Q & A: Donna Frye
Candidate for Mayor

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San Diego Union-Tribune
July 10, 2005

Frye, an environmental activist and open government advocate, has represented District 6 on the San Diego City Council since 2001. She was a write-in candidate for mayor in November 2004. The Union-Tribune's editorial board has interviewed the candidates for mayor. A Q&A with Steve Francis was published last Sunday. An interview with Jerry Sanders will be published next Sunday.

Question: What is your plan to solve San Diego's pension and financial crisis?

"One reason I think I'm the right person to be the mayor is because of the culture of secrecy ... that has to be busted open. I'm really talking open government. I'm talking get the information out. Stop the misinformation, the disinformation."
Answer: We need fundamental government reform. But after dealing with the pension board and watching them fail to waive attorney-client privilege, which I think is one of the biggest problems we're facing... That's where one of the biggest log jams is as far as getting any kind of movement with the investigations. We can't get our audited financial reports out. My first thought was to just get rid of the appointees currently on the board and find appointees who would waive attorney-client privilege. But then I realized it was even worse than that. So what I believe we need to do is enter into a receivership. We need to direct the city attorney to place the pension board, the entire retirement system, into receivership. Because it's horribly mismanaged. And it's not just the attorney-client privilege. It has gotten so bad that I really am hesitant to rely on volunteers. I do not have confidence in them. And I think it was Tuesday we had asked the retirement board to come make a presentation before the San Diego City Council. And to go over their budget. And it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life as a council member. I believer the gentleman's name was Peter Preovolos, the new chair. And it as like watching a cheerleader for everything that's right about the retirement system. It was terrible.

How do you get to receivership?

I believe we can direct the city attorney to achieve it. Obviously we're going to have to have the mayor and the council agree to it and I think we're very close.

If the pension board votes waive the privilege, would you still pursue receivership?


But there is no guarantee a judge would order receivership.

That may well be. But it's a fight worth pursuing. I happen to be on the side that says you can and you must and we should because it's out of control.

How do you waive attorney-client privilege?

The way I understand it, is you write it up in the petition for a court order.

Why would you seek a receivership even if the board waives privilege?

Because I don't believe that the board can manage this mess any longer. I don't feel comfortable anymore relying on a group of volunteers to get us out of this problem. I do not feel comfortable with the administration. I do not feel comfortable with their attorney. I do not feel comfortable with their auditor. I don't feel comfortable with any of them.

So you support the audit committee's recommendation?

Absolutely, and I sent a memo to that effect. We need a new actuary for the retirement board. We need a new attorney. And we need new administration.

How can the city roll back pension benefits?

I would also put that in the petition for a court order.

But if you directed the receiver to not pay the benefits.

I'm not saying that you would necessarily direct them not to pay the benefits so much as you would ask them to determine the legality of those benefits.

But that determination is really going to have be settled by a judge.

It very well might be. But I just have this feeling about the recently concluded labor negotiations. I believe when we entered into the negotiations with the labor unions if we had taken a different tact and we had started off with the rollbacks and even had a discussion about those, which they did not do – that was very frustrating to me because I think it would have been a reasonable place to start.

The mayor said that his legal advice was that the parties couldn't negotiate away those benefits.

I disagree with that analysis.

But the council has approved these contracts. The unions have agreed to them. They include a 3 percent raise today and a 4 percent raise in two years. There are modest reductions in their contributions to the pension plan. Is there any way you can change any of that?

I believe there is. Again, part of it is negotiations. I'm not going to give you every strategy that I would use because I don't want to read about it in the newspaper. But if people believe that the system is going to go into receivership, there are ways to get people to come to the table and to get them to where you want to go. Which we did not do (in the recent labor negotiations). The negotiations were done before the negotiations began. And that is my belief. That these things were negotiated long before it ever got to the–

Between whom and whom?

I can't prove anything but my sense of it is that there had already been discussions about what was going to happen.

