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San Diego Union-Tribune

PHILIP J. LAVELLE

CHARGERS PULL MAYOR'S TRIGGER | Murphy's pique over action by team suggests frustration

March 8, 2003

Abstract:
[Dick Murphy] said he was surprised the Chargers pulled the trigger so early, despite weekend warnings it was coming. "The Chargers complicate what is an almost impossible situation with their inept public-relations move," he said yesterday.

A misstep, according to attorney Pat Shea, who was chairman of a city task force that recommended putting the Padres ballpark plan before voters. He said Murphy's error was not stating the city's position -- that the Chargers cannot legally trigger -- last year.

In January, Murphy and a council majority voted to extend the time period during which the Chargers could exercise the trigger. The trigger period began Saturday; the Chargers exercised the option three days later.



Full Text:
Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Mar 8, 2003

Mild-mannered San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy did something out of character the other day: He got mad. In public.

This former Superior Court judge, not given to emotional outbursts, said he was "personally outraged" that the Chargers pulled the "trigger" clause of their Qualcomm Stadium lease with the city.

If it stands up legally, the Chargers' move Tuesday means City Hall must renegotiate the lease with the National Football League club. And if owner Alex Spanos -- who wants a new stadium -- is dissatisfied, he can shop the team to other cities.

Emotionalism may have little value at the negotiating table, but Murphy's frustration is instructive. The process he constructed to deal with the Chargers has come crashing down at his feet, underscoring the risks lurking in the mayor's increasingly complex world.

To some at City Hall, it also underscores a growing sense that the Chargers control this high-stakes game, and that they operate from a position of strength to City Hall's position of weakness.

The Chargers appear to be in firm control of their environment -- a desired state in politics as well as in business -- enabling them to set the pace of events. This week's move "forces both sides to sit down, work hard and in good faith," said Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani.

This was not Murphy's first choice.

When the Chargers sought negotiations early last year, Murphy set up a task force to gather information and report to the council. The panel's final meeting was Feb. 27 and its report will be aired at the City Council's March 18 meeting.

Murphy said he was surprised the Chargers pulled the trigger so early, despite weekend warnings it was coming. "The Chargers complicate what is an almost impossible situation with their inept public-relations move," he said yesterday.

Murphy's frustration comes amid a string of bad news.

Last month, he learned the city's budget woes are far worse than previously thought, and that the city's pension system has significant problems, including $1.1 billion-plus in unfunded health- insurance costs. This week's headlines reported Interstate 15 traffic is getting worse, not better, making a top Murphy objective - - easing congestion -- seem out of reach.

Accustomed to being in charge of a tightly controlled courtroom, Murphy seemed caught off balance by the Chargers' display of power politics.

An underdog in 2000, Murphy beat county Supervisor Ron Roberts and immediately set out to govern like a judge, favoring thoughtful deliberation, methodical attention to detail and devotion to order.

The map of Murphy's universe is his 10 Goals, from creating an ethics commission to building a new airport. Critics say it reduces the city's problems to something akin to a court docket. Supporters say it shows mayoral focus not seen here in years.

The Chargers issue is not on this agenda.

When the Chargers told Murphy early last year that they wanted to talk, he created a fact-finding apparatus rather than stake out a position.

A misstep, according to attorney Pat Shea, who was chairman of a city task force that recommended putting the Padres ballpark plan before voters. He said Murphy's error was not stating the city's position -- that the Chargers cannot legally trigger -- last year.

"You can't not take a position early on, then wait for an event to happen a year later and then act unhappy and set your hair on fire," Shea said.

"The Charger organization, like any major economic organization, has a sophisticated and internally consistent focus on what it's trying to achieve. And if you're going to build an economic relationship with an entity of that type, you also need to have a sophisticated and internally consistent focus of what you're trying to achieve," he continued.

"This is the way business gets done everywhere in America, except San Diego City Hall, where it all gets done on emotion."

Said Murphy: "That may be the way AOL and Time Warner deal with each other, but this is a municipal government and the foremost responsibility is to the people of San Diego."

Sixth District Councilwoman Donna Frye said she is over her Chargers anger and views the situation pragmatically now.

"We're dealing with very sophisticated business people, period," she said. "That's the reality of it. It isn't good. It isn't bad. It just is. And you get the best negotiating team you can and you play hardball with people whose only interest is to take what they have now and to get more. This is not about creating a friendship. This is hardball tactics in the big leagues, with the big boys and girls."

Murphy inherited a bad Chargers lease from his predecessor. Now he must contend with something not on his original agenda, under conditions set by others.

"This is one of the biggest issues he'll have to deal with during his first term as mayor," said veteran political consultant Tom Shepard, Roberts' co-strategist in 2000. "He must be feeling considerable frustration that the process appears to be spiraling out of control as much as it appears to be."

Murphy's opponent now is Fabiani, a political operative of national heft who was special counsel to President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation. He was also director of communications for Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign.

Now many at City Hall say Fabiani appears to be directing this show as well.

"I think the whole council and mayor are starting to feel the spin from a White House insider," said 8th District Councilman Ralph Inzunza. "I don't think there's anybody in San Diego who spins better than Mr. Fabiani. He's smooth, he's in control and he's a heck of a lot smarter than most of us."

Fabiani may irritate, but he does not lash out.

"If negotiations are to continue with the Chargers, they (Murphy and the council) may want to undergo anger management training," said George Mitrovich, an ardent Padres ballpark booster and president of The City Club of San Diego, a civic forum.

"I'm being slightly facetious, but not altogether," he said. "The possibility of the Chargers triggering the escape clause has been there from the beginning, and to have assumed otherwise was a political miscalculation."

In January, Murphy and a council majority voted to extend the time period during which the Chargers could exercise the trigger. The trigger period began Saturday; the Chargers exercised the option three days later.

Fabiani said he gave warning of this "imminent" move. He said he informed Murphy chief of staff John Kern last "Friday afternoon and then over the weekend."

"I did not know he directly informed John Kern," Murphy said. "I was forewarned that they might trigger, over the weekend."

How well Murphy plays this game of hardball could set the tone for another contest on his horizon -- the 2004 mayor's race -- assuming he seeks re-election. That's because the Chargers have 18 months in which to shop the team. The primary election is 12 months off.



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