- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2005

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A nagging question looms ominously over this seaside community that has adopted the moniker “America’s Finest City”: Who exactly is in charge?

San Diego Councilman Michael Zucchet was scheduled to take over as interim mayor of a city that has long prided itself on clean government. Or maybe he won’t. His federal trial on charges of accepting illegal campaign money from a strip-club owner was set to go to a jury as early as today.

Voters have been mulling over a replacement for Mayor Dick Murphy, whose abrupt resignation just months into his second term takes effect Friday. If, as expected, no one wins a majority in a July 26 election, the top two finishers would face a November runoff.

That means an interim mayor likely will run City Hall until the year is almost over. Who that leader will be remains an open question.

“There is nobody at the helm, nobody,” said Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

City Attorney Michael Aguirre shared the sentiment, noting that “we won’t have a mayor until the first part of December.”

“That creates a rudderless city government going into the most dangerous part of the river. We don’t have anyone steering the boat,” he said.

Even if he is acquitted, Mr. Zucchet will take office after a two-month trial in which federal prosecutors portrayed him as a pawn in a Las Vegas strip club owner’s scheme to overturn San Diego’s ban on touching dancers at nude bars.

Mr. Zucchet, 35, and two other council members purportedly took thousands of dollars from club owner Michael Galardi in a failed effort to scrap the rule.

If convicted on extortion and wire fraud charges, Mr. Zucchet would have to relinquish public office. He has maintained his innocence.

These days, San Diego is paying the price for a long practice of siphoning money from its pension fund to run everyday operations. In 1996 and again in 2002, the city wiggled out of pension payments of at least several hundred million dollars, while digging itself into a deeper hole by promising greater benefits to retirees.

Mr. Murphy, a former Republican judge, announced in April that he was stepping down to give the city a “fresh start.” He won the November election only after a judge invalidated thousands of ballots for council member Donna Frye, a Democrat and surf-shop owner who waged a last-minute, write-in bid.

A few months before saying he would quit, Mr. Murphy named ally Mr. Zucchet as his deputy mayor.

Mr. Zucchet, a Democratic former lobbyist for the city firefighters union, was elected to the council in 2002. He declined to be interviewed for this story and he has said little about how he might tackle the new job.

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