Is that a reflection on the current mayor?

Yes, it is.

Could you clarify the confusion that sometimes arises when people disagree over what your voting record is on the pension matter? Did you vote in 2002 for the underfunding plan?

Yes. Let me explain what happened. And believe me it was confusing to myself as well as Diann Shipione (a whistle blower formerly on the pension board). But what happens is that issues are separated that really should be joined. And so you'll have items put on the consent calendar. They're sometimes put on a supplemental consent agenda which means we'll get them Friday at 5 p.m. That goes on all the time and it's really annoying. So what happened is that I believe there were three items on the consent agenda. And Diann Shipione was there and pulled two of the three believing that the two that she pulled addressed the underfunding, and not realizing that the one that she did not pull, the third, was related to manager's proposal two. So the first item was manager's proposal two as a separate consent item. Then there were two others.

What determines whether an item is put on the consent calendar?

The mayor dockets all of it.

A great way to keep reporters in the dark.

And council members. But now we've changed that. One of the things that I managed to get through was to stop that practice. That anything related to the pension, the retirement, increased benefits, anything related to the retirement, those types of issues, could not go on the consent agenda. So that has changed.

Why did you vote the way you did on the one remaining underfunding item?

Because I didn't realize that there was a problem. There was nothing at that time to indicate so. I was elected in June of 2001.

How would the pension benefits rollbacks actually get done?

I don't think at this point it's realistic to believe that people are going to come back to the table willingly. But I do believe that there is an opportunity if they believe that we're really going to go find out about the legality of these (pension benefits). I don't know if they're going to want to get into that legal battle. And I also think once the reality of what our city's going to look like as we continue to spend to provide more benefits than we can ever pay for... The reality of that, I think, is going to start sinking in soon. Parks and rec is a good example. The salaries and benefits and fringes and all that are going up about a million dollars. But you have 68 fewer employees than you did last year.

What about the health care costs of retirees? That has now been shifted to the general fund.

Yes. We had the actuary from the service board come to our Government Efficiency and Openness Committee. Because I could not get the mayor to docket the actuary (before the full City Council). And I wanted it done because I wanted to find out the unfunded liability. And that's where we came up with the $1.7 billion that people are now using. That was in April. Then when they put in the retiree health that pushed us over $2 billion.

So how would you as mayor address that unfunded liability and that cost?

When you offer too many health plans, it costs more. So one way would be to just very simply start looking at ways to maybe just have two plans. And I think what we'll have to do is go back and start looking at asking people to help make more contributions. Or reduce benefits.

What about the retirees themselves?

That's going to be a problem. I will do everything I can to avoid having the current retirees increase their costs. One of the things the city did is essentially take people out of Social Security. The city did make some commitments and did tell people some things.

Mayoral candidate Pat Shea was here and made his case for bankruptcy. How do you feel about that as an option?

Well, I love Pat Shea. I don't love bankruptcy. And if I did decide we should go into bankruptcy, I'd hire him. But I just don't think it's the panacea that he paints it out to be. It sounds like there's no pain, no taxes, no this, no that, nobody gets hurt, no black eye, in 18 months everything's figured out. It's like they say if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I just don't buy it. And I don't think that everybody in Orange County agrees that this was the saving grace of Orange County.

If you are the next mayor, you will be operating under the strong mayor experiment. How would that affect your ability to get the council to do many of these things that you're talking about, that the council has refused to do in the past?

First, if I'm elected that is a great indication of where the public is. You get a majority vote of the public citywide and certainly I think my colleagues will pay attention. I ran once and received more votes. And even though they didn't count all my ballots I thought that sent a pretty good message. Second, I have often been able to lead the council and get them to do things that no one believed they would do. Open government. I fought for that. I got that done in three weeks. I got them to change the permanent rules of council. Plus we got Prop. D on the ballot with no opposition, which is why you actually are now getting to look at the council calendars and the mayor's calendars and a lot of other documents you wouldn't otherwise receive.

