New San Diego Mayor Bob Filner displays anger management problem
Feb. 22, 2013
By Chris Reed
What happens when a veteran congressman with a history of anger management issues and an apparent disinterest in understanding how city government works becomes mayor of California’s second-largest city?
San Diegans are finding out as they deal with their city’s own “Anger Management” show provided for nearly three months by impulsive, confrontational 20-year veteran House Democrat Bob Filner.
Filner’s narrow November victory over Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio was a huge disappointment to reformers both locally and nationally, who had watched DeMaio work with more traditional Republicans to help turn San Diego into a laboratory for libertarian-minded efforts to change some of the basics of local government. DeMaio was the major sponsor of Proposition B, the pension reform measure city voters passed in June 2012.
As expected, Filner has tried to reverse course. He’s blocking efforts to further privatize or downsize city departments through a “managed competition” in which groups of government workers bid against private firms for the right to provide specific city services. Filner also offers no complaints about a rogue state agency’s efforts to prevent San Diego from implementing Measure B’s radical changes in retirement benefits for city workers.
But Filner’s behavior — far more than his policy changes — has dominated the headlines for months. At age 70, he is a perfect example of the adage that a leopard can’t change his spots. And so the same politician who menaced a Dulles Airport worker and taunted an Immigration and Naturalization Service guard while a congressman has kept in character — first as a bizarrely abrasive mayoral candidate and now as mayor.
Jan. 8 showed Filner at his worst. At a City Council meeting that afternoon, the mayor tangled with Todd Gloria, the council chairman and a fellow liberal Democrat, over appointments to a regional planning board, the San Diego Association of Governments. A matter that could have been handled with a prior phone call turned into a theater of anger, as Filner said Gloria couldn’t get his facts straight and mocked both SANDAG and the office of City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a Republican.
That night, Filner remained in bully mode. At a meeting with medical marijuana advocates upset with a city crackdown on dispensaries, Filner called Goldsmith “a little guy” whom he would “intimidate” to get to end the “persecution” of dispensaries.
But as Goldsmith explained the next day, Filner had the unilateral power to stop tough code enforcement efforts. The mayor didn’t need to “intimidate” the city attorney. He just had to tell code compliance officers and police to change their priorities. Filner did so without apologizing to Goldsmith for his shrill broadsides.
Bob Filner makes like Kanye West
This week saw the mayor at his most Filnerian, with the issue the City Council’s 2012 approval of a de facto room tax that city hotels impose on guests to pay for national marketing campaigns trumpeting tourism in San Diego. Filner wants to renegotiate the deal and has refused to release the funds the “fee” has generated, and hoteliers are pursuing legal action. The mayor says the deal is bad for the city — and also that hotels should pay more and provide better benefits with a “living wage” policy. Instead of consulting with Goldsmith, Filner has relied on the advice of a lawyer he hired for his staff.
On Wednesday, Goldsmith held a press conference to give his views on the dispute and the potential fallout for the city. Filner crashed the event and took the podium to give his own press conference — in Goldsmith’s office — in which Filner repeatedly denounced the city attorney for daring to believe the mayor’s tactics were flawed.
“It would have been nice, Mr. Goldsmith, to have a memo,” Filner said. “It would have been nice to have advice. I am your client. That’s privileged communication. You not only have been unprofessional but unethical in this press conference. And I resent it greatly that you’re giving your advice through the press.”
Goldsmith’s response: “I hope in the future we’ll know about these issues and get consulted in advance, but if I read them in the newspaper and they’re wrong, I have to comment on them.”
This incensed Filner: “I have no obligation to inform you of any policy decisions I make. You have the obligation as my attorney to give me private and privileged communication. I do not have to advise you on my policy considerations, but you have the right, you have the obligation to defend me in any court action and to give me advice in a privileged fashion, not to announce your own policy on your own.”
But Goldsmith is not Filner’s attorney. Goldsmith is the attorney for the city of San Diego, obligated to look out for its interests, and someone who is so well-regarded that he was re-elected in 2012 without opposition.
Filner’s stunt led the local news. It also triggered a torrent of comment on social media, with one Twitter commenter comparing it to the moment when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift when she was given the best female video award at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
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