This story has been expanded from the issue published in the Nov. 7 print edition of
La Jolla Light
to include further input from the candidates not included due to space constraints.
By Pat Sherman
Three candidates running to replace disgraced ex-mayor Bob Filner in the Nov. 19 special election — Democrats Michael Aguirre, David Alvarez and Nathan Fletcher — fielded questions during a “First Fridays” breakfast organized by the La Jolla Newcomers Club, Nov. 1 at Bernini’s Bistro in La Jolla.
Republican candidate and District 2 City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer was invited, though his scheduler told
La Jolla Light
he had a prior engagement.
“We really wanted him to come as well, but he didn’t accept the invitation,” event co-chair Susan Wille told those in attendance.
The three candidates attending all said public safety, neighborhood services and infrastructure are priorities for them, though they varied on their approach to fund and support these services.
Alvarez, a former community organizer and native San Diegan who has represented City Council District 8 in southern San Diego for the past three years, said he wants to assure that his children have the same opportunities he was afforded growing up in San Diego.
“I really feel strongly that the next mayor will determine what that future will look like … and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said, though going on to tout progress he said the city council has made to restore some public services, such as hours at libraries and recreation centers.
“I’ve been working to make sure that we have a long-term water supply,” Alvarez added. “That’s the next big legacy project for the city — making sure that we actually have water available for future residents.”
Aguirre, a former San Diego city attorney somewhat marred by the image of himself as abrasive and hard to work with, began by acknowledging that perception with humor.
“As city attorney I was known as a person that had a very low-key personality — ‘mild-mannered Mike,’ ” he joked.
Aguirre said his top priority would be using the city’s $1.1 billion operating budget to protect San Diegans’ safety and security, including fire and police services.
Aguirre said bad roads not only cause wear and tear on vehicles, but “create liability for the city.”
“When populations in communities don’t maintain their roads, that’s the canary in the coal mine that we’re in a period of decline,” he said.
Aguirre, whose children attended The Bishop’s School, returned several times in his discussion to the subject of San Diego’s pension underfunding debacle — and an existing benefit structure known as the “double-dipping” Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) that he believes to be in violation of debt limit and conflict of interest laws. There are still 17,000 former and current city employees that use the old DROP formula, he said.
Aguirre alleged that the primary concern of current and former city council members and mayors has been to “make sure that we fully funded their pension plans, so that they could get pensions as high as $300,000 a year.”
“Pensions are not the only thing that we’re legally obligated to fund,” Aguirre said. “We’re legally obligated to fund the fire department; we’re legally obligated to fund the road repair; we’re legally obligated to fund the police.
“Some of my opponents think it’s too dangerous not to fully fund the pension plan. I think it’s too dangerous not to fully fund the police department. ... You can pass a law that says we have to pay that much in pensions, yes, but you can’t pass a law that says we have enough money to pay (for them),” Aguirre said, later suggesting that labor is backing opponent, Alvarez, “because they want to control both sides.”
“Our public officials are supposed to be guardians,” Aguirre said. “We’ve lost our way.”
Nathan Fletcher, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who last spoke to the Newcomers Club while representing La Jolla in the 75th District state Assembly seat (2008-2012), also began by addressing some perceived baggage — his rapid shift in political parties from Republican to Independent to Democrat during and after his run in the last mayoral election.
“Those of you that I represented know I was never a very good Republican,” Fletcher said. “I didn’t fit in very well. They changed and I changed and I’m comfortable with where I am, but what’s never changed is what I think you need in a mayor — that basic focus on solutions, that willingness to work with anyone, the ability to get folks to the table to work out an agreement to actually get the job done.”
Fletcher, who has been endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs (Fletcher currently works at Qualcomm) added, “There’s no job out there, no political position out there that I would leave my current life for, other than mayor, because I think we have such a huge opportunity in our city over the next few years to really do some great things.
