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Friday, Feb 23, 2024



CEO: Jerry Sanders.

Chairman of the board: Mike Niggli,

starts in January.

Annual budget: $4 million.

No. of employees: 25.

Headquarters: Downtown San Diego.

Year founded: 1870.

Jerry Sanders was in good spirits last week, still getting used to the fact he is no longer mayor of San Diego.

“It’s been a little disorienting at first, but now it feels great,” Sanders said, on his first day as chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I got up at 5 a.m. as I usually do, and realized I have no place to go.”

Sanders won’t be starting in earnest until April when he returns from a planned vacation to Italy with his wife Rana, but moving over to a new gig so soon may have taken some by surprise, given the toll that politics can take on a person.

After all, Sanders, at 62, was already collecting the pension he earned as San Diego’s police chief, and probably looking forward to taking a break.

But that’s not the way he rolls.

“The real reason is I get bored on a three-day weekend, and I wanted a job where I can feel good about giving back to San Diego.”

Key City Projects

He said the chamber CEO’s job was attractive because it allows him to continue working on some key city projects, including the San Diego Convention Center expansion, the 2015 celebration of the centennial of the 1915 California- Panama Exposition in Balboa Park, and, of course, being a strong advocate for the local business community.

Having been on the inside of the city bureaucracy, he says he can be a better advocate for the private sector.

“One of the things we find is that it’s not easy to work with the city bureaucracy in getting businesses going,” Sanders said. “The common thread is advocating for businesses and cleaning up regulations and making it easier for businesses to do business. And ultimately what we’d like to see is more employees hired.”

The area’s oldest and largest business group has about 3,000 business members from small mom-and-pop operations to major corporations, representing some 400,000 employees. Sanders replaces Ruben Barrales, who headed the organization for six years. The chamber board decided not to renew his contract.

Sanders’ selection came fairly quickly once his name was suggested by the search committee, said Mark Leslie, the chamber’s outgoing chairman and retired vice president of external affairs for AT&T.

Somebody threw out his name as the perfect candidate and they decided to approach him with the job offer, which Sanders accepted, Leslie said.

“He has an unparalleled resume when it comes to being a leader. I don’t think there’s any question he can get disparate groups together and help them work together, and get things done,” he said.

The chamber moved quickly because everyone was aware that Sanders wasn’t going to stay unemployed long once his term ended. “Someone was going to latch onto Jerry Sanders and do it pretty quick,” Leslie said. “I doubt he was going to come back from Italy without a job offer.”

Whatever Sanders encounters heading up the organization likely won’t match the chamber of horrors he dealt with when he began his first term as mayor in December 2005.

How bad was it?

A Broken System

“It was far worse than I thought it was,” Sanders said, about the financial morass the city faced. “When I got into office I was thinking what in the world did I get myself into? And once you’re there, you have no choice but to fix it. There wasn’t any alternative.”

The crux of the problems centered on the city’s employee pension fund that had been decimated by several deliberate underpayments and the stock market declining.

On top of that, the city failed to detail how big the fund’s deficit was in bond disclosure statements, leading to a slew of criminal and civil investigations, high-profile resignations (including that of former Mayor Dick Murphy), and the city being labeled as “Enron by the Sea” by The New York Times.

Sanders and company delved into the mess, gradually got things turned around, returned the city’s budget from deficits to surpluses, restored the city’s credit rating, and put it back into a financially stable position.

The stability didn’t come without some pain. About 1,500 jobs were permanently cut from the city’s payroll, most through attrition. Employees took a 6 percent pay cut, and there haven’t been any raises for the past five years. Hours at libraries and recreational centers were slashed.

As part of the solution, the city eliminated pensions for new employees except for police, and continues seeking outside private contractors for services heretofore done by city staffers.

During the darkest days, many advised city leaders the only way out was to file for bankruptcy, but Sanders said that wouldn’t have worked. The city never stopped paying its vendors and couldn’t qualify for the arrangement. Even going through the process would have cost the city $100 million to $200 million in legal fees, he said.

Reforms Implemented

Instead, Sanders, operating as the city’s first “strong mayor,” pushed through a series of reforms that have apparently taken hold.

For some major issues, including eliminating pensions for new hires, he needed voter approval.

But he wasn’t successful at everything. City voters roundly rejected his backing for increasing the city’s sales tax; he couldn’t bring about a financing deal for a new Chargers stadium in downtown; and early on, there was a fiasco involving a building permit for an office next to Montgomery Field that exceeded federal aviation limits. The building’s developer, Aaron Feldman, a contributor to Sanders’ campaign, was forced to give the edifice a two-story haircut.

During his first term, Sanders ran into numerous roadblocks on his agenda, but probably the most dramatic involved former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who called him corrupt.

Sanders said he tried to work with Aguirre, but “it proved to be pretty much impossible.”

“It’s like being the CEO of a $3 billion company and not having any legal advice. And in fact, it’s having your own attorney who works for your corporation suing you,” he said. “Mike’s position was that he didn’t work for the city. He worked for the people.”

Sanders says he isn’t a politician and is turned off by many of the aspects of the process he referred to as a “blood sport.”

“I didn’t see myself as governor, senator, or anything else. I only wanted to be mayor because I thought I had some skills to fix it,” he said. “I felt we needed somebody who was going to steady everybody, bring everybody together and work out the issues and then move ahead, and I think that’s what we were able to do.”

His stint heading up the city certainly burnished Sanders’ reputation as a turnaround expert. After retiring as the city’s police chief in 1999, he became CEO of United Way of San Diego, and got that organization’s financials back on track. After that, he was appointed to the board of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, helping to recruit a new CEO and restore that organization’s tattered reputation in the wake of its misusing contributions.

In all of those jobs, Sanders emphasized the team aspect of getting things done, something that will continue in his new job. “It’s always a team effort in anything that I’ve ever done.”


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