The Sins of San Diego’s Mayors On Parade – Part 1

by on February 20, 2023 · 16 comments

in Election, History, San Diego

Susan Golding standing in front of Newt Gingrich.

By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner / Feb. 19, 2023

Times change.  We’ve unzipped our lips.  Words that used to be taboo are now commonplace.   We can say just about anything we want: bi*ch…fu*k… bullsh*t… cu*t… scumbag… c*cksucker… (not the n-word, though–that’s still a no-no).

* (But whoa…not so fast! I’ve been foiled by the Google Blogger censors, who won’t let me say my taboo words on their platform. Darn it!  You’ll just have to fill in the blanks for yourselves.)

One thing’s for sure–San Diegans are under a gag order when it comes to naming names and identifying the corrupt, self-serving, and unethical maneuvers of many of our city’s  influential players–elected and unelected–who steer the San Diego ship.

Isn’t it time to reckon with the fact that the past never disappears? that heavy fallout from the actions/decisions/sins of San Diego’s previous political leaders still darkens our horizon?

Isn’t it time to unzip our lips a bit wider and acknowledge the scuzzy underside of our city government—particularly the incompetence and corruption that have crisscrossed the offices of San Diego mayors for generations?

Isn’t it time to put our mayors on parade and figure out if there’s still time to change direction?

1) The Parade Starts with Mayor Susan Golding (1992-2000)

Let’s be openly generous about this Mayor’s environmental credentials.  But it’s been strictly taboo to acknowledge (let alone condemn) the choices she made as Mayor for the sole purpose of advancing her political career.  Mayor Golding’s maneuvers to cater to Republican big-money (she hosted the 1996 Republican Party national convention in San Diego) included dipping into untold sums of public money.  She bled the city dry.  The disastrous consequences of her decisions haunt us, still.

  • Ably assisted by her city manager Jack McGrory and her chief of staff Kris Michell (later recycled as chief operating officer for Mayor Kevin Faulconer), Mayor Golding tapped the city budget, waived SDG&E’s obligation to bury power lines via a secret side deal for a $3.4 million cash infusion into the city treasury, diverted TOT funds, and mortally wounded the municipal pension fund–ALL for personal/political gain.
  • And don’t forget how her special relationship with San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos (a partner with John Moores on Golding’s Senate campaign finance team) was nourished by public money.  The city forked over multi-millions for over-the-top rent credits on the Chargers San Diego headquarters and for a ravenous ticket-guarantee scheme to subsidize Chargers games.
  • Mayor Golding’s use and abuse of public funds for self-serving political goals and her calamitous strategy to underfund the city’s pension system to the tune of $100 million (not counting unpaid-for retroactive benefits to city workers) created invasive tentacles that are strangling the city’s financial health to this very day.
  • Each year since she left office it’s been an increasing challenge to balance the city budget.  Each year the cuts in city services go deeper.  Each year the city creates sources of new revenue–utility user fees, storm drain fees, garbage collection fees, property transfer fees, TOTs, sales taxes– not to fund new services but to temper a chronic structural imbalance.  This is Mayor Golding’s legacy.

2) Following in her Wake Is Mayor Dick Murphy (2000-2005)

Susan Golding’s successor inherited a city budget destabilized by years of mismanagement, scheming, public corruption, and fraud.  Innately unable to make difficult decisions, Mayor Murphy went along to get along… for as long as he could.