To what extent have you thought about this new strong mayor system and how it will work?

I'll have to look at the civil service provisions, but if I can legally do this, the first thing I'm going to do is get rid of many people. People who I believe were part of the problem. I'll give you one name. Bruce Herring. (Deputy city manager and liaison to the pension board who is due a $1.2 million pension payment.)

And why would he top the list?

I do not believe that he told me the truth. When I ask someone a question, all I ask for is just to tell me the truth.

And how did he lie to you?

It's failing to provide. It's making simple things very difficult. It's the smoke and mirrors. It's the not getting a direct answer to a very direct question. And when Diann Shipione came down, for example, and everybody was saying she's a wing nut, she doesn't know what she's talking about, Bruce was right there leading the charge saying everything's fine, there's no underfunding. Bruce Herring was quoted in the newspaper as saying that if the city never put another penny into the retirement fund, that we could pay benefits for the next 30 years. It was the most egregious statement. So I'm surrounded by a chorus of this led by Mr. Bruce Herring. He goes. There are other reasons as well.

Do you care to talk about other categories of employees?

Well some of them are gone. The other one that I was just furious about that she was allowed to stay was Terri Webster. (Auditor who was placed on administrative leave and subsequently charged with conflict of interest.) I was so outraged by that and I could not get my colleagues to support me. But that would be my first move. And there are some others.

Did Dick Murphy do the right thing in resigning?

Absolutely. But the thing was is that I don't think he should have run. I think he should have gone with his initial instinct. When you lose the passion, when you lose the desire to go out there and change things and to actually be an effective leader, and your heart's not in it. If someone has to talk you into doing something, I would advise you not to do it.

Let's move on to other issues.

Can I just throw in some things? How did we actually get to the pension underfunding? It didn't happen overnight. There were things that began (under a culture of secrecy). One reason I think I'm the right person to be the mayor is because of the culture of secrecy. Because people do not want to tell you what they're doing. They want to do it out of sight. They don't want the media looking. They don't want the public involved. They put it in the consent calendar or the supplementals. Or they put 500 items on one agenda. It's designed to baffle and confuse. So that has to be busted open. I'm really talking open government. I'm talking get the information out. Stop the misinformation, the disinformation.

One of the other things that we do which is just horrible and which I'm trying to change and I'm getting very close is how we do projects. Like say we add a new park or a new fire station or a new library. What we never do in the budget is include the operating and maintenance costs. So we have a grand opening of a new whatever and everybody's going yea. But there's nothing in the budget for the following year to maintain it, for operations, for staffing, none of that. And that has to change. There are ways to fix that.

Are you concerned about fees for attorneys and consultants involved in the pension investigations?

The costs for outside consultants and attorneys and contracts and all that no one ever seems to look at. No one looks at the billing records. It's crazy stuff that we're paying.

Are you going to vote to improve the audit committee's budget requests, which was $1.5 million?

I already did. I voted for the audit committee's request because I think we have to pay them, yes. What I did not support and I will not support was giving (law firm) Vinson & Elkins any more money. I said I want to see your report. Come down to the City Council and show me what you've got. And now they're not going to do a report. No. So I would not support that.

Do you think the V&E report was a whitewash that glossed over the problems?


Was it honest?

V&E was hired and it wasn't clear that they were hired to actually represent the city to the SEC. And then the scope of services. The way they wrote up their scope of services was so lawyerly and so tricky. Because when I got the report, I asked them about the sewer bonds. And they said, 'Oh, well that wasn't part of the deal.' So then we were going to rehire them? I said so where's your contract? Where's your scope of work? They said, 'No, you don't have that.' So I'm not allowed to have it? You want me to vote but you won't allow me to see it. 'Oh, well it's secret.' I said secret to me? And I wouldn't support it. This is how their game is done. Again, the flawed reports. The failure to properly disclose the city's true financial condition. And then the inaccurate (five-year) budget projections, which are horrible.