“In the last year at Qualcomm I’ve learned a lot about how large corporations are run and managed,” he added. “I’m ready to put all of that to work for you, focusing on solutions.”
Fletcher said San Diego has gone from having the eighth worst roads in the country to having the fourth worst roads. If elected, he said will be presenting a plan to the public by the end of 2014 to rebuild the city’s infrastructure and public services.
When it was his turn to speak, Aguirre countered, “When my brother Nathan talks about financing plans, he’s talking about borrowing more money. They want to borrow their way out of this — fully fund the pension with your tax dollars, and then borrow 40-year money to pay for 10 years worth of road repair. ... All of you that have any kind of financial background know that you don’t pay for operating costs out of your capital.”
Fletcher said that during the last two years 37,000 calls to 911 were not answered in time.
“We have a public safety system where you are less safe today than you were previously,” he said. “If we just cut the attrition of our (police) officers in half, we would save between $3 million and $6 million a year … because it’s really expensive to get them trained and through the system, and as soon as you do that, they leave.”
Fletcher added that the city continues to “lack a coherent, comprehensive economic plan.
“I want to take the 2015 (Balboa Park) Centennial Celebration and not talk about the last 100 years, but talk about the next 100 years and redefine and rebrand ‘America’s Finest City’ as the ‘World’s Most Innovative City,’ the ‘World’s Most Creative City,’ ” Fletcher said.
“That’s the future of the economy, that’s where we’re headed, and we need to embrace it. Those opportunities are available to all and we’ve got to make sure that we have good working class and middle class jobs.”
Asked by Newcomers Club member Ed Flom where the candidates believe city spending could be increased or decreased, Alvarez, who serves on the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, said the city is “in a much better position than we were just a couple of years ago.”
“We did some of the smart things that you and I would have done in our own household budget that the city had not,” he said. “That’s elimination of things that are wasteful, like cell phones for employees or travel that was unnecessary.”
(Fletcher, who works for a producer of cell phone technology, later countered, “I don’t know anybody that would give up their cell phone, as opposed to their landline. … Why don’t we get rid of all the landlines, so that when you need a city worker … as long as they’re not driving you can always get a hold of them.”)
Alvarez said he championed the elimination of phantom positions in the city meant to hide money in the city budget.
“They fund positions in different departments that actually are never filled. They just exist there,” he said. “Then they claim that there are savings at the end of the year. Those savings could be achieved at the beginning of the year if you eliminate those vacancies.”
Alvarez also said there are fees and costs that aren’t being recouped by the city, such as a “General Plan administration fee,” and some uncollected fees for the use of Park and Recreation facilities.
Aguirre used further time to take aim at absent candidate Kevin Faulconer, claiming that a $1 billion surplus in the city's budget former mayor Jerry Sanders says the city accrued under his and Faulconer’s tenures does not exist (Sanders touts the surplus during TV spots endorsing Faulconer’s mayoral candidacy).
“That’s complete misinformation,” Aguirre said. “Mr. Faulconer, he is the protégé. He has to help keep the myth alive that the mentor solved the problem, when all the mentor did is went from saying we should have a tax increase or it was going to be Armageddon in San Diego. Then (in 2011) he (Sanders) actually pushed the pension payment above what we spend on the fire department.
“I’m a financial fraud investigator,” Aguirre continued. “I’ve spent 40 years putting together financial fraud cases. … In 2007, the annual pension payment was $162,000 million. This year, it was $275,000 million. The debt was $5.9 billion, now it’s $8 billion. The payout to the pensioners was $180 million, now it’s $350 million. It’s on a schedule to go up and up and up. … We’re not better off. We’re worse off.”
Alvarez said that though city leaders have done some “really dumb things … in 1996 and in 2002, and you have to pay for that, now we’ve got to move beyond that.”
Alvarez said the problem is city leaders giving away tax dollars “to building stadiums downtown, to expansions of big pet projects that people feel strongly about. That’s where the money has been going.”
