This article was published in the October 2008 issue of San Diego Magazine.
SCOTT PETERS, the District 1 city councilman for the past eight years, has two months left before he’s termed-out of office. He’s still mulling his career options, but his experience offers lots of opportunities. A magna cum laude graduate of Duke University, he received his juris doctorate from New York University in 1984. After a year as a Minneapolis tax lawyer, he switched to environmental law and joined Baker & McKenzie’s San Diego office. In 1991, he took his first government job, in the county counsel’s office. He was elected to his first council term in 2000——and then the fun began. Peters lives in La Jolla with his wife, Lynn, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ben.
TOM BLAIR: So, it hasn’t exactly been a tranquil eight years for the city of San Diego. And after two terms on the city council, you’re about to go into political detox. How does it feel?
SCOTT PETERS: Detox? Well, I’m just looking ahead and thinking about what I want to do next. I could do law, which I enjoy. People have asked me to join their organizations, mostly in the environmental sector. And I’d like to stay involved with public affairs. California’s been active in encouraging developers to be more environmentally sensitive in their plans. I think there may be a role for me there. We spearheaded the effort to revive La Jolla’s Bird Rock. It took all of my eight years in office to complete. When I walked the neighborhoods in my 2000 campaign, I heard three things at every door. One was to get rid of the seals at Children’s Pool. Another was to get rid of the overhead power lines——and Toni Atkins and I took steps so that’s happening. And the third thing was [fixing] La Jolla Boulevard through Bird Rock. At the time, it was a total highway through the neighborhood. It was this rundown thoroughfare where a half-block away you couldn’t find a home for less than $800,000. The business investments that wanted to come to Bird Rock were a soup kitchen and a checkcashing store.
TB: You attended the Democratic convention in Denver in August. What was it like being a delegate to the first major-party convention to nominate an African-American for president?
SP: I was there as an observer, not a delegate, but it was just fascinating. I originally planned to be there in support of the first woman candidate for president. Then I sort of figured, “Well, I think I’ll support Obama, though I don’t really know him.” But I was impressed by how well run the convention was. And the messages of the campaign were so clearly enunciated and forcefully made that I really had more confidence in Obama’s ability to lead the country.
TB: Well, I guess it wasn’t your first choice to leave politics. You lost your bid for city attorney. If you had it to do over, would you have jumped into that race?
SP: I’ll tell you what I told my 14-year-old son: I would never be afraid of failure. I’d be afraid of not trying. So I’m glad I ran. I’m obviously disappointed in how it turned out, but it’s not the first time I didn’t get a job I thought I was qualified for.
TB: Did you misjudge the political climate and your chances? The backlash over the pension crisis?
SP: We looked pretty hard at it. The mayor had polling, and I had polling up to the last week that said I was going to be one of the final two. But nobody voted; the turnout was 29 percent, the lowest ever.
TB: You and the incumbent city attorney were the only two Democrats in the race——although the city attorney’s job is supposed to be nonpartisan . . .
SP: Well, my whole point was I thought Mike Aguirre had betrayed the values we have as Democrats——by just going after working people like that.
TB: You certainly had the support of labor. Do you think your labor ties just reminded voters of the deal you and other councilmembers made with labor on the misguided pension plan?
SP: I actually don’t think the pension played as much a part in it as people suspect. I will say that more than any group, labor was willing to work. I was very glad to have their support. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about why it didn’t go right.
TB: You’re a Democrat; Mike Aguirre’s a Democrat. Yet you’ve endorsed his Republican rival, Jan Goldsmith, for city attorney. Why?
SP: First of all, I do think Mike Aguirre is the biggest obstacle to progress in San Diego today. I’d put him ahead of water supply and our other resource crises. Nothing is going to happen in this city——the wheels just aren’t going to turn——until Mike is out of office.
TB: Why is that?
SP: Because he has decided, inappropriately, that the city attorney’s office is a third policymaking branch. Policy should be left to the people we elect to be the mayor and council. The city attorney should be advising us on how to do it right. But he’s decided that when policies of the mayor or city council violate his personal political precepts. he’s going to oppose us. This doesn’t just create problems for the mayor and council, it means things important to neighborhoods aren’t getting done. It means people are really reluctant to do business with us. So I talked to Jan Goldsmith. I’m satisfied he’s going to be straight, that it’s all about the law——and that’s what I wanted to accomplish as city attorney.
TB: Over the past few years, a lot of city services have been either cut back or eliminated because of the pension crisis. Potholes have become a symbol of a city in financial crisis. Is this city still in crisis?
SP: Well, I think we’re not in a crisis. And not everything’s been cut, either. The fire department budget has been raised from $125 million a year to $185 million a year. The police budget has been raised. The other thing is that the pension has not been cut. For a long time, the city made a policy decision that when things got tough, they wouldn’t pay the pension. That’s not a practice we invented. That’s a practice we stopped. With the help of voters, we’ve made it illegal to underfund the pension. We changed the pension board, removed conflicts of interest, and now the city’s pension is funded at 80 percent, which is about the average of pension funds across the country.
TB: Yet the system is still more than $1 billion in debt——and the service on the debt consumes almost $100 million a year.
