Pat Flannery’s Analysis of San Diego’s New City Council

by on January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

in Economy, Election, Environment, Labor, Media, Organizing, San Diego

Editor: Blogger and experienced grassroots journalist Pat Flannery has been more than a gadfly in the soup of the local San Diego establishment. His seasoned blog ‘blog of San Diego’ has recently undergone an uptick in its efforts to fill the gap in hardcore news and information on local government, with a new format and name.  He shares his insight on the new City Council with us here:

by Pat Flannery /San Diego Today / January 10, 2009

There are two kinds of San Diego City Councilmember’s: “staffers” and “legislators“. The “staffers” are Faulconer, Gloria, Young and Hueso and the “legislators” are Lightner, DeMaio, Frye and Emerald.

“Staffers” are easily identifiable by their “institutional” mentality. They demonstrate a natural sympathy with the bureaucratic mind and identify more with city staff who come before them for “Council Action” than with the electorate. They see “Council Action” as part of a bureaucratic process rather than the revered workings of representative democracy.

The Staffers

Kevin Faulconer was first elected for District 2 on January 10, 2006 with 15,044 votes to Lorena Gonzalez’s 14,320. He had worked for the public relations firm of Porter Novelli and served on a wide variety of civic boards and commissions. His professional clients were large institutions such as San Diego State University and the San Diego Unified Port District. He was already a solid “institution” man.

Now, as a City Councilmember, he thinks as an institutional lobbyist. He always looks for ways to “get things done” between the City and the various agencies and corporations that interact with each other. He is very good at it. But that skill set makes him less at home in the living rooms of his District 2 constituents than in the boardrooms or committee rooms of downtown.

Todd Gloria virtually fawns over any City staffer that comes before City Council. Like Toni Atkins before him in District 3 he indulges in tiresome ritualistic thanking of city employees for simply doing their jobs.

Perhaps he thinks this affability will be rewarded whenever he asks staff for “favors” in doing their jobs. Maybe he learned how to “kiss up” to Congressional staff when working for Congresswoman Susan Davis.

In any case it is clear that Councilmember Gloria will use more carrot than stick in dealing with San Diego City staff. Eventually, after he has been lied to often enough, he may realize that staff self interests are often adversarial to the public interest. Therefore the job of an elected official is to question unelected officials closely and hold them accountable, not pander to them.

Tony Young succeeded his (deceased) boss Charles Lewis who in turn had succeeded his termed-out boss George Stevens, as Councilmembers for District 4. Like his current  Chief of Staff Jimmie Slack, Young worked as an aide to County Supervisor Leon Williams.

Being a City Councilmember, County Supervisor or any other elected official, is just another staff job to these people. They become institutionalized. Young is the quintessential institutionalized “staffer”. One thing for sure, he is never going back to his old teaching job with San Diego City Schools.

Ben Hueso is more than a “staffer”, he is a “staffer boss”. What makes him “boss” is that he was such a reliable “staffer” to begin with. Ben knows on which side his bread is buttered. And the unions have been generous with the butter. They know he will not let them down. That is why they appointed him “boss” of all the other compliant City Council “staffers”.

All Ben has to do is keep troublesome “legislators” like Carl DeMaio in check and run the City Council meetings on time as a service to city staff to get their “Council Actions” through on schedule. That is how it has worked for decades. Ben will always have a smile on his face because all he has to do is read what is put in front of him and his bills get paid. He doesn’t even have to remember which District he represents.

The Legislators

Sherri Lightner is the antithesis to a staffer. As a longtime community volunteer she has seen how city staff routinely sells out citizens’ rights to developer greed. For decades she has been on the receiving end of their manipulations of Land Use and CEQA laws.

She and her fellow-engineer-husband Bruce, put their considerable (self-made) family fortune on the line for the long-suffering citizens of San Diego. She is not doing this for the money nor is she interested in higher office. She will be a worthy opponent for venal city staff who are counting the years to their over-benefited retirement. She is a true public servant.

Carl DeMaio is a bit of a hybrid – he is a public servant, but with ambition. He seems to have a genuine interest in good government and to have made it his profession. He is in a frightful hurry, which is both good and bad. San Diego has problems that just won’t wait, so Carl’s passion to make a difference is good.

But those who are not in such a hurry, Ben Hueso and Tony Young, will use Carl’s haste against him. We saw what happened to Aguirre who was also “on a mission”. I am impressed with Carl’s sincerity, if not his impetuosity. If DeMaio can build a team, he could make a difference and bring his success to the next level, perhaps Governor. He is, for good or ill, a quintessential Californian.

Donna Frye is a legend in her own time. For years she has held the fort for honesty-in-public-life, when all around her was corruption and deceit. She has, without doubt, earned an honored place in the annals of San Diego. The only question is: are her best days behind her or before her? I hope the latter.

She is a natural-born leader and despite having been robbed of the office of Mayor and the Council Presidency, she will doggedly lead the “legislators” against the “staffers” for the next two years. Her grasp of the issues is second to none.

Marti Emerald makes it into the “legislators” category despite having one foot firmly in the union/staff camp. It is probably true that she would not have made it onto the City Council without the help of the city unions, “staffer” Ben Hueso and “godfather” Ron Saathoff.

But Marti has another (hopefully even more powerful) side to her – she has an instinct for “the people”. Channel 10 was not mistaken when they made her their very successful TV “Troubleshooter”, a role she loved.

She is hard not to like. She is a touchy-feely “people” person. She will probably defer, out of loyalty, to union/staff interests when she must, but she is no “staffer” – she is no Ben Hueso, and I think the unions know that.


These are the eight people who will make key decisions on the lives of 1.3 million San Diegans over the next two years. We need to watch and understand their motives. The above analysis suggests that four are public-serving and four are committed to special interests – business and unions.

Carefully watching them during their first two weeks on the job, certain basic trends are evident. The “staffers” are already protecting the status quo by carefully containing the “legislators”. Council/Committee deliberation, a vital part of good legislating, is being kept to a minimum.

Despite the Brown Act, “Staff” President Ben “I move the staff recommendation” Hueso, working to a staff script, will shepherd each agenda item along in order to quickly implement the staff recommendation. After each successful “Action” Ben can hit the “That was Easy” button.

The “legislators” and the public will have to constantly outsmart the wily administration staff and their puppets on the Council. That will not be easy.

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