Council Is Increasingly Uneasy Over Murray’s Assertive Style

Times Staff Writer

There was a little surprise waiting for San Diego City Council members recently when they studied the 1987 budget request from new City Manager Sylvester Murray for $1 million to run his office.

The surprise was tucked under a section titled “performance measures.” It read: “Attend meetings and receive feedback from community groups, commissions and agencies.”

Councilwoman Judy McCarty said that struck her as odd. “What do you mean, that’s your job to go out and talk to communities?” she asked Murray during a public hearing on his request.

“He said very strongly, ‘I’m going to go out and talk to the communities,’ ” said McCarty, recalling that his answer was troubling. “I see that as the elected officials’ role. . . . I do not mean to cut him off from the rest of the city, but it is our job to make those decisions and relate to the people.”

That’s not Sy Murray’s style. And now that style has trapped the 44-year-old city manager between acclaim in his old hometown of Cincinnati and a wave of outrage in his new hometown of San Diego, where a furor continues to rage over his comments in an interview with The Times.


During the interview, Murray said he was “very surprised” that there was not more outrage expressed by blacks over allegations of police brutality that surfaced in the Sagon Penn murder trial. He also vowed that he would use all the powers of his office, and he described his choice of careers by telling an anecdote about how he ran away from police cars as a youngster in the Miami ghetto. Now, he said, “I get an orgasm just being a boss of police.”

Councilmen in Cincinnati Thursday, when read Murray’s comments, said they were offended by some of Murray’s language. But, they said, they could not understand why San Diegans were so upset with a man they praised for his direct manner, aggressive attitude on affirmative action programs and willingness to meet with community groups.

“He has said similar things, and we’ve always treated them as off-handed comments, not as malicious, (or) showing some kind of attitude prejudicial to police,” said Guy Guckenberger, a 16-year veteran on the Cincinnati council.

“It just makes me wonder whether they are overreacting or whether they are serious about professional city government. It sounds to me like things in San Diego are pretty petty. At least in Cincinnati, the pettiness is kept in the council and not applied to the city manager.

“I think they ought to relax and let him run the city,” Guckenberger said. “They would be much better off for it, because he’s a top-flight administrator. And my guess is that he is jockeying now for position, and until he establishes that he is city manager, he’s going to be miserable in that city.”

But San Diegans on Thursday continued to vent their displeasure with Murray by swamping City Council offices with phone calls protesting his remarks and calling for his removal, several council members said.

And council members huddled throughout the day to see if they should call for Murray’s resignation when they face him during a private performance review Tuesday.

“ ‘What do you think?’ is the question being asked,” said one person involved in the discussions. “ ‘What do you think of whether he should stay or he should go? And if so, when? Do you want to do it now? Do you want to do it later? Do you think we should do it at all?’ ”

Late Thursday, aides to acting Mayor Ed Struiksma and Councilwoman Gloria McColl requested that The Times allow them to listen to tape recordings of Murray’s interviews.

In making the requests, the aides cited a memo from Murray, dated Wednesday, in which the embattled city manager apologized for using the word orgasm and clarified his remarks about affirmative action and the Penn trial. Trial witnesses have testified that the black youth shot and killed one police officer and wounded another after he was stopped for no reason and was beaten by the officers.

At the end of the memo, Murray wrote: “P.S. I think the interview with the Times was taped. Listening to the tape may give a better feel of the entire episode.”

Marla B. Marshall, McColl’s aide, said her boss wanted to hear the tape to listen to Murray’s voice as he answered the questions. “Gloria wants to hear the tone of his voice,” Marshall said.

Dale Fetherling, editor of The Times’ San Diego County Edition, said he would consider the request.

While the published interview has been the focus of complaints, council sources have said that it has served to coalesce a stewing dissatisfaction with Murray and the way he defines his role in local government, where elected officials vie for attention.

Guckenberger and Cincinnati Councilman Dave Mann said that Murray was known for his direct, no-nonsense approach and he was the undisputed spokesman for Cincinnati’s government. They said he was encouraged in his aggressive affirmative action program and he was expected to meet with community groups to learn of their concerns.

“I’m sorry, but it’s correct that when you have this agony with your mayor’s office, that necessarily enhances the power of the city manager,” Mann said. “And good, bad or indifferent, when you have a mayor . . . the manager has an executive authority and there is a constant tension between the mayor and the manager.”

Guckenberger said that Murray should not settle for anything less than full authority as city manager. “If I were him, I would be outraged if someone else is trying to run the city,” Guckenberger said. “I would feel that the position was grossly misrepresented. If they wanted an administrative assistant, that is one thing. But a city manager is another.”

The San Diego and Cincinnati systems are both council-manager forms of government.

Thus, council members are supposed to act like a board of directors by determining public policy. They hire and fire the city manager, whose job it is to implement the council’s policies in the daily activities of government, such as garbage pickup, street cleaning, police protection and fire protection.

But there are some distinct differences. In Cincinnati, the mayor is chosen from among the council members; in San Diego, the mayor is elected directly.

In Cincinnati, council members are chosen at large in a one-time, citywide race; in San Diego, they are chosen from geographic districts in primary elections and then citywide in general elections.

