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Analysis : Cleator, O'Connor Mix Vision With Vagueness

May 18, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

"Trust me," San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator said as he concluded his remarks at a mayoral candidates' forum in La Jolla earlier this month.

"I'm asking you to trust me. I know somebody else said that once. But I really mean it. Trust me, and I think you'll be pleased and surprised."

At nearly a dozen forums and debates over the past month, both Cleator and his opponent, former Councilwoman Maureen F. O'Connor, have asked San Diegans to entrust them with the office on the 11th floor of City Hall for the next 2 1/2 years.

Inevitably, trust figures prominently in any election, as voters seek to distinguish rhetoric from reality while trying to decide which candidate is more likely to transform campaign promises into legislative achievements.

In asking for voters' trust, O'Connor and Cleator, like most politicians, have routinely dispensed the most basic of hopes: that the city will be better off with them in charge than it is now. However, the evidence that the two candidates have offered in support of that claim is riddled with misstatements, exaggerations, goals as lofty as they are impractical, and pledges that are long on generalities but short on specifics.

O'Connor, for example, repeatedly tells campaign audiences that she "knows" that the proposed waterfront convention center can be built for millions of dollars less than even the most optimistic predictions of planning and construction experts. While stopping short of outright commitment, she also fosters the impression that she will solve civic ills ranging from cracked sidewalks to inadequate sewage treatment, but is vague about how she will finance those improvements.

Cleator's speeches, meanwhile, often are laced with platitudes--notably, his repeated calls for "a safe city" and "a city that works," two of his major themes. At the other end of the rhetorical spectrum, however, Cleator also offers visions of a local art, business and law library that could rival the architectural drama of Paris' Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture--a bold yet dissonant plan in light of his suggestion of a closed Sears building in Hillcrest as a possible site for a different library. (Earlier this month, the City Council voted to purchase the Sears property for $9.3 million, but has not decided how the site will be used.)

"I wouldn't call it being unrealistic," Cleator said. "I'd call it setting your sights high."

"You need some dreamers in city government," O'Connor said. "We need to dream great dreams to carry this city into the 21st Century."

The line between "dreaming great dreams" and political demagoguery, however, can be a thin one. In the mayoral runoff, both candidates appear to have occasionally crossed that line, with Cleator pointing to O'Connor's position on the convention center as one of the clearest transgressions.

The controversy over a projected $20-million-plus cost overrun for the convention center created a powerful issue for O'Connor, who began criticizing the project's gradually rising price tag more than two years ago while she was a member of the San Diego Unified Port District's commission. Although proponents estimated the center's cost at $95 million in the November, 1983, advisory election in which San Diegans endorsed the project, construction bids that came in more than 20% above projections and other factors have since pushed the center's estimated overall cost to nearly $160 million.

Adopting an I-told-you-so stance, O'Connor immediately called for the project to be rebid "to get back closer to the figure voters approved." The Port District ultimately did order a second round of bids, a process that a special mayoral task force--a panel that included top architects and construction experts--estimated might trim the final cost by as much as $10 million, thereby lowering what Port Commissioner William Rick calls the "open-the-door price" to about $150 million.

O'Connor, however, persistently argues that the center can be built, without serious aesthetic cutbacks, for about $25 million less than that figure. But she has offered little in the way of evidence to support that contention.

"If I'm elected mayor, I will get you a convention center," O'Connor told the La Jolla Kiwanis Club. "It will look nice and it will cost you $125 million, not a penny more."

Cleator dismisses O'Connor's attempt to position herself as the tight-fisted guardian of the public treasury as "just plain phoniness and deception."

"I think she knows good and well it can't be built for that number, but she continues to say it anyway," Cleator said. "I don't want to spend a dollar more than absolutely necessary to build that center. But I don't feel comfortable putting a number on it now, and I don't think it's very honest to do that before all the facts are in."

In response, O'Connor notes that Ward Deems, who heads the convention center's architectural team, once told the Port District he was confident that the project could be built for $125 million.

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