  • The City Council eventually got on the ball and hired a governmental risk management firm called Kroll, Inc. to conduct an independent inquiry into possible illegalities related to the underfunding of the municipal employee pension system and misrepresentation of the city’s financial status.  Over the next few years, the city was under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, the San Diego District Attorney’s office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and an independent audit (which cost the city $20.3 million).
  • The 400-page Kroll Report excoriated San Diego politicians and upper management for financial dishonesty, securities fraud, gross lack of accountability, egregious cover-ups, non-transparency, obfuscation, and denial of fiscal reality.
  • According to the San Diego Business Journal: “Dozens of local officials and municipal employees put their own welfare ahead of the taxpayer for close to a decade, then tried to keep the lid on their wrongdoing…the evidence demonstrates not mere negligence, but deliberate disregard for the law, disregard for fiduciary responsibility and disregard for the financial welfare of the city’s residents over an extended period of time…”
  • Top city officials–former City Managers Mike Uberuaga and Jack MGrory, former City Attorney Casey Gwinn, and former Assistant City Attorney Les Girard–had their hands slapped for being “negligent in the fulfillment of their duties to the city.”  City Councilmembers of the day–Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein, Ralph Inzunza, Byron Wear, and George Stevens (Donna Frye was justifiably excused)–were chastised for failing to ensure that complete and accurate financial data were disclosed to the bond market.
  • In other words, city officials were caught skinny-dipping in a sea of fraud, dishonesty, cover-ups, denial, negligence, and unaccountability.  Recently, a current councilmember (Joe LaCava) philosophized that those who were responsible for that debacle were long gone.  He assured us that today’s generation of city leaders had learned from past mistakes.  Surely he was kidding!  Except for deceased George Stevens, many of those irresponsible old-timers and their present-day clones are still doing their thing and wading in the same polluted waters.

2.5) Enter “Strong Mayor”

By 2004, San Diego voters fell for the promise that a change in San Diego’s governance system would bring about greater political accountability and transparency.

  • Succumbing to the active urging of then-Mayor Murphy, San Diegans agreed to switch from our longstanding City Manager form of government (in which a presumably independent, credentialed, well-trained individual was hired by the City Council to oversee and run the city) to a Strong Mayor form of government (in which the management and responsibility for running the city was put in the hands of an executive Mayor (CEO)… who would then hire a Chief Operating Officer (COO)… who would then oversee and manage city departments and their chiefs).  The COO–as a political appointee– would be working exclusively for the Mayor, not the City Council.  Presumably, the public would finally have certainty about where the buck stops in city government.
  • Proponents of the switchover claimed that the City Council would be strengthened in the process.  But the opposite was true.  The new “strong mayor” now had control over city departments and operations.  Councilmembers who didn’t play ball could find themselves punished in a variety of ways (by the “strong mayor” withholding services and facilities from their council districts, for example).
  • As another consequence of a weakened city council neighborhood residents, community planning groups, and the general public lost a good deal of their clout as councilmembers fell in line and rubber-stamped most of the mayor’s directives.
  • Mayor Murphy, the congenial politician who had promoted the switch to a “strong mayor” form of government, was under-equipped to confront the calamitous fallout from the previous administration’s financial abuses.  Our bedeviled and depleted city was more than he could handle.  Having suffered national ignominy by being branded by Time magazine as one of the worst big-city mayors in America (a weak mayor? yes…one of the worst? no), Dick Murphy resigned from office at the start of his second term as Mayor.

3) Here Comes Jerry Sanders, the Mayor We Love to Love (2005-2012).

Jerry Sanders had initially opposed the switch to a “strong mayor” form of government.  He called it “a power grab by inside players who would drain public services…to subsidize powerful developers.”  He said it “would reduce accountability of your elected officials.”