Fletcher announced that he had to leave early, though was urged to stay and respond to one more question — this one from La Jolla Town Council President Cindy Greatrex, who asked about the city’s managed competition program (which, approved by voters in 2006, allows private companies to bid on some city services). Greatrex cited a San Diego
story in which the city’s Independent Budget Analyst questioned the sustainability of service levels for landfill management and street and sidewalk maintenance, which were put out to bid through the city’s managed competition process, though retained by city staff, which underbid the private sector by anywhere from 28 to 194 percent.
“As mayor it’s a tool that I reserve the right to use, but it doesn’t have to be the first tool that’s used,” Fletcher said of managed competition. “We drag the employees through this incredibly expensive process to bid out the services. It takes a year to 18 months. It’s horribly expensive. It’s your money that could be paving the streets, and it goes into this process.
“If we can achieve millions of dollars of savings years in advance, without spending millions of dollars on this horribly litigious, difficult, complex process that’s destroys the morale of the employees — and the city workers will win every one of the bids — then why would we not start with that?” Fletcher posited.
Fletcher referenced the city’s print shop, which beat out the private sector in the city’s first managed competition bid (2011) by eliminating more than 20 jobs. He said the concept of managed competition has polled well with voters, but doesn't always play out so well.
“You didn’t need managed competition; you just needed management,” he said.
Of all his city council colleagues, Alvarez said he has been the most critical of managed competition.
“What is so frustrating to me as someone who’s come from the outside, been a neighborhood activist … is that people use political rhetoric — and that’s what managed competition is. It’s a way to claim to say that, if we don’t do this, then we’re going to be in big trouble. I can tell you that it’s worked on one or two things. It’s actually failed on a couple of things — and all it’s really done is eliminated vacancies, which is what I put in my first budget priorities when I first came to the council. It doesn’t do anything more than that.”
Alvarez said his opponent, Faulconer, views managed competition as a “magic bullet.”
“It’s not,” Alvarez said. “It is making sure that you actually run departments with (best practices).”
Aguirre said unions have “already contracted out and “use the commercial process when negotiating their wages, hours and terms and conditions.
“They hire high powered, private attorneys and they meet with the city’s attorneys and they negotiate. … Now the MEA (San Diego Municipal Employees Association), which represents, let’s say the print shop employees … is headed up by (former San Diego City Councilmember) Michael Zuchett. When I became city attorney, Michael Zuchett was under federal indictment, having had his office wire-tapped because he was (allegedly) taking bribes from the people who operated Cheetahs (strip club). He was convicted by a jury of his own peers; then he got off. He was evicted from the city council and now he heads up the MEA, and he’s the one that’s directing the MEA’s campaign to support Nathan Flecther.”
“That is not a recipe for good government,” Aguirre said. “They get these beautiful faces, these young faces, these presentable faces, and they put them out front, but behind the scenes it is the old guard still doing the old things — and those are the unpleasant facts.”
Following the debate, Newcomer Beryl Flom said she felt each candidate did well in his own way. “Mike always has a different perspective on things. I value that. And Fletcher is a dreamer and David is down in the trenches.”
Retired Army Col. Mike Hill said that after the presentation he is likely to vote for Fletcher. “Leadership-wise and charisma-wise, Fletcher is very good. I wondered about how he mutinied from these political parties, but I guess he’s got a little bit of strong-willed independence to try and not always go the party line. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, but having watched him today I think he probably had honorable intent.
“Sincerity-wise Alvarez is good,” Hill added, “but I think he’s still young and still (requires) a little more experience and maturation. Kevin (Faluconer), because he didn’t show up, just lost my vote — period.”
Holland Smith said Aguirre was “the most articulate toward the problems that interest me,” while M.C. Eastman added that Aguirre “seems to be on the right track between honesty and transparency.”
“He’s like the firefly, the gnat that keeps bugging you,” Col. Hill added. “I wish he were a newspaper guy, because you need that kind of stuff to keep the politicians halfway honest.”