Who will be left to govern San Diego?

An acting mayor has been convicted in a bribery scandal, the latest setback in a string of woes for City Hall.

After scandal scuttled the Republican Party's plans to bring its national convention to San Diego in 1972, this low-profile Navy town tried to fix its reputation with a cheery slogan: "America's Finest City."

But the catchiest motto these days comes courtesy of the media: "Enron by the Sea." Considering the events of this week, just days before an election to replace a disgraced mayor, "America's Most Corrupt City" may be next.

Here, where there are more pending crises than pandas at the San Diego Zoo, a federal jury on Monday convicted two councilmen of multiple corruption charges in a case of strip-club bribery uncovered by FBI wiretaps of City Hall.

"People didn't think trust in the government could get any lower," says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California at San Diego. But it has, he says.

One of the councilmen, Michael Zucchet, automatically became acting mayor on Friday after the previous mayor quit. He and fellow defendant Ralph Inzunza have now been suspended. Dick Murphy, the elected mayor, had resigned in the face of continued questions about the handling of San Diego's pension fund deficit.

It's not clear who will run the city if no one wins a majority in Tuesday's mayoral election. In that case, a runoff will be held in the fall.

The ultimate victor will inherit a pension fund deficit estimated at well over $1 billion. Amid a blizzard of accusations and indictments, courts may ultimately allocate blame for the pension debacle, which arose after city leaders guaranteed benefits to employees without paying for them. For now, the bills are coming due, and the city is making a variety of cutbacks.

So far, the impact on residents has been limited. According to news reports, pothole and streetlight repairs are taking longer, and police officers are applying for jobs elsewhere because of pay issues.

But the city expects to soon take actions that will reveal financial straits to the public. Among other things, the city may close branch libraries one weekday per week. Bankruptcy looms as a possibility.

Even the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a watchdog group, admits that the city will have to tap the pockets of its 1.2 million residents. "You know things are bad when the taxpayers association acknowledges that a tax hike may be there sometime down the road," says president Lisa Briggs.

According to observers, the top two mayoral candidates are maverick Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat, and former police chief Jerry Sanders, a Republican. Other hopefuls include a well-financed businessman, a motorcycle dealer, and a lawyer who supports municipal bankruptcy.

Normally, voters would seem likely to "throw the bums out," especially in light of the convictions of the councilmen, accused of taking bribes from strip clubs eager to lift "no touch" rules. But in this election, the sole "insider" candidate, Ms. Frye, is about as outside as you can get. "The question," Mr. Kousser says, "is who are voters going to turn to to clean house?"

The frontrunner appears to be Ms. Frye, but she may not get the required majority vote. An unabashed liberal Democrat in a city with a history of staid Republican mayors, Frye has often been a lone voice on the Democrat-dominated council, calling for more financial responsibility and openness. "She's not tainted with all the scandals of the past," says local lobbyist John Dadian.

Both adored and mocked for her trademark beach-lover style, complete with sunbleached hair and well-tanned skin, Frye won the most votes in a last-minute write-in campaign for mayor last fall. But a judge ruled that a few thousand ballots - the margin of victory - didn't count because the voters failed to fill in the proper bubbles in addition to writing in her name.

Despite her reputation among critics as a lightweight, Frye is actually a "surfer policy wonk" who's well-versed in city affairs, Kousser says.

The mild-mannered Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, has fostered a "Mr. Clean" reputation, claiming credit for turning around troubled local chapters of the Red Cross and United Way.

Another Republican candidate, healthcare company founder Steve Francis, is running on an antibankruptcy platform and threatens Sanders' expected second-place finish.

Come January, when governance over the budget and city staff will shift from away from the city manager to the mayor's office, the winner will have to focus on "damage control," Mr. Kousser says.

"The question is whether [the winner] is really going to have a chance to send the city in the direction they want to go or be constrained by the debt," he says.

Councilwoman Toni Atkins, a Democrat, is temporarily in charge of the city. But even if she stays on through a runoff election, her influence may be limited, considering that she'll leave the position before the new strong-mayor powers kick in.

Meanwhile, elections will be held to replace the two convicted councilmembers, both Democrats. Their replacements could alter the dynamics of the Democrat-dominated council.

Then again, as the taxpayer association's Ms. Briggs puts it, "none of the normal rules apply anymore. We really are in uncharted territory."

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