  • But Jerry Sanders changed his tune once the beleaguered Mayor Murphy resigned.  Those “inside players” and “powerful developers” who had sold the voters on the strong mayor concept knew that the former police chief–with his endearing grin and flexible principles—was their man for the job.  In a special election, voters opted for Jerry Sanders to take over as successor strong mayor of the city of San Diego.
  • Hidden (or perhaps expunged) was Jerry Sanders’ past history when—as a SWAT commander in the San Diego Police Department–he was participating in a social gathering at Mission Bay.  A frantic call arrived reporting an ongoing massacre at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro.  By the time Sanders was able to suit up, sober up, and arrive at the scene to take credit for giving the go-ahead to a sharpshooter to target the lone gunman and end the mayhem, 21 people lay dead alongside 19 wounded… mostly Mexican-Americans.  Jerry Sanders, the mislabeled hero, was subsequently promoted to Police Chief by then-City Manager Jack McGrory and Mayor Susan Golding.  For the past three decades, an airbrushed Jerry Sanders has evaded acknowledging—much less apologizing for—his clouded, self-aggrandizing actions that devastated and destroyed so many human lives.  It’s one of San Diego’s taboo subjects.
  • Once ensconced in the mayor’s seat, Mayor Sanders hired retired Navy Rear-Admiral Ronne Froman as his first chief operating officer (COO).  They were like peas in a pod in their quasi-military approach to running the city.  Their rules of the game consisted of tight controls, rigid lines of authority, and directives to clamp down and zip up whenever conflict arose.
  • The scent of corruption was hard to miss as Jerry Sanders once again engaged in activities that threatened public safety.  In his position of command as Mayor, he intervened on behalf of one of his major donors to permit construction of a 12-story Sunroad Enterprises office building near Montgomery Field airfield.  The problem?  The building exceeded permissible airport zone height limits and was deemed unsafe by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and California Department of Transportation.
  • Mayor Sanders was finally forced to force the Sunroad developers to abide by FAA safety regulations and lop off the building’s top tower.  (When Mike Aguirre filed suit to cut the building down to size, the Mayor’s favored horse-whisperer Fred Sainz told a reporter, “We don’t think it sends a positive message to the development community.”)
  • The designated fall-guy for this fiasco was the Mayor’s advisor Jim Waring, who dutifully resigned.  (He was soon reinstated when Sanders nominated him to the San Diego Housing Commission.  Today, Waring serves as Mayor Todd Gloria’s deputy COO.)
  • COO Froman moved on, along with a tidal wave of senior management officials (Land Use chief Jim Waring, Parks & Recreation director Ted Medina, Development Services chief Gary Halbert and his successor Marcela Escobar-Eck, Water Department director Frank Belock, Fire Chief Jeff Bowman).  Who was left in charge of running city operations?  The folk who ran the city when Susan Golding was Mayor–operatives like Kris Michell and Fred Sainz, who had their fingers on the button for many decades to come.
  • Despite claims of financial acuity, Mayor Sanders resisted calls for fiscal responsibility and meaningful reorganization of city finances.  He chose to feed the crippled budget by selling off “excess” city property and outsourcing city services.
  • By 2011, Mayor Sanders, propped up by his COO Jay Goldstone (replacing Ronne Froman), claimed that he had miraculously balanced the city budget and that the city was on solid financial footing.  It was a sleight-of-hand fabrication (aka creative lie).  Under the direction of Mayor Sanders, his administration fudged the numbers by eliminating internal audits, halting routine oversight of city departments, and stopping the tracking of city services.  Reality reared its ugly head when, barely one year later, San Diego was cited as having the worst crumbling infrastructure, streets, and storm drains in the entire state, perhaps even the country.
  • The swindles multiplied.  After nearly 8 years of overseeing the deterioration of San Diego’s public infrastructure, city finances, city planning, truth in government, workplace security, and workers’ morale, our aw-shucks Mayor again assured the public that “the city’s decades-long structural budget deficit is over.”  He partnered with councilmembers Carl DeMaio and Kevin Faulconer to initiate a ballot measure called “Comprehensive Pension Reform.”  While scamming the public with a $94 million bill for an alternative 401K pension system, the ballot measure left in place the destructive abuses embedded in the old pension system.
  •  The Sanders/DeMaio/Faulconer pension reform fiasco didn’t hold up in court.  It has been dismantled and is currently costing taxpayers at least $100 million to undo and rectify.
  • Today our streets are still crumbling.  But Jerry Sanders, in his political afterlife, thrives as the well-paid head honcho of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.  This same man who–as Mayor–modestly self-certified that he was an honest chap who would always own up to any mistakes he might make, was recently crowned with the honorific: “Mr. San Diego.”  In a city like ours, truth can be stranger than fiction.

4) Next in Line Is Bob Filner, the Mayor We Love to Hate (2012-2013)

Among San Diego’s most guarded taboos, speaking the whole truth about Bob Filner is a punishable no-no.  But dig we must if we are to make sense of the public opprobrium and shaming directed at him to this day.  One thing’s for sure–the story behind Filner’s truncated time as Mayor is as juicy, riveting, and malignant as local politics gets.