As a result, the dynamics of San Diego government tend to favor the elected officials in influence, if not in the language of the City Charter. The mayor assumes greater political authority as a spokesman for the people, and council members jealously guard their political territories.

Much of the power in the elected officials was amassed during the era of former Mayor Pete Wilson, who founded the council committee system in the mid-1970s, said Mike Madigan, a former Wilson aide and now a developer and chairman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

Wilson implemented the committee system after San Diego voters rejected his proposal to change the city government to provide for a strong mayor, with powers to propose the city budget and exercise veto power over the council, said Madigan. The current system calls for the manager to present the budget and the mayor to have only one of nine votes on the council.

Despite the setback, Wilson’s power grew. And complementing that, said Madigan, was the administrative style of former City Manager Ray Blair.

A hometown boy who knew most of the city’s business and social elite from college years or his career at General Dynamics, Blair was satisfied to fade into the blandness of bureaucracy and allow politicians like former Mayors Roger Hedgecock and Wilson take the credit for the thrust of city government, Madigan said.

Murray is different. Since he arrived in San Diego last fall, his schedule has been filled with appointments to talk to community and business groups.

“Murray is less laid-back, and that’s not a bad definition of the Ray Blair style,” Madigan said.

And Murray is serving a council that is becoming increasingly demanding--some have said meddlesome--of the city manager.

Councilman William Jones, in particular, has been extremely aggressive in prodding city administrators to service his constituents in Southeast San Diego, a predominantly minority area that he and his staff say has been neglected by the bureaucracy for years.

Rich Juarez, Jones’ administrative assistant, said his boss pushed for a special program called Project First Class, first funded in mid-1984, to get rid of eyesores, fix streets and beautify his district. These were problems that “weren’t taken care of” under the normal routine of the city manager’s office, said Juarez.

So Jones used federal community block grant funds to make up for what the manager wasn’t doing, Juarez said. For instance, a $50,000 study identified about $5.7 million in alley improvements and $12.3 million in street improvements needed in his district. He also used $150,000 for the last two years to pay the salaries for a special “code enforcement” team to help clean up eyesores.

Juarez said he is encouraged by Murray’s determination to meet neighborhood groups on his own.

“I think from our perspective, our problems wouldn’t have been as bad if the manager were out in the community and was aware of the problems. . . . I would rather be informed that they’re taking care of business,” Juarez said.

Other council offices are not as impressed with Murray’s hands-on style of government. Council sources say council members have become nervous because they believe Murray is competing for attention from community groups, the foundation for some council members’ power base.

“Elected officials are very jealous of the electorate,” said a council aide, who asked not to be named. “And here is a guy who is out talking to the electorate.”

One council member, who also requested anonymity, said: “We don’t appreciate being preempted by the city manager or his staff. There is enough tension already between the 55-year-old City Charter and the reality of setting public policy in a city of over a million (people) without trying to preempt the elected officials.”

On Monday--after The Times’ interview story was published Sunday--some of the tension between the council and the manager surfaced during a protracted discussion of the Police Department’s proposed 1987 budget. The philosophical discussion was prompted by Jones’ requests that six extra police officers be allotted in the budget specifically to clean up drug and gang problems, particularly in his district.

Jones asked Murray repeatedly if the city manager would commit to using the extra officers for the drug and gang detail. Murray said he would follow the council’s direction, but appeared to balk at the suggestion that he contact the council first if he were to shift the added manpower to another police division.

The council eventually asked the city attorney’s office to research the question and determine whether the council can call the shots.

“It is my perception that over the years the council, having become a full-time council, and having had great demands put on them by their constituents, are taking a greater role in the day-to-day operation of the city,” said Jack Katz, a deputy city attorney. “That role was traditionally the role of the city manager. And the city manager has accommodated them in the past.”

Another area of apparent dispute between Murray and the council concerns who handles complaints from citizens. Under the current system, council offices now field numerous calls from dissatisfied constituents about potholes and such, forwarding them to Murray’s office for remedy. After the city manager has fixed the problem, the council member scores political points by sending the constituent a letter.

But Murray, in a move interpreted by some council offices as stealing their thunder, has gone to community groups and invited them to call his office directly.

“The people who patch the potholes are the street people who are responsive to the city manager,” Murray said in an interview Wednesday. “If a citizen calls the city manager’s office, we will see to it that the potholes are patched. I have not said, ‘Do not communicate with the council members.’ ”

Katz said: “I think what we’re seeing is a man that is trying to perform the job as city manager as set forth in the charter, exercise all the powers of it, and perhaps meeting some resistance because of the way city government has evolved and the demands placed upon the council by constituents. Essentially, it’s like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.”

Madigan was less dramatic.

“There’s still a definition of roles going on here,” he said. “There’s a little bit of rubbing of elbows and defining territories. Frankly, it’s healthy.”

As for Murray’s future, Madigan predicted the new city manager would weather the storm and stay at the helm of San Diego government.

“I think the interview was a mistake for the manager,” Madigan said. “I think that you get to make a mistake in that job. Whether or not you get to make two is a little different question.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that the chip was used so early and in that fashion.”

Yet as the storm clouds gathered around City Hall for Murray, there were others who were less optimistic.

“He really, really stepped on a banana peel and has caused a lot of us who wanted to see him succeed to question his judgment and our judgment in hiring him,” a council member said.