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O’Connor Remains Enigma

The press and the public often judge politicians by their style as much as by their substance, a practice that sometimes leads to erroneous conclusions and disappointment with our leaders. Maureen O’Connor, however, is one politician who, by her seemingly studied lack of flamboyance, demands to be assessed on the basis of what she has accomplished, not on how good she looks or how glib she sounds.

In her first year as San Diego’s mayor, O’Connor has had some very substantive legislative victories, the most significant of which was shaping an 8-1 majority to temporarily limit the number of housing units that can be built in the city. How well that will work in practice remains to be seen, but it is a dramatic step in that it not only brings about a pause during which the City Council can do some additional planning, but it also advances the notion of limiting rather than just managing growth.

Other highlights have included leading the council to take direct control of the Housing Commission, which had been wracked by accusations of fiscal mismanagement, and persuading the council to abandon its 15-year fight to be exempted from federal standards governing treated sewage dumped into the ocean. She has also focused attention on the need to upgrade the aging sewer system throughout the older areas of the city.

These are not issues commonly found at the front of most people’s minds, but they nonetheless are important, and O’Connor’s achievements in these areas are noteworthy.

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The list of the mayor’s accomplishments is also informative for what it reveals about the kinds of issues she deals with best. Her biggest successes have come on issues with an already established mandate from the public, such as limiting growth, or that are relatively low-profile. But where substance and style converge to become leadership is in the ability to build a consensus both in the halls of government and among the public. O’Connor has yet to show she can do that.

For example, one of the most difficult issues to confront city government this year has been how to include civilian participation in police misconduct investigations. The mayor’s refusal to take a leadership role in trying to move both city government and the public toward a workable compromise on that issue is perhaps her biggest failure.

Another challenge will come next spring when the city goes to the voters with a $94-million bond issue to upgrade Mission Bay and Balboa parks. O’Connor successfully guided the proposal through the City Council, but that is only half the job. Trying to persuade the necessary two-thirds of the voters to approve it will be a true test of her leadership ability.

Another facet of political leadership is to spell out for the public and for those who work in government where it is we’re heading. O’Connor’s unwillingness to do that is well-documented and is the most frequently mentioned criticism of her administration.

In sum, O’Connor has accomplished more in her first year than many thought she could. But she will not establish herself as an outstanding leader until she articulates a clear political agenda for the city and then convinces the public that she has got the priorities right.


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