Let’s acknowledge the positive before going in for the kill:

  • What distinguished Bob Filner from San Diego’s lineup of leaders were a few notable traits: he was an experienced politician with a lively mind, sharp wit, and ethical agenda.  His credentials as an unregenerate liberal Democrat were first-class.
  •  From the start of his abbreviated mayorship, Filner’s penchant for promoting the public interest over private interests alarmed and alienated San Diego’s entrenched power brokers.  His assertive presence on the scene also cast a shadow across the political ladder of competitors like my-time-has-come Democrat Todd Gloria, whichever-way-the-wind-blows Nathan Fletcher, and public-relations-is-my-god Republican Kevin Faulconer.
  • To implement his progressive agenda, Mayor Filner came out swinging against San Diego’s powerful “establishment.”   In his first months in office, he churned out directives to:
    • create solar-powered city buildings/install public toilets downtown /design bike-able and walk-able streets
    • hire a first-class planning director, Bill Fulton
    • install new building standards for a 332-unit “mixed use” project near San Diego State University to prevent it from being rented “per bed” rather than per apartment
    • bring in real estate broker Jason Hughes (introduced to Filner by Southwest Strategies head honcho and lobbyist Chris Wahl) on a temporary and voluntary basis “without compensation from any party” to help find additional office space for city workers
    • eliminate automobiles from Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama with minimal city expense or intrusive park redevelopment
    • veto a city council decision to permit a Sunroad Enterprises project to infringe beyond its property line without requiring public benefits in return
    • extract a $100,000 contribution from Sunroad for two public projects in return for the requested property line variance
    • assail the city’s routine permissiveness in code enforcement and specifically to block a Jack in the Box restaurant claim that their remodel permit allowed them to do a full rebuild
    • redirect over $30 million of public money toward better wages for hotel workers and greater benefits for the city, butting heads with the city’s influential “hotelier cabal” (the Tourism Marketing District, the Convention Center, the Tourism Authority) and then-city council president Todd Gloria, who supported the hotel industry
    • propose a 5-year freeze on pensionable pay to confront the city’s structural budget shortfall and remove budget cut exemptions that had been granted to the City Attorney’s office
    • establish San Diego’s prevailing wage law for construction projects

And now for the negatives:

  • Bob Filner’s personality has been described as prickly, peremptory, abrasive, inappropriate, disagreeable, tone deaf, disrespectful, rude, brusque, and arrogant.
  • Add on his awkward and adolescent compulsion to play the role of ladies’ man with inappropriate flirty jokes and asking scads of women out to dinner.  He sometimes wrapped his arm around their shoulders and neck, just like the high school jocks used to do (in Filner’s case they called it assault and battery).
  • Then there were his top advisors.  Most of them were poorly grounded in city affairs.  Others had dubious loyalty to their boss.  And promoting tranquility in the mayor’s office was a bigger job–given his own volatile tendencies–than his overwhelmed chief of staff could successfully handle.
  • The coordinated anti-Filner crusade that finally pushed this Mayor out of office was quick, crude, and adroitly orchestrated by inside and outside agents.  In the process, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith crossed several ethical and professional lines (for which he should have been disbarred):
    • City Attorney Jan Goldsmith put a private detective on Mayor Filner’s tail
    • according to Homeland Security, the Mayor’s office was bugged
    • the City Attorney worked on obtaining a restraining order to block Mayor Filner from entering City Hall
    • then-councilmember Todd Gloria and the City Attorney jointly honed their skills at regicide and privately communicated on methods to bring down the Mayor
      City Attorney Goldsmith coordinated with Mayor Filner’s top legal aide (who harbored mayoral dreams of her own) to change the locks on Filner’s private office to keep him out
    • City Attorney Goldsmith lied to Mayor Filner and the City Council by denying that the city was obligated to provide legal defense to the Mayor (it is–for any elected official accused of wrongdoing while in office)
    • City Attorney Jan Goldsmith turned the screw a notch tighter with threats to the Mayor that if he didn’t resign he would be pauperized
  • Meanwhile, an avalanche of women—some politically motivated, some coerced, some (most?) rewarded–were recruited to testify that they were victimized, harassed, and traumatized by Mayor Filner’s overtures.  Juicy accusations went viral on the local news media and were fed to the national press:
      • He touched my cheek with his finger, revealed the aggrieved ex-Navy Admiral/ former COO to Mayor Sanders, Ronne Froman
      • He stroked my arm and sneaked a feel of my breast with his drooping left elbow, reported a Parks & Recreaction worker
      • He jammed his tongue down my throat, testified a lunch date
      • He leered…he ogled

