San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s problems — a sex scandal coupled with federal investigations into possible financial improprieties — may end up being purely personal matters.
But they aren’t helping the city’s reputation any.
Nearly a decade ago, the city suffered through a pension underfunding scandal that anticipated problems around the country and led to the resignation of a previous mayor, Dick Murphy.
Since then, San Diego has struggled to get its fiscal house in order. Having a mayor who at the very least will be kept busy by lawyers and sexual harassment training undermines efforts to create a healthier, better-governed city.
“If he’s distracted or not credible because of these recent events, that will get in the way and we’ll see lost opportunities,” says Rep. Scott Peters, who represents San Diego and has called on Filner to resign.
The City’s Strengths
San Diego has some tremendous assets.
Its climate is perhaps the most pleasant in the entire country, helping to fuel a robust tourism industry. This, along with its resurgent biotech and telecom sectors and the strong naval presence, has made the city affluent.
“If you kept any questions about the city out of it, the political theater, people are feeling pretty upbeat about how things are going,” says San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
But it’s tough for the city to go on offense when the mayor is something of an embarrassment. That matters not just when it comes to initiatives that are already on the table, such as a convention center expansion and the huge centennial celebration planned for Balboa Park, but for setting an overall economic development strategy as well.
A trip to Asia that Filner had planned to drum up business now appears to be off the table, Roberts says.
“It will not keep us from being able to do our work, but it’s a huge distraction and one that gives San Diego the image again of being a place mired in problems, after a series of years where we dug ourselves out of that,” says Mark Cafferty, president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Authority.
Starting To Find Footing
Voters last year approved substantial changes in pension benefits for city workers.
“The city’s been through a process that, as difficult as it was, is something a lot of governments are going to have to face up to,” says Peters, a former City Council president.
But San Diego’s pension system remains badly underfunded, according to a Stanford University study. Estimates of the shortfall are generally in the $2 billion range.
In addition, the city has chronically shortchanged its own infrastructure. San Diego sometimes borrows money just to pay for basic maintenance of roads.
“The problems are there,” says Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “This couldn’t come at a worse time for a mayor.”
Better Management To Come?
Erie says one silver lining to come out of the Filner mess is that the mayor has appointed a new management team. That may have been born of necessity — a lot of his staff has fled — but he’s now turned to Walt Ekard, a former county administrator who is well-respected for his managerial ability and knowledge of budgets.
“Filner, in part because he’s incredibly distracted, brought in probably the best local management expert in Walt Ekard,” Erie says.
There are still questions about how things will go. Filner was known as a micromanager prior to his scandal and, being a progressive Democrat, he may see things differently than Republican Ekard.
For now, though, with Filner handing authority over contracts and management decisions to Ekard, it appears the city’s day-to-day operations will run smoothly, despite the present crisis atmosphere.
But new initiatives that require the time and effort of a mayor are going to stall. And getting people to see past Filner’s problems may prove difficult, Cafferty concedes.
“Other leaders can step in, but it’s a lot stronger to be working in unison with the mayor,” he says.
Rather than talking about San Diego’s advantages, conversations with individuals or businesses thinking about relocating to the city are likely to start with the subject of the mayor being an embarrassment.
“What’s really hurt is the city’s reputation, its brand name,” Erie says. “It’s taken another hit. It’s been a rough decade for San Diego.”