Candidates tackle city issues

San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former Police Chief Jerry Sanders sparred over issues of fiscal management and open and accessible government in their first official debate in the run-up to the November mayoral election.

Questions at the Sept. 30 event, hosted by UCSD on Sept. 30, were posed by a six-person panel, which included Graduate Student Association President Laura Kwinn, Associated Students President Christopher Sweeten, assistant political science professor Thad Kousser and representatives from the event’s co-sponsors, California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. The event was moderated by the new dean of arts and sciences, Michael Bernstein.

An audience of about 420 people filled Price Center Theatre with boos, hisses and cheers as the candidates presented radically different plans for how best to deliver the city from political and financial woes, including a pension deficit of more than $1.37 billion, numerous underfunded city projects and a legacy of corruption and mismanagement among city official ranks.

Frye emphasized a leadership style in which “one person is accountable to you, the voters,” by eliminating the current position of city manager and vesting all responsibility in the office of the mayor. She envisioned a new cabinet filled with the nation’s brightest figures, who would reflect the diversity of the San Diego community.

Her plan also called for the mayor to stop presiding over city council meetings.

“[This] will give me more opportunities to go out into the community … to hold meetings in the evening when it’s convenient for the public and not convenient just for the elected officials,” Frye said.

Sanders, on the other hand, argued for creating a “CEO of the city.” His plan rests on appointing retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronnie Froman as city manager, who would be responsible for running the day-to-day business of the city while the mayor engaged in public forums and meetings.

Sanders also said that the mayor would be proactive in lobbying heavily in Sacramento and Washington for “our share of infrastructure dollars,” which he feels San Diego is currently not receiving.

To help bring the city’s finances back into balance, Frye said that she would immediately stop the payment of “illegal” pensions upon assuming office, referring to the retirement benefits promised to city employees that are currently the subject of legal investigation. She also emphasized that the city faces deficits far beyond the over-promised pensions and suggested forcing redevelopment agencies to pay back the money that they owe the city.

Sanders attacked her plan, arguing that “you can’t just stop payments without a judge making that decision.” Instead he touted a plan to “trim down” the city by calling on 300 top city managers to step down and freezing the salaries of city employees until the system stabilizes.

“We need new blood, we need new ideas, we need new expertise, and that’s going to require bringing new people into the positions,” Sanders said.

Whenever possible, the candidates referred to their past achievements as evidence of their leadership abilities. Sanders spoke frequently about his successes as a leader in the San Diego Police Department and a board chairman of the local chapter of the Red Cross, while Frye pointed to more than 20 years experience as a community advocate and a stint of honest, outspoken leadership effecting change on the city council since 2001.

The candidates were also asked to address an issue close to many students: the lack of affordable housing in San Diego.

Frye discussed a need to raise the costs for developers who waive their obligations to build affordable housing and ensure that renters are compensated and relocated when they are displaced by condominium conversions.

Sanders emphasized providing new incentives for the building of affordable apartments, along with streamlining the building process and exploring the city’s “extensive” property holdings. Not all students felt that the topics covered were relevant to UCSD students, despite opportunities for the audience to ask questions on a range of diverse subjects.

“I would have liked the candidates to expand on what their actual plans are for helping education,” Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Karoline Katus said.

Others disagreed, explaining that resolving the city’s financial and management problems were rightly the top priority.

“As long as management of the city gets dealt with, that’s what’s important,” Earl Warren College sophomore Alex Miller said.

The university hosted the event “as a matter of civic responsibility, bringing the issues to campus and our local neighborhoods,” said UCSD spokesman Barry Jagoda. UCSD-TV will air the debate several times until the election on Nov. 8.