While it’s common knowledge that the ex-Mayor’s relentless habit of coming onto women provided his political adversaries with enough free ammunition to set him ablaze, there’s an irony here: the story that was assembled to bring down Mayor Bob Filner had less weight and substance than the seeds of his real undoing–his underestimation of what it would take for him to successfully run the city while simultaneously engaging in a lopsided battle against two strange bedfellows: San Diego’s elite power players and competitors from within his own political party.

Bloodied by arrows launched from all directions, Mayor Filner resigned after eight months in office.

(to be continued…)


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page February 20, 2023 at 1:21 pm

Great piece, Norma, it’s like a trip down memory lane overgrown with nasty, thorny vines, slimy underfoot, and a fog that hides scary specters. For me, Susan Golding was by far the most destructive person ever to hold that office.


Frank Gormlie February 20, 2023 at 1:27 pm

This is required reading for anyone who considers themselves up on San Diego city politics.


norma damashek February 20, 2023 at 2:47 pm

(I need to make a correction: today, Jim Waring can be found outside, not inside City Hall. He serves as executive chairman of CleanTECH San Diego.)


retired botanist February 20, 2023 at 4:39 pm

Memory lane, indeed! So accurately encapsulates my 20+ yrs in San Diego 1998-2018. I mean, no offense SD, but WTF w/ the mayors?! Seriously? And with a City as important as San Diego? What a poor-x-decade showing! C’mon who else is out there?!


retired botanist February 20, 2023 at 4:40 pm

Oh, and great piece btw! : -)


Paul Webb February 20, 2023 at 5:31 pm

Norma, I believe there may be a few details that are a little off, but a great, great piece. I would have also included Maureen O’Conner and Roger Hedgecock, but, hey…

I think we all knew there was something (a lot?) wrong with Bob Filner, but despite his personal failings he punched all the right democrat/liberal buttons. Sadly, I think many were complicit in that they looked the other way at his bad behavior.


laplayaheritage February 20, 2023 at 6:05 pm

I remember in 2013 when Filner’s mayoral staff and then Council Member Todd Gloria tried to sabotage the Veterans tent from getting emergency funding. Their purposeful sabotage failed due the efforts of Waterman David Ross who brought in 5 Veterans from the Midway tent during the first Saturday public meetings.

Also saved +$55 million in the former Redevelopment Agency (RDA) Successor Housing Entity (SHE) Low Moderate Income Housing Asset Fund (LMIHAF) that was used immediately for Affordable Housing projects. After the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) said there was no hope.

Plus confirmed that although Emergency Homeless Shelter tents may be temporary structures, the large public Homeless tents can be opened year round 24/7. Instead of winter only, with $1 million set up and storage.

Out of spite, then I-mayor Todd Gloria had the year round homeless tents, including the Veterans tent in the Midway, changed back to winter only. Then during the subsequent storing, the publicly funded million dollar Homeless tents became moldy, and were thrown away.

Later, the Lucky Duck Foundation came to the rescue of downtown homeless, and funded new tents for the City.


