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Mayoral Hopefuls Agree: City’s Broke, And They Can Fix It

Money; power; name recognition.

If this is your recipe for a successful run at a top elective office, there are more than two-dozen regular folks who might disagree. A cross section of San Diegans , everybody from business owners, political theorists and a retired judge, to a bartender, a full-time student and a private eye want to be San Diego’s next mayor.

The three major candidates squaring off in the July 26 mayoral race are City Councilwoman Donna Frye; Jerry Sanders, a former San Diego police chief, businessman and chairman of the American Red Cross San Diego/Imperial Counties; and Steve Francis, founder and executive chairman of publicly traded AMN Healthcare in Carmel Valley.

Besides Frye, Sanders and Francis, 26 others initially sought the title of mayor, representing a rather diverse political spectrum. They are mostly Republicans, with a smattering of Democrats, one Libertarian and a Green Party member. There are hard-core conservatives, some liberals, a few who are adamantly earth-friendly, and perhaps the most striking statistic , all are male, except for Frye.

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As of press time May 26, only one of the 29 people who had pulled papers to run for mayor , Jeremy Ledford , had submitted the requisite paperwork to the city clerk’s office; the deadline was 5 p.m. May 27.

Cutting it especially close is La Jolla attorney Pat Shea, who took out his papers May 25. While he’s never run for public office, he represented more than 200 agencies, school and special districts during the Orange County bankruptcy proceedings that started in 1994 after it was learned that the county’s investment pool had suffered a $1.6 billion loss. Now, Shea seems to be the lone voice calling for the city to file a Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding, a form of reorganization that gives the city breathing room and permits it to renegotiate contracts.

“In the last week to 10 days, I received phone calls from people I didn’t expect to get phone calls from, who have come to the conclusion that this is the only way to solve the problem,” said Shea, who is married to Diann Shipione, the prominent San Diego whistle-blower and outspoken former member of the city’s pension board.

“The problems are so large, they can’t be handled in an informal fashion. I know what it takes for a municipality to go through the process and I know what the benefits are.”

What unites all the players , both top contenders and long shots , is a desire to fix the city’s financial problems, including a pension deficit estimated to be $1.4 billion, as well as getting the long-overdue 2003 and 2004 audits of city finances done, and refurbishing the badly tarnished image of America’s finest city.

Frye has called for a rollback of pension benefits, a streamlining of the city’s bureaucracy, an end to subsidizing “corporate sports and private projects on public lands”; and making sure “that employment lands are not rezoned to benefit land speculators, but protected to allow for the growth of research and manufacturing jobs.”

Sanders wants to make San Diego a “national model of municipal efficiency,” streamlining the city’s middle-management layers, reducing the city’s $50 million structural deficit, and making City Hall “more responsible and accountable” to city residents.

Francis, considered the wealthiest candidate, said he would take a business approach to running City Hall, turning the city into a “lean, mean machine,” reorganizing the city’s bureaucracy, rolling back benefits and balancing the budget.

As beleaguered Mayor Dick Murphy prepares to leave office July 15, a surprising number of mayoral wannabes believe they have the stuff to do it better. But there also is a general feeling of sadness and lost glory for this city evident in their comments.

“San Diego is the number one city in California for small business, and small business is dying in San Diego,” said political neophyte Tony V. Theodore, 42. “San Diego is losing its soul. It’s not a fun place to live anymore.”

Theodore, who lives on the cusp of Ocean Beach and Point Loma, is general manager of the family-owned San Diego Sports Club, a nightclub and sports bar in Hillcrest. He’s never run for office before.

“I’m not a politician and don’t claim to be one,” he said. “Basic logic would work very well in this time of the city’s turmoil. I’d take the locks off City Hall and join forces with (City Attorney Michael) Aguirre. He’s not afraid to see what’s going on in this town, what’s really happening. I would invoke some simple and easy taxes for people to swallow, and charge for things others in the country charge for. I want $5 a week to pick up trash. I want a 5 percent tax added to the hotels for tourists. We are at an all-time low for tourism for the size of our city. We are a big city with big-city problems and small minds. San Diego has to grow up. We are no longer a border town.”

Attorney Shawn A. McMillan, 38, lives in the Scripps Ranch area and works as a solo practitioner in University City. He said he enjoyed early success in the 1980s when he launched his own computer business with his brother, building it to a $10 million operation, before they both headed off to law school and phased out the company. Now, he wants to fix the city he’s called home all of his life.

“I would address the immense financial problems and the throttlehold the unions have on the system in general,” he said. “As a taxpayer, I don’t feel I am getting value for my tax dollars. There is too much going into programs like the living wage and the pension plan, which are expensive propositions, and we need to deal with it. We’re constantly expanding the cost of services the government renders. We hire more people to do less work. That’s got to stop.”


