefits for doing the same work.

Sanders’ friendliness with developers became an issue that spring, after the Building Industry Association (BIA) sued the city over its inclusionary-housing ordinance, the law passed in 2003 that requires developers to either set aside housing units as “affordable” or pay an in-lieu fee into a fund that would pay for affordable housing. At issue was when the in-lieu fee is assessed. Assessing it earlier in the process would save developers millions—and shortchange the housing fund.

“The BIA and Mayor Jerry Sanders,” we wrote in April, “got together and hammered out a ‘compromise’ that was not so much a compromise as it was a total capitulation to the builders. The ‘compromise’ was presented to members of the City Council last week. Before they voted, two lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office told them they had a strong legal defense of the city’s current policy.”

In July 2006, we gave Sanders the thumbs-up for essentially telling the San Diego Chargers to go ahead and shop the team around to other cities in the region. But two weeks later, we were ripping him again. “With each passing week,” we wrote, “Sanders looks more and more like a man positioning himself for reelection and less and less like the man who said he’d lead by making tough, sometimes unpopular choices.”

A couple of things had been stuck in our craw: He was showing no willingness to even consider raising certain fees to the levels of other large California cities as a way to help solve the budget crisis, and he’d endorsed an appeal of a judicial demand to move the Mount Soledad cross.

But really bugging us was Sanders’ stance against what bureaucrats call “indirect potable reuse”—turning sewage into potable water—and critics, including Sanders, call “toilet to tap.” By then, the practice was considered scientifically safe and sound, but Sanders was tapping into the public’s irrational fear.

By the fall of 2006, Sanders had put a stranglehold on the dissemination of information from the city to the public, and we gave him grief for it.

In spring of 2007, the Sunroad scandal blew up in Sanders’ face. The city had allowed a company (run by a campaign contributor), Sunroad Enterprises, to erect a 12-story office building in Kearny Mesa that federal aviation and state transportation officials had, in advance and in no uncertain terms, deemed a hazard for pilots attempting to land planes at Montgomery Field. Though his land-use chief had pulled the strings, Sanders accepted blame. We were only happy to agree that it was indeed his fault; we summed it up as a product of his too-chummy attitude toward developers and private businesses.

To hear CityBeat tell it, Sanders had developed a bit of a fibbing problem by the summer of 2007. We caught him misleading the public amid a flap over a mandatory-recycling ordinance being pushed by Mike Aguirre, and around the same time, he got caught making a false statement about a detail in the Sunroad scandal.

“Your past declarations of honest reform now sound like lip service,” we wrote in an open letter to Sanders. “Empty rhetoric disguising business-as-usual. Meaningless sound bites diverting attention away from back-room dealing.”

But, oh, what a difference a couple of months and a momentous flip-flop make.

In September, Sanders became the apple of our eyes when he made national news by switching his position on same-sex marriage.

“His sudden strong stance in favor of equality under the law,” we wrote, “could split the Republicans locally and isolate the wing of the party populated by the sort intolerant bigots who want to teach Christianity in public schools, keep people like Terri Schiavo from dying with dignity, stop potentially groundbreaking stem-cell research, make abortion illegal and much more dangerous and strip gay citizens of their constitutional rights.”

The honeymoon didn’t last. By the end of the year, we were giving Sanders guff again for his timid take on sewage-water recycling and for trying to strike language in the city’s General Plan, at the behest of hoteliers, that called for jobs that offer livable wages and good benefits.

Other than a difference of opinion with the mayor over how the city auditor should be hired and fired, he was pretty much free from our wrath during the first half of 2008—an election year.

The June primary pitted him, once again, against Steve Francis, who was never in the running for our endorsement. The way our recommendation of Sanders began, you’d swear we’d forgotten everything we’d ever written about the guy:

“Mayor Sanders, the person, is nothing if not genuine. With apologies to his strident critics, we like the guy. We’ve tried not to, but we can’t help it.”

That’s always been our conundrum with Sanders: We dig the man but hate his politics. Despite our litany of grievances, we sure as hell weren’t going to pick Francis, who did not win. You’re welcome, Jerry.

Near the end of 2008, as an already-cash-strapped city was beginning to feel the impact of a national recession, Sanders was blasting the City Council for refusing to make tough choices on cuts to city services, choosing instead to raid reserve funds to keep rec centers and libraries open. We turned the tables on him, chiding him for refusing to show leadership on the need for new revenue, and began to bang the drum on charging single-family-home residents for trash pickup.

“He says the citizenry doesn’t trust its elected officials to spend increased revenue intelligently,” we wrote in November, “reinforcing the sentiment each time he utters it.”

We added, in our final editorial of the year, “Now, the real Jerry Sanders can stand up. Now, instead of cowering in the face of any perceived public apprehension, he can become a force for increased public awareness, understanding and sophistication. Now, Sanders can aim for the highest common denominator, rather than the lowest.

“This is the ideal climate,” we continued, “for Sanders and the City Council to have an honest, in-depth conversation about how much tax revenue is collected in the city and where it comes from, and how much it costs to provide basic municipal services.”

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