Mateo February 21, 2023 at 12:15 pm

Valerie Stallings, Jen Campbell, Mara Elliot, Sean Elo Rivera, and Todd Gloria. No one has sold San Diegans out more than the perversely corrupted California Democratic Party that screwed us to deliver Generation Rent to their out-of-state, non California tax paying Real Estate Investment Trusts that flush the California Democratic Party, the DNC and the DNCC with cash to pad their slushfunds and ensure lucrative consulting gigs for lobbyists!
This article reminds us that it used to be Republicans that screwed Californians, but no one has sold San Diegans out more with ablsolute impunity than the perversely corrupted California Democratic Party that are about to cause the largest financial catastrophe in history.
Young San Diegans, you, are the largest voting block in U.S. History.
This article reminds us that it used to be Republicans that screwed you, but it has been the Democrats that kicked Californian’s out in the street to die.
Todd Gloria backed legislation that bolstered eminent domain and no fault evictions.
It is Todd Gloria’s signature legislations (written by out of state Real Estate corporate lobbyists) SB9 and SB10, that sacked us with the Corporate Monopolization of Housing And it is solely the Dems that are responsible and have no one to blame but Dianne Feinstein’s Coldwell Banker, Hyper- Gentrification Queen Nancy “Serial Insider Trading Abuser” Pelosi, Gavin “I still can’t account for $31.1 Billion in EDD fraud from the pandemic” Newsom and the Politi-Corporate Real Estate Complex that has destroyed our way of life leaving San Diego an absolute #&*hole.


sealintheSelkirks February 21, 2023 at 2:26 pm

AH-hahahahaha. What a hilarious list of ‘Players’ and the games they play. Can’t wait to read Part II!

Mateo, what is really being shown here is that there is very little difference between the ‘parties’ when it comes to corruption. The entire game is rigged towards generating power and wealth for a ridiculously small cadre of San Diego elite regardless of ‘political’ affiliation.

Your rant against all things Democrat is essentially identical to all things Republican, but I’m not sure you understand that. What’s your poison, Republicrats or Democans? Or Libertairiocrats?

All I see is just the continuation of the Class War which has been waged since before this country was founded by wealthy white male genocidal slave owners.

There have been some improvements, though, I must admit. Sorta. At least now treasonous Reps. Boebert and Greene can vote and hold political office unlike their great great grandmas, eh?

I’m chuckling because my SD political experience is with the earlier incarnations of the same type of mentalities that are listed here but from about 1965 when I started to really listen to what my Peace & Freedom Party anti-Vietnam War activist high school teacher step-mom was actually saying. Up to 1987’s sick city government when I closed my OB surf repair shop and traded it for a life of surfing mountains because San Diego was already destroyed.

Long before the corporate Dems you list as the ones being solely responsible. This isn’t a PARTY affiliation thing, dude. Democrats have slithered so far right that they are Republicans while Republicans slithered even farther and have gone Fascist for the most part though I still know a few ‘Goldwater’ type business Republicans. But they are vastly outnumbered and marginalized at this point (in my experience) by gun-carrying, Confederate flag waving assh**es who are PUBLICLY asking when they get to use their guns on those that don’t agree with their views. At least there aren’t any Democrats doing that yet!

And before you ask yes, that recently happened at a county commissioners public meeting about 300 miles s/e of me in the neighboring state that was video taped and released on the web.

But my move didn’t make any difference. I found the same crap happening everywhere. Banal hypocritical liars slither their way into office, essentially sociopaths, vying for power over others of their kind. A never-ending procession of the worst examples of our species amassing more power and wealth.

The few that have scruples and ethics tend to be run under the bus in both party politics.

As I said, I can’t wait for Part II.

sealinthe (snowing again, 0’F expected tomorrow)Selkirks


Chris February 22, 2023 at 8:49 am

I think it really comes down to the fact that younger voters have a very different idea of what kind of city they want San Diego to become, and those who won’t or can’t adapt need to be pushed out. I hear these in IRL conversations and see it all over social media. Todd and the gang use these attitudes to their advantage. And to be honest, I agree with some of the things.


Chris February 22, 2023 at 8:51 am

Tho to be clear, Todd and the gang care about nothing other than their own political careers, but that’s the nature of SD politics. Well that’s the nature of the politics of many other cities and SD is no exception.


Don liddell February 21, 2023 at 2:35 pm



Frank J February 22, 2023 at 6:56 am

Lewis Powell, Bellotti v First National Bank of Boston, Buckley v Vallejo, Citizens United. Legalized bribery, money in politics. The seed for all evil. Thanks SCOTUS.


Bonnie G February 25, 2023 at 11:09 am



Chris February 22, 2023 at 8:31 am

In the written words of Pete Townshend and belted out by Roger Daltry: “The parting on the left, is not paring on the right”. Only in this case, we will continue to get fooled again because that’s what we do.


Chris February 22, 2023 at 8:32 am



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