Back In The Race

Some of the players have been through political races before.

James Galley, 49, of Southeast San Diego, ran against Charles Lewis in 2002 for the 4th District City Council seat that Lewis, who died in August, won. Galley said he also ran against Tony Young for Lewis’ vacant seat, which Young won.

An operator for 14 years at the city’s Otay water treatment plant, Galley said that he helps develop budgets and staffing requirements that eventually are submitted to the city manager. What rankles him?

“I see potholes; I know how much we spend on the roads, but they keep deteriorating,” he said. “They slap a patch on like it’s a Band-Aid. These things irritate me. We can’t maintain the facilities we have, but we spend $2.5 million to complete an audit? That’s ridiculous.

“We need to get the audit completed. Auditors are bean counters. I don’t know why the retirement board refuses to submit true numbers for what goes in and what goes out. It seems like a pretty simple procedure.”

Galley said he’s especially concerned about public health, hazardous materials, and water availability, saying, “We need to complete our water and sewer structure.”

High-profile Scripps Ranch resident Richard Rider, 59, the chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, said he has had two other runs at nonpartisan offices in 1992 for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors, and in 1998, for county treasurer.

The retired stockbroker and financial planner, who formally announced his candidacy May 26, admits that in “normal times,” he might have a tough time getting elected mayor.

“But these are not normal times,” said Rider, a Libertarian, adding that if people want a “hard-nosed taxpayer advocate with a record of being willing to go to the mat,” he’s their man.

Unions, he said, are “the core of the problem.”

“It used to be that government employment, you got low pay, but in exchange, you had great job security and a modest pension,” Rider said.

Now, he added, you get great job security along with great pay and pension benefits.

“Why do the taxpayers pay their public servants more than the taxpayers are making?” he asked. “The mayor and City Council have to stand up to the unions.”

If they won’t listen, he said, outsource their jobs to the private sector.

In a recent mailing, Rider called government employees the “new aristocracy of Southern California.”

Jim Bell, 63, an Ocean Beach resident, self-employed ecological designer, and author, is now on his fourth try at the mayorship.

“The main part of my platform is to make our city and region energy, food and water self-sufficient as soon as possible,” he said.

In his new book, “Creating a Sustainable Economy and Future on Our Planet,” published by the nonprofit Ecological Life Systems Institute, Bell concludes that making the local economy more self-sufficient would increase business and well-paying job opportunities.

Kent Mesplay, 42, of Mira Mesa, an air quality inspector for the county, is a Green Party member who serves on its national committee. He ran as a Green Party presidential contender in 2004, plans another run in 2008, and echoes Bell’s environmental goals.

“We need water, food and energy security,” said Mesplay. “We can become self-sufficient as far as energy goes, inviting more green businesses, moving toward solar energy. It’s a great source we’re not tapping into. Because of the tourism draw here, we need to be environmentalists. People in the know understand that it’s not jobs vs. the environment.”

In fact, he said, tapping into renewable resources, such as solar power, can create jobs in the industry, as well as serve the region’s energy needs.

Ed Kolker, 64, of Rancho Bernardo, a retired judge with his own business, Kolker Mediation, has run for office before, when he was a Municipal and Juvenile Court judge in Iowa. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, from 1977 to 1980.

“I think I can contribute something, and at my age, I am not trying to build a future in politics,” he said. “I don’t have any relations with any special interest group, which is a plus, and I’m not being pushed by business or labor or environmental areas. My special interest group is everybody, because everybody has a stake in what happens to the city of San Diego, not just city employees, shop owners or professional sports people. How do you resolve all of those conflicting goals and get everybody working on the same page, to make this America’s Finest City again?”


Down To Business

The seasoned businessmen in the race tend to view running a government much the same as managing a business.

Michael Shelby, 61, of Carmel Valley, owner of San Diego Harley-Davidson, said he’s made two runs for state Assembly, in 1998 and 2000. Now, he wants to be in a position to put the luster back on America’s Finest City.

“I want to bring some confidence back to the people of San Diego,” he said. “This is a great city, with industry and tourism and the military community. There are no problems in San Diego outside of City Hall.”

For Shelby, a businessman for four decades, bankruptcy is not the answer to the city’s financial woes.

“I’ve seen people go bankrupt,” he said. “I know the shame and stigma and it’s not what San Diego wants. It will devastate the city. It’s an easy way to overturn some of the huge mistakes that have been made.”

His key platform? Illegal immigrants.

“We have to identify the problem and target it, and form a coalition of mayors of every city in the state, cities that are overrun and have the same problem of medical services being degraded, the education system diluted and the police department diverted,” he said.

Bernard Palecek, 61, of Carmel Valley, is director of operations for California Mortgage Consultants in La Jolla.

“I had seen San Diego go through frustrating times and, frankly, I am tired of the nation beating up on our good city,” he said.