SP: That’s a sort of fallacious way to look at it, because you have to look at the assets. If you owed somebody a million dollars, it’d be a lot of money. If Bill Gates owed somebody a million dollars, it’s not a lot of money. So you have to look at the assets in the pension, and they’ve grown tremendously since 2002. What you really have to look at is the pension-funding level. Ours is at 80 percent. And yes, we’re going to have to pay service on the debt, but the point is we weren’t paying it before.
TB: But now we’re paying not only what we owe this year, we’re paying for all those years we didn’t pay.
SP: Yes. And I think that’s appropriate. It does mean you have to make tough budget choices, but we’ve always had to make choices. That puts a premium on efficiency. And in fact, the budget for street and sidewalk repair was tripled last year. I also think you have to be careful about labeling things a crisis. When I took office, the ballpark was totally stalled because of the Valerie Stallings crisis. We had the Chargers ticket-guarantee crisis. We had the beach-pollution crisis and the Highway 56 crisis. And all of those things turned out to be problems that, when we put our minds to it, we solved.
TB: You’ve worked with and against Jerry Sanders for the past three years. And you’ve been a part of the transition to the strong-mayor form of government with you as council president. How well do you think that’s been working?
SP: Of all the things we’ve done, the most profound thing has been this change of government. Under the old form of government, the city manager, who worked for us, had all the information. When I first ran for council, I remember saying to Jack McGrory, who was a really effective city manager, “Jack, you have the reputation for hiding money from the city council.” He said, “Of course I hide money from the council. If I told the council where the money was, they’d spend it.” That might be okay if Jack McGrory’s a great city manager, but it’s not a very good system. I think the most important thing we’ve done is put in an independent budget analyst, so the council has sound professional advice we never had before.
TB: What’s the most serious long-range issue affecting San Diego that nobody’s addressing right now?
SP: Well, since Mike Aguirre’s a short-term problem, I’ll say resources——especially the water supply, a huge threat right now. We’re in an extended drought, and there are indications that climate change will extend that further.
TB: You’re still a believer in toilet-to-tap?
SP: I’ve said from the beginning it’s just a matter of science. Clean the water up, test it, and if it’s clean, you can deliver it. I don’t mind people saying “toilet-to-tap,” but I think they need to realize it’s exactly what they’re getting today. The Colorado River is the discharge point for nearly 400 publicly owned treatment works, which is government talk for sewer plants. And for some reason, people think that’s Aquafina. Also, you know, I’m one of the first people to say that nobody’s thinking about conservation.
TB: Well, you’ve had an unhappy personal experience with water conservation. You consumed more than a million gallons of water at your La Jolla home last year. I understand that’s down to 650,000 gallons this year, but it’s still five times the San Diego household average. Do you think the hits you took were unfair?
SP: It is what it is. Basically, we were just overwatering a lot of plants. We have a very big property, but we were overwatering. And clearly we weren’t the only ones who weren’t paying attention to that. A lot of things I do that are much more significant don’t get covered. I did 34 major park investments, including 12 new parks. I’m not sure a single one of those made the newspaper. And those things had a very profound effect on the quality of life in this city.
TB: What three things are you most proud of from your eight years on the council?
SP: The new form of government we’ve established. We got it on the ballot and got that passed. The profound change through downtown redevelopment and the ballpark campaign. People said we couldn’t do it in San Diego, and we did it——in exactly the right place. Today, private investment has drawn four times what we anticipated we’d need to pay off the ballpark. And then the neighborhood improvements: Bird Rock; Torrey Pines Road; skateboard parks; turfing fields.
TB: There’s an initiative on the ballot next month that you’ve supported to permanently ban alcohol at our city’s beaches. But many beachgoers and residents oppose the ban. And beach-area businesses have suffered. Why a total ban on alcohol? Why not ban booze on holidays, or weekends, or only during summer?
SP: My experience as a resident of La Jolla has been that beaches have been clean and safe, they’re still a lot of fun, and they’re dry. But [Pacific Beach and Mission Beach] had been taken away from families. We were spending millions of dollars policing 2 miles of beach. I hope the ban passes. If not, I hope the city council will look at it, as you say, in a targeted way.
TB: The Kroll Report branded you and four of your colleagues negligent in your handling of your pension votes that led to the city’s subsequent troubles. If you do ever return to elective politics, do you think you’ll be able to overcome the stigma of the so-called “Negligent Five”?
SP: I don’t think about it that way. I would just say if I ever run for office again——and you brought that up, not me——I’ll have a record. And part of that record will be how I responded to the pension thing. We’ve set a standard no other city can match. We’re the only city I know that’s legally committed ourselves to fund the pension. It’s a very good record I think we can be proud of. Now, it wasn’t easy for me to get there. I’ve been called——well, to have to read that stuff and see how people perceived it? It was not pleasant for me. But at the end of the day, it’s the same thing I tell my kids: It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up again.
TB: If you could choose to hold any political office in the land, what would it be? Mayor of San Diego? President of the United States?
SP: Oh, president of the United States.
TB: You’re ready for that?
SP:Well, if Sarah Palin’s ready, I’m ready.