SAN FRANCISCO - San Diego voters go to the polls today in an election that will serve as a referendum on the financial reforms California's second-biggest city has undertaken since its 2004 pension and municipal disclosure scandal.
Voters have to answer two major questions: Has Mayor Jerry Sanders gone far enough in changing the way the city does business? Has city attorney Michael Aguirre gone too far?
Sanders points to Standard & Poor's reinstatement of the city's credit rating last month and Fitch Ratings' positive outlook as proof that he's turning the city around after four years of exile from the public bond market. He faces a challenge from wealthy businessman Steve Francis, who has pumped millions into his second campaign against Sanders and called the city "bankrupt."
Aguirre, a Democrat, faces four challengers who fault the city attorney's allegedly combative style and obstructionist political meddling. For his part, Aguirre describes himself as a guardian of financial integrity who has fought to roll back pension benefits the city should never have promised.
Today's election is a non-partisan primary. If a candidate gets a majority of the votes, she or he wins. If nobody captures a majority, the two top vote-getters face off in a November general election.
Sanders, a Republican who defeated Francis in a special election in 2005, is being outspent by a wide margin. Francis - who founded a health care staffing company with his wife - spent $3.7 million on his campaign in the first five-and-a-half months of this year, according to filings with the city clerk.
"No one has ever spent this kind of money" in a San Diego mayoral race, said John Kern, a political consultant who was the chief of staff under former Mayor Dick Murphy. Kern is not working for either candidate.
Sanders has spent $426,000, and the local Republican Party has spent about $250,000 to support his campaign. The Republicans supported Francis in 2005.
The city's financial reforms are a big issue in the race. The Securities and Exchange Commission sanctioned San Diego in 2006 for failing to disclose its $1.2 billion unfunded pension liability in 2002 and 2003 bond offerings. It charged five former top administrators with fraud earlier this year.
Standard & Poor's withdrew its credit rating in 2004 because San Diego couldn't provide audited financial reports. Last month, the agency rated the city's general obligation bonds A with a positive outlook. In March, Fitch revised the outlook on its BBB-plus rating to positive. Moody's Investors Service rates the city A3.
Voters "have seen Fitch and Standard & Poor's say that San Diego's outlook is not negative any longer. It's positive," said Sanders in a debate on public television Friday. "We've got the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."
Sanders, a former police chief, also says the city has implemented more than three-quarters of the financial controls recommended by the risk-management consultancy Kroll Inc. after the pension scandal, replaced its top finance officials and started to pay down its unfunded pension obligation. Sanders last week proposed a pension ballot measure that would cut benefits for future employees.
"The true financial picture of the city is not in good shape," said Francis. "Despite the spin, we have really serious problems."
He says he's a "fiscal conservative" who will cut the city payroll and reduce pensions. After running with the backing of the local Republican Party in 2005, he is running as an independent this time, with support from several big unions.
In the city attorney's race, Aguirre faces four challengers: City Council President Scott Peters, Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith, City Councilman Brian Maienschein, and lawyer Amy Levine.
All fault Aguirre for blocking a city plan to issue $108 million of certificates of participation that the mayor and council supported. Aguirre said the COPs would be illegal without voter approval, despite assurances from the city's bond counsel that the deal was legal.
Aguirre, who recommended evacuating the city during wildfires last year, accused Peters and Maienschein of securities fraud in a debate early in the race. He skipped many of the debates since then. Both Peters and Maienschein were called "negligent" in the Kroll report on the city's pension disclosure failures. Neither has been charged by the SEC, and both are running well-funded campaigns.
All four challengers have attacked Aguirre just as harshly. Peters, a Democrat, calls Aguirre "dangerous" and "deceptive." Goldsmith, who has the support of the local Republican Party, is even harsher.
A recent Goldsmith ad accuses Peters and Maienschein of helping turn City Hall into a three-ring circus. The ad calls "Mad Mike Aguirre" the circus' "main attraction," inviting listeners to "be amazed" as Aguirre "becomes the first loose cannon to be shot out of a cannon while holding a press conference on a topic he knows nothing about."
"The issue in the city attorney's race is Mike Aguirre," said Kern. Love him or hate him, "he's the most influential, dominant figure in San Diego politics."
The San Diego Union-Tribune refused to endorse a candidate in the city attorney's race. It simply said, "any one of Aguirre's challengers would be an improvement."