The San Diego City Council's decision last week to oust Ben Montijo as executive director of the San Diego Housing Commission clearly was one of the most important council votes this year. Yet two council members--both of them Montijo supporters--missed the vote, while a third's property holdings kept him on the sidelines.
Councilwoman Gloria McColl said that commitments in her district prevented her from attending the meeting, while Councilman Bill Cleator, who had been on a radio talk show until shortly before the council session began, said an "appointment in the desert" kept him from the meeting.
In their absence, the council voted, 6-0, not to renew Montijo's $79,500-a-year contract. Councilman William Jones, who has disqualified himself from votes on Housing Commission matters because of a conflict of interest involving his ownership of rental property, also did not participate in the council's decision.
While McColl's and Cleator's votes would not have changed the outcome, their absence provoked speculation inside and outside City Hall that they were simply ducking a controversial vote--a theory that both vigorously deny.
Montijo, who had been under fire because of his management style and irregularities involving the renovation of a Southeast San Diego apartment complex, was dismissed after two important votes last week. The first was taken Thursday by the Housing Commission, which includes McColl and other council members. At that time, McColl voted in the minority to keep Montijo on the job and said publicly that she would study the matter for the next day's council meeting.
But McColl missed Friday's 3 p.m. council session, citing "commitments that I could not break" as the reason. The councilwoman would not describe the appointments, except to say that they were in her district.
Cleator, who publicly declared his support for Montijo, also missed the meeting, which began half an hour after his appearance on a radio talk show.
"I got in my automobile and went to the desert," Cleator said. "I had made plans to go on this trip for well over a month, and I had an appointment in the desert to see somebody at 5:30 p.m. I had made the appointment so I kept it, and it was a (council) meeting that was called spontaneously."
Cleator said the desert meeting was personal. "It's none of your business," he said.
Unlike Cleator and McColl, other council members rearranged their schedules to attend the emergency meeting. Mike Gotch, for instance, skipped a state Coastal Commission meeting to take part in the vote. And an aide to Abbe Wolfsheimer said the councilwoman canceled a "major planning" session pertaining to University City.
"Although it was a last-minute scheduling, we thought it was a crucial meeting," said Joann Johnson, Wolfsheimer's aide.
Ballesteros Looking to Re-enlist?
Almost from the moment that Celia Ballesteros was appointed to the San Diego City Council in December to replace Uvaldo Martinez, there have been persistent rumors within political circles that she might renege on her public pledge not to run for the seat this fall.
Ballesteros dismisses such talk as "typical political gossip," but--to the chagrin of candidates in the 8th District September primary--stops short of a Shermanesque denial.
As a condition of her appointment, Ballesteros, as well as others who sought Martinez's seat after his resignation in the wake of his guilty plea to felony charges stemming from misuse of his city-issued credit card, promised the council that she would not run for election to the seat this year.
Her obvious pleasure with the job, though, has caused even some council members to suspect that Ballesteros may have had second thoughts about the non-candidacy pledge.
"I hate knowing that there's only nine months left," Ballesteros admitted. "I didn't like the limit, but I had no alternative. I'd love to serve a full term, but how?
"If I tried to turn around and (run), I think a lot of people would probably be angry at me. Once the public perceives you as dishonest, it's very hard for them to trust you in any future work. That obviously concerns me."
Some of Ballesteros' supporters have suggested that a public referendum be held on whether she should be released from her pledge. Ballesteros, however, described that approach as "very dangerous."
The recent political past also holds a telling lesson. When Patrick Boarman tried to back out of a similar pledge after his 1983 appointment to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, a public outcry helped persuade him to abide by his promise.
"I don't see any viable options now," Ballesteros said. "Maybe someone will come up with a magic solution, but I don't know what that would be."
Bowl Planning 'Tokenism' Charged
Earlier this year, black leaders angrily charged that minorities were being left out of the planning for next year's Super Bowl in San Diego.