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  Two Sides of a City
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 3/16/07

San Diego has two identities. It is, on the one hand, a drop-dead gorgeous place in which to live and visit, blessed with a magnificent bay, nearby mountains, lush canyons, beautiful deserts, spacious parks, golden beaches and relatively unspoiled backcountry. In San Diego, you have it all in the way of ambience. You can drive from mountains to ocean beaches in an hour or two. Summers are pleasant and seldom humid. Winters are gentle. Its Mediterranean climate is arguably unsurpassed anywhere.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

If only these superb physical attributes were matched by a similar high quality of government and fiscal competence. That brings us to the other face of San Diego. It is not a pretty one. America’s Finest City may be renowned for its splendid climate and natural beauty, but it is not likely to be held up as a model of good municipal governance. It has been burdened with more than its share of mediocre officials whose lack of vision and fiscal acuity have left the city with problems that will take many years of the most competent management to overcome.

The city’s reputation and credit standing have been harmed by poor decisions and by scandal. Every large city has had its share of scandals but San Diego’s rank right up there with the leaders. Two of the city’s last six mayors have resigned under pressure. In the past thirty years, five city council members have resigned under duress, three of them under federal indictment. Another died in office while under indictment.

But the problems go beyond the well-publicized scandals. They have to do with business and management competence, including bargaining skills. Put plainly, the city has ended up on the losing end of too many business transactions and made too many poor decisions. Examples abound but a few stand out. The city was offered the opportunity to purchase the Miramar Air Station by the Navy Department for one dollar about half a century ago for use as an airport. It declined the offer on the grounds that the site was too remote for an airport. Miramar subsequently became an essential part of our military base structure, while the city grew around it.

 It should not have taken a genius to predict even then that San Diego would grow rapidly after World War II and that Miramar would have been an ideal location for an airport. Since that time, the city has been engaged in an endless succession of studies and searches for a replacement site for Lindberg Field, all of which have been fruitless. They were doomed largely because of a naïve belief that the federal government would eventually solve San Diego’s airport needs by making Miramar available at taxpayer expense for joint or exclusive civilian use over strong Navy Department objections.

When the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process made the Naval Training Center (NTC) complex available for city use, instead of pursuing use of the land to expand Lindberg Field, possibly through a land swap with the Marines for all or part of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the city, still focused on unrealistic efforts to obtain Miramar, opted instead to contract with a local developer to transform the area into a commercial, residential and recreational area near the end of a busy runway. The developer, of course, is profiting handsomely but the city has little to show in return yet.

City leaders and opinion makers have labored under the impression that the federal taxpayers and the Navy Department should be magnanimous in providing military property, the property of all the taxpayers, not only for airports but for more parkland and bayfront access. Recall that the city initially opposed the Navy’s plan to swap choice land and buildings at Inspiration Point, its old regional medical center site, for unused parkland in Florida Canyon to build its new badly-needed medical center, preferring that it just move out of Balboa Park altogether and build its hospital in some blighted area instead. Now, critical of the Navy decision to contract with a developer to commercially develop the Navy’s Broadway complex in return for building it a new, modern regional headquarters to replace its current, fort-like structure and reduce its huge waterfront footprint, the city would again prefer that the Navy just move out of the neighborhood altogether, notwithstanding the huge cost to the taxpayers that relocating its headquarters would entail.

These and other efforts by city leaders and opinion makers to pressure the Navy and Marines to give up needed land for recreational purposes or to solve local problems caused largely by its own lack of foresight and planning have been inimical to good relations between the city and the military community which put the city on the map in the first place and still accounts for at least a fifth of the economy.

Take, as another example of inept management, the city’s dealings with its NFL franchise, the San Diego Chargers. From the notorious ticket guarantee, the subject of a 1997-98 county grand jury investigation in which I participated as foreman of the jury, to the current failed effort to keep the team in its current, ideal, centrally-located Mission Valley location, city officials have performed rather like minor leaguers. So burned were they by earlier negotiations they now seem paralyzed. A city which constantly brags about its size (8th in the nation, down from 6th  a decade ago) may soon lose a coveted NFL franchise and be left with an obsolete stadium in the midst of a huge parking lot, generating little or no revenue and used only for college football, swap meets, RV shows and tractor pulls. It cannot even attract an NBA or NHL franchise while cities only half its size can.

The current mayor, the popular ex-police chief Jerry Sanders, is properly focused on restoring the city’s fractured credit rating, largely a result of past mismanagement of its inflated pension programs. He faces an uphill battle. Asked recently what his vision for the city is, he replied to the effect that his vision was to restore the fiscal integrity of the city during his time in office. It’s unfortunate that that so much effort must be expended just on correcting the problems caused by the poor management of the past. It leaves little time for pursuing a broader, grander vision worthy of a city that calls itself America’s finest. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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