Former police chief Jerry Sanders gained a reputation as an organizational savior after helping the local United Way and Red Cross recover from scandals. Now, Mr. Sanders has become the new mayor of this beleaguered city of 1.3 million, and his Mr. Fix-It skills are confronting the ultimate test.
Last week, the moderate Republican gave a glimpse of his governing style and revealed himself to be anything but a Pollyanna. In a hoopla-free inaugural address, perhaps the grimmest in the city's 155-year history, San Diego's fourth mayor since July declared that the city "is mired in a financial and ethical crisis of historic proportions," and warned residents of the need for "sacrifice." Yet he did not mention the city's most pressing threat: bankruptcy.
As Sanders takes office, San Diego is on the edge of a financial black hole. Years of mismanagement left it with an employee pension-fund deficit estimated at $1.4 billion. The bills are coming due, and the city can barely borrow money to stay afloat. Government malfeasance has also led to a rash of indictments, a humiliating mayoral resignation, and corruption trials.
On his first day on the job, Sanders alerted city workers to possible layoffs.
The city has already cut library hours and reduced park maintenance. Residents have complained about overgrown trees and unfilled potholes, and there's talk that the city might unload valuable property.
Sanders, who comes into office as new mayoral powers take effect, could slash the budget and demand concessions from municipal unions whose employees are slated for gold-plated pensions.
"A leader would make really tough, unpopular [decisions]," says Brian Adams, assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University. "Of course, if he did that, there would be a real backlash against him. The public, in some ways, doesn't see this as being as big of a crisis as it is, and they aren't really ready to swallow bitter medicine."
Even if Sanders is able to institute more cuts to stave off bankruptcy, his no-higher-taxes pledge has cut off one revenue source. Still, the promise may have contributed to his easy victory over Donna Frye, a maverick progressive councilwoman, in the November election.
Despite Sanders's efforts, the city's problems may last for decades. It is postponing preventive maintenance on roads and water and sewer systems because it can't borrow money to pay for it, meaning that the systems will eventually fail more dramatically than they would have otherwise, says Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus of public administration at San Diego State and adviser to the new mayor.
Nationally, the city's image was further tarnished by former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), who pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned from Congress last month after serving a San Diego-area district.
But the San Diego region still boasts a robust economy, and housing prices remain some of the highest in the US. And it seems unlikely the city's unsavory reputation will keep visitors away from the San Diego Zoo and Sea World.
"The places where tourists go are insulated from the day-to-day [cutbacks] that happen in the neighborhoods," says Carl Luna, political science professor at Mesa College. "And the weather doesn't get affected by fiscal mismanagement. At least not yet."