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The Credo of Sylvester Murray: When in Command, Command

June 01, 1986|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

Speaking to small groups, Murray easily shows off his personal powers, as well. Ask a question about city business and he will deliver an answer that is diplomatic, yet hardly wishy-washy. Try to trap him and he parries with his wry wit.

Mr. Murray, just how do you assess the intelligence of the San Diego City Council?

"I have been in this business for 20 years and I have yet to meet that incompetent incumbent city council person," he replies.

Such a facile style will do him well in the soap opera known as San Diego City Hall. So far, Murray admits he has had things relatively easy because of the vacancy in the mayor's office--a void that will be filled with this week's election.

"It's probably been an advantage from the point of view of less competition and less fear of competition and second-guessing," he said.

"All that is predicated on the assumption that with a mayor, the city has a leader, a visionary person who every morning gets up and says, 'This is what we are going to do today, city . . . '

"That is what has not been happening, so I have been in a position to take the initiative that I wanted to take or to respond to issues the way I wanted to respond to them based on me and my staff's opinion."

From his vantage point, Murray has glimpsed what he says are sometimes perplexing truths about the character of San Diego.

Unlike Cincinnati, where a city manager with an ambitious project would approach the chairman of the board of Procter & Gamble, Murray says he has been unable to find a sugar daddy counterpart here. There does not appear to be any Establishment calling the shots behind the scenes.

"I don't have a sense of such a group existing," he said.

San Diego according to Sy Murray is a place where city government is so efficient that hardly anybody complains about a missed garbage pickup. Yet he's puzzled that it takes a year of planning and paper work before the city can put a trash receptacle on the street.

It is a place where the government pays $5 million to $6 million a year to resurface the streets--a luxury service in other cities--but takes up to a year and a half to install a traffic light at a busy intersection.

Here, even conservatives--made crazy by the growth of the federal government--don't get exercised when their own city government swells.

"Here, the attitude is: It is a growing city. Government is supposed to grow, too," Murray said.

"The people here who you would consider conservatives are the people who are saying, 'Yes, we ought to have a landscape ordinance,' and 'Yes, you ought to have a one-stop (building) permit counter . . . ,' knowing that it's going to add to the bureaucracy and add to the costs. It's confusing.

"But at the same time, when you come to a point of saying you have to have a better affirmative action program in building a convention center, there's not a big push. . . . The idea is if we can get it in passing as we get the low bid, OK. But that's not a priority."

He also noted San Diego's lack of any government housing exclusively for poor people, opting instead to subsidize rents for the indigent in apartments built by private developers. Even at that, he said, city policy dictates that only 20% of the units are eligible for the rent subsidy program, ensuring that the entire building is not inhabited by the poor.

Murray also said he has been "very surprised" that there has been so little outrage in the black community over allegations that have surfaced in the Penn trial. Witnesses in the trial have testified that Penn shot the two police officers and a civilian ride-along only after he was stopped without a cause and then beaten by the officers.

"The reaction has been basically . . . blah," Murray said. "Except, I think, for a while there, there were some pickets around the courtroom. It has not generated publicly the issues of police brutality or non-police brutality, blacks, racial strife, that I just know it would have generated in Cincinnati or every other place.

"Blacks in San Diego are just as conservative as whites," he concluded. "Blacks in San Diego are just as concerned about not rocking the boat as whites do not want the boat to be rocked."

As the city's first black city manager, Murray says he has felt welcomed. He is "very concerned," however, that more minorities have not been appointed to top-level city posts.

When Murray, barely one month in office, had his first chance to make a managerial appointment Nov. 1, he said he "consciously" chose a black fire chief. And he promised that a Latino will be his choice for the director of the new Department of Bi-National Affairs, recently established to work with Mexican authorities on common problems.

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