What is your vision for a future airport?

My vision is is that we need a new airport. I do not have a specific location.

What about the Chargers' proposal?

Interestingly enough, I have not seen the Chargers' proposal. Even though I have continued to extend my kindest invitation for them to appear before either the full council or to come to my committee. But here's my thoughts on it. First of all the site. I have to look at the site that they're talking about. So what are we talking, 160 acres approximately? Part of the land is owned by the water department. Part of it is owned by the general fund, I believe. So you have ratepayers and taxpayer issues you have to address as far as whom you would bill. There are some constraints on that site that need to be addressed. The (gasoline) tank farm is located right next to it. And we know it has leaked. You have to remediate that site before you could have any use for housing or condos or whatever. The other thing is you have flooding issues. And finally you have a traffic nightmare that has not been adequately mitigated. But the other thing is there's no public park land in Mission Valley. And that is a requirement of the general plan. It's a requirement of the community plan. And there is zero park land with all this density. So those issues have to be addressed. I wish the Chargers would meet with us.

What is the appropriate use by the city of the power of eminent domain?

I do not believe that it is a proper use of eminent domain to take private property to turn it over to another private property owner and call that public use. It does help to have an actual finding of blight.

You have expressed concerns about loss of industrial lands.

My industrial lands, where I look at them fondly like I do my wetlands. And I got so upset when they started to put housing in Kearny Mesa and were gobbling up my industrial lands. And that's how I think of them. Those industrial lands are jobs. And when I look at the original General Dynamics development agreement, that original agreement, the reason they got that development agreement, was because they were supposed to provide to the city extraordinary benefits. They said they would give us extraordinary benefits. That being the tax from all this industrial development, from the sales tax, from all the wonderful things they were going to build. And then they changed that so all these extraordinary benefits go out the window, and they put in housing.

Does your zealous defense of industrial lands impress the Sierra Club?

I'm not trying to impress. But I actually think it would. I point to the folks at the Environmental Health Coalition concerned about Barrio Logan where chrome-plating facilities are located right next to residential and their kids are getting sick. There are certain uses that should not be combined. You don't combine 24-hour truck traffic next to a new condominium unit and expect someone not to complain. You just don't do that to your industrial areas when they're already there. And it's costing us money. We're losing jobs.

What about the housing problem now?

One of the things that we have not done well is we have done adequate analysis of our infrastructure needs and how we're going to provide that. People aren't going to take the density without the infrastructure. There are ways to do it. But you have to be honest with the public and you have to go to places where you're wanted. You go to those communities that will accept the density, and there are many.

Where are those?

Downtown, for one. There are many places that like the city of villages approach and want to be a city of villages. In my district one of the places we're looking at it is Linda Vista. Because it lends itself to that. But you can't go into a place like Clairemont where you have single-family residences and then all of a sudden say you're going to put in 500 condo units.

What is your position on the Mount Soledad cross?

I opposed putting that on the (special election) ballot. Absolutely.

So what is your solution?

My solution is is that we should follow what the court said. It's a constitutional issue. It doesn't really matter what I think or don't think. The courts have decided it's unconstitutional.

What is your view on a downtown library?

I like a downtown library. What I will not support is spending money which in the line item for the downtown library budget is $21 million. I'm sorry, I cannot watch my branch libraries' hours being cut when we say we're going to spend money to build a downtown library.

So you would shut down the project?

Yes. I would probably shut down the project for a year.

You mentioned who you want to see go from city government. Who would you like to bring in?

I have some ideas. I'd like to bring in Pat Shea.

What would his job be?

Oh, transition adviser or I don't know. I'd give him a title. But I think he's brilliant. There's a nice young man who is running against me. I don't think he has ever been involved in government and he's an attorney and I think he's terrific. I think he has some good ideas. I have a few other folks who are currently employed whose names I will not mention.