Five Things to Know About Kris Michell's Departure
How the exit of the mayor’s top advisor will shape his final two
1. The Mayor’s All Grown Up
Yesterday’s departure of Kris Michell, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ top political aide, came with many things left undone. Expanding the city’s Convention Center. Building a new downtown football stadium and City Hall. There’s also the pesky matter of fixing the city’s finances — the problem Sanders was elected to solve. The mayor has two years left in office.
Michell was Sanders’ political mind, the one who got things done and someone particularly important for a mayor with no prior political experience.
“I think she was critically important to the mayor,” said Phil Rath, a former city policy advisor who is now a lobbyist. “She was intimately involved in all of the major issues. She was the mayor’s point person for pretty much everything that is a major issue in our time.”
In an interview yesterday, Sanders said he’ll miss Michell, but will be able to meet his goals without her.
“I don’t think it’ll have any impact on me being able to finish them,” Sanders said. “It’ll be a very different conversation. As I said, I would have preferred Kris stayed, but I certainly understand her position.”
Sanders also took issue with Michell being called his “gatekeeper.” She was a political and policy advisor, he said, and he has confidence in her successor, Julie Dubick, and the rest of his staff.
Further, Fred Sainz, Sanders’ former spokesman and a Michell partisan, said the idea that Sanders doesn’t have the experience to thrive without a strong political mind could be out of date.
“He’s been there long enough now, five years, where that may not be the case,” Sainz said.
2. She Was the Mayor’s Link to the Downtown Establishment
Though Sanders didn’t like a reference to Michell as his “gatekeeper,” he liked even less the theory that he has prioritized downtown projects over the city’s other neighborhoods — a view burnished by Michell leaving to head a downtown advocacy organization.
Not true, Sanders said.
“Anything I do would add fuel to that theory,” he said. “If I went out and walked a dog in Little Italy, people would add fuel to that theory. People are going to think what they’re predisposed to think.”
Sanders ticked off a list of projects he’s accomplished or planned to finish before he left office that have nothing to do with downtown: improvements to the tech and clean energy industries, new transportation access at the Mexican border, securing more money for Mission Bay improvements.
“I think I’ve been very balanced about every neighborhood in San Diego and thinking about their well-being and infrastructure and all of that,” Sanders said.
Still, Sainz agreed with the premise that Michell provided the link between the Mayor’s Office and the downtown establishment.
“That is not even a surmise,” he said. “That is a 100 percent correct assertion.”
Downtown, Sainz added, should be favored over everywhere else.
“Not all neighborhoods are equal,” he said. “A downtown city center and downtown San Diego in particular is not even first among equals. It is in a category all of its own. It is where the city derives its energy and is in many ways its economic base.”
3. Expect the Mayor to Hire a Political Expert
If Michell was the city’s most powerful person you knew nothing about, her replacement Julie Dubick is a little less of a mystery.
She’s an attorney, former partner at downtown law firm Seltzer Caplan and has worked as assistant director of the U.S. Marshals Service and with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. She ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2000. Her biography from that time notes that she was the highest-ranking woman in federal law enforcement when she worked with the Marshals Service.
Dubick joined Sanders’ staff when he took office in 2005. Her legal background has allowed her to give the mayor guidance independent of the City Attorney’s Office. Rath said Dubick was one of the top lawyers in the city.
“We never trusted (former City Attorney) Mike Aguirre’s legal advice because we always thought it was political advice,” Sainz said. “Julie provided the legal perspective.”
With Dubick taking Michell’s role, it opens up the deputy chief of staff job. Expect Dubick’s replacement to have a political background. Sanders praised Dubick’s policy skills, and said he’s hiring someone with “complementary expertise.”
Sanders said he planned to name Dubick’s replacement in the next day or two, but didn’t reveal it yesterday.
Asked if the hire was someone already in City Hall, Sanders replied, “It’s going to be somebody who lives in America.”
4. The City’s Conflict of Interest Rules Will Make It Hard For Michell
It won’t be easy for Michell to comply with the city’s conflict of interest rules.
Former city employees cannot lobby the city on behalf of their new employer for a year after they leave and cannot indirectly lobby — helping people at your new employer influence the city — on pending issues they were involved in themselves, said Stacey Fulhorst, head of the city’s Ethics Commission.
As chief of staff — and a powerful one at that — Michell was involved in just about everything. That includes major downtown projects like expanding the Convention Center and a new Chargers stadium.
“The higher level you are and the more decisions you have substantial involvement in, the more difficult it is to maneuver your way through that first year,” Fulhorst said.
Had Michell gone to work for the Chargers, for example, she wouldn’t have been allowed to reveal to team representatives the city’s negotiating strategy.
Michell said she planned to be extra sensitive to the city’s lobbying rules, and Sanders echoed that.
“The walls have been set up,” Sanders said.
Once exception to the rules, Fulhorst said, is that Michell can speak on any issue at public meetings.
5. The City Is Losing Institutional Knowledge on the Chargers Issue
More than just football fans should be concerned about Michell’s departure and how it fits into the unrelenting Chargers debate.
Downtown stadium or not, the city has to do something about the Chargers. The city loses $12 million a year operating Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley, money that otherwise could pay for police, fire, parks and library services.
Why does the city lose that much money? Because past city officials failed in their negotiations the team. The city struck such a series of bad deals with the Chargers that the team essentially gets free rent and can leave town whenever it wants while the city bleeds tax dollars.
Michell, Rath and outgoing downtown redevelopment head Fred Maas all were key figures in the city’s current talks with the team. Soon they’ll all be gone — though the city could hire Maas back as a consultant.
Whomever takes that trio’s place will be going up against a team attorney who has worked on stadium issues for eight years and in his recent spare time has advised on other crises involving one of the nation’s largest private financial institutions, Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations and the divorce case with the fate of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the balance.