Palecek, who said he took early retirement as a senior vice president in the banking industry, cited his “solid management skills” as an asset in solving the city’s financial woes.

As for his platform, Palecek said, “There are a lot of unknowns. I would want to see the audits completed. We have to know where we have come before we can go forward. There are so many allegations out there, I need to find out the facts.”

Jeremy Ledford, 33, of San Carlos, a salesman in the San Diego branch of McKesson Medical Surgical Solutions, based in Richmond, Va., had somewhat of an epiphany the day he heard that Murphy had resigned.

“I called my wife and off-the-cuff mentioned that I would pick up the milk and, by the way, I’m going to run for mayor.”

Proclaiming that he is “sick of political correctness and bureaucrats taking our money,” he also complained about public servants who “line their pockets and their friends’ pockets.”

“I’m for making a good wage when you’re in there,” said Ledford of public service, “hiring good employees. I don’t want them to take too much of a hit, but they should be there for a short period of time, not working on large pensions.”

A proponent of outsourcing jobs to the private sector, Ledford said, “Half of the bureaucrats Downtown can be let go, the assistants to assistants could be let go without a problem. It’s way top heavy in our current government.”

Paul M. Dekker, 49, of Kensington, a self-employed computer consultant, has had only one other foray into the world of politics , an unsuccessful attempt to be a write-in candidate in the last mayoral race. But he’s giving it another try.

“I was upset with things happening at City Hall,” he said. “I would get all the stakeholders together, and have them work out a solution similar to the Charger ticket guarantee. Get the neighborhood people together with city employees. Someone’s going to pay for it. Who’s it going to be?”


Commoner Sense

Some of the contenders don’t even pretend to fully understand the issues at City Hall, but are game anyway.

Jonathan Schell, 31, of North Park, a software engineer at Kyocera Wireless in San Diego, said he considers himself a problem-solver. While he admits that friends have called his mayoral run “crazy,” he disagrees.

“It takes an organized, logical way to get things done,” said Schell. “There is an efficient way to do things and an emotional way to do things. The more practical, realistic approach is the most effective.”

Christopher Perl, 31, of Clairemont, a customer service representative at HSBC Auto Finance in San Diego, said he just wants to lend a hand.

“I’m not some white knight going to solve the budget crisis,” he said. “I just want to take an honest look at all the facts and make some hard decisions.”

Les Swazzo, 43, of North Park, is a full-time student at San Diego City College who intends to become a teacher. But he’s no kid just starting out. As a single father, he’s raised a daughter, run a pizzeria in New York, a breakfast place in New Jersey, and now cooks on weekends at a North Park eatery. In his spare time, Swazzo does his mayoral homework.

“I just read the charter in the last three days,” he said. “I have it with me every day, and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. They’re going to have to help me clean house and get the corruption out of this town. I love this place. This is a beautiful city and I have to find a way to help the workers here.”

Christopher L. Wylie, 37, of Mission Bay, teaches English as a second language at the Converse International School of Languages in Downtown San Diego, and said he has performed, as an actor, director and stage manager at “almost every theater in San Diego.” He sees the city’s problems as “insurmountable” for one person, but not for the larger community , “the workers, not even the unions, but the union members the corporations, but the mom and pop business owners. That’s what San Diego is all about, and they should make the hard choices.”

With a couple of exceptions, the minor candidates admit being on tight budgets and are counting on supporters to help foot the bill.

“I am a working guy, like most people in San Diego, who are commoners.”

said Wylie. “The only thing I can do is to present commoner sense. I hope what I have to say makes sense and the other (major) candidates will include my ideas in their speeches.”

Doesn’t he think the “commoners” have a chance at victory?

“None of us has a chance to win,” Wylie said.


Chamber Weighing In

“This is a critical time for San Diego, and it’s very important for people to step back and really analyze the candidates,” said Mitch Mitchell, the vice president of public policy and communications for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“This is a situation when you need people to come in as mayor and be ready to hit the ground running and address the tremendous financial situation and reputation problems of San Diego.”

Mitchell said the chamber’s endorsement committee will be interviewing and evaluating the candidates.

“The chamber board of directors will make a decision if there is a need for our organization to make an endorsement or whether we should sit back and watch,” he said. “In the end, we have to work with whoever is elected mayor.”

While the field is crowded at the moment, said Mitchell, it will not be quite so jammed once the committee identifies who actually has an understanding of city structure, budgets and finances.

“We need someone who can be focused, who has a plan and has the ability to drive the situation back to stability,” he said.

Others who have taken out papers to run for mayor but couldn’t be reached for comment are George R. Cook, John P. Casey, Bret Patterson, Thomas Knapp, Ronnie Douglas Lawson, Joseph Braverman, John Washington and Mac Sperry.

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