RONNE FROMAN, THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO’S new chief operating officer, served in the U.S. Navy for 31 years, earning the Defense Department’s Distinguished Service Medal before retiring in 2001 as a rear admiral. During her tour in San Diego, she served as commander of Navy Region Southwest, managing a $40 million budget. As director of ashore readiness for the chief of naval operations from 2000 to 2001, she was responsible for planning a $7 billion budget. Among her naval firsts: San Diego’s first female “Navy Mayor”; first woman admiral to be in charge of naval bases around the world; and first woman to serve two assignments on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After retiring from the Navy, Froman served as chief of business operations for the San Diego Unified School District and CEO of the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of the American Red Cross. She lives in Mission Hills—five minutes from City Hall.
TOM BLAIR: You don’t take the easy jobs, do you? Female naval officer. Chief of business operations for an embattled school district. Savior of the foundering local chapter of the Red Cross. Now COO of a city teetering on the financial brink. What attracts you to these jobs?
RONNE FROMAN: Okay, I do think I’m a little crazy. But I love building teams. I love empowering people. And I do enjoy creating order out of chaos. And then, too, I know we can’t screw it up any worse than it already is.
TB: When you arrived at the troubled Red Cross, you said it was your “dream job.” Was it a difficult decision to leave after just two and a half years?
RF: It was very, very hard. Being a Red Crosser is a life commitment, like the Navy. Once you’re in the Navy, you’re always in the Navy. But it was wonderful to be able to work with that team and make the city proud of its Red Cross again. When the devastating fires happened, the team proved we could do what we needed to do. And everybody wanted us to succeed.
TB: I think that’s the situation you’re in now.
TB: You and your boss, Jerry Sanders, arrived at City Hall in a time of historic crisis. After three months, are you more optimistic or less optimistic than you were when you came aboard?
RF: More optimistic. Well, if you’d asked me that question in the first month, I probably wouldn’t have given the same answer. Because it was worse here than I had even imagined. And we didn’t have our team in place. In the beginning it was Jerry and [deputy chief of community and legislative services] Kris Michell and me catching foul balls in our baskets. And we didn’t know what to do with them. But now that the right team is in place, they’re all energized and enthusiastic. I’m seeing progress being made. We’re fixing what I call the plumbing. That’s not as exciting as issues, but it needs to be done. We’re stabilizing the organization now, and we’re in the process of building a sustainable organization, so no mayor will have to go through this ever again.
TB: What’s been the toughest challenge?
RF: Understanding the issues; understanding the organization; prioritizing, because you can’t solve everything at one time. And communicating all that. Everybody wants everything fixed immediately, and that’s not going to happen.
TB: What about the personalities? People in politics often have separate agendas.
RF: That’s true. And that surprised me, a bit, not having been in the political environment. But once I’ve gotten to know the personalities—and the processes in place, and how to communicate with all these folks—that’s not as big a challenge as I feared. There are so many people in town who want to help—and there are so many ideas. How do you manage all those good ideas? That’s difficult.
TB: As San Diego’s first chief operating officer, in the city’s first experiment with a strong-mayor form of government, one of your primary responsibilities is hiring—putting together the mayor’s team. Have you filled all the positions?
RF: We’ve had one deputy chief leave us early, and I’m in the process of hiring to fill that vacancy. And I’ve tasked the next level of leadership to take a look at their organizations and then to help make decisions on whether the people have the skills needed at their positions—and fill the positions where that’s not the case.
TB: I guess firing is your responsibility, too. In order to trim costs, the mayor promised to eliminate 100 top management positions and 50 in middle management. How is that going?
RF: We’re working on that. I have lists here in front of me of vacant positions. And we’re in the process of putting the boxes in place at the next level of the organization—consolidating some and eliminating some. Some in leadership positions have left of their own accord. Some didn’t have the skills, and they acknowledged that. We’re working with each case as it comes up.
TB: San Diego’s fiscal morass has been many years in the making. And you’ve been on the job a short time. But with the city’s business operations as your chief responsibility, you must have some new perspective on the city’s economic crisis. Would you say now that bankruptcy seems a more-likely or less-likely possibility?
RF: I don’t use the B word. That’s not in our vocabulary. Once we find out from the actuary what our actual pension problem is, we’ll know better what needs to be done, what budget is needed.
TB: Right after the election in November, Mayor Sanders told city employees to expect a four-year salary freeze. And you were quoted as saying, “If there are people who want pay raises, they can find a job someplace else.”
RF: That got me into some trouble.
TB: Well, since then, have there been appreciable resignations?
RF: A number of people have resigned. But when you’re turning an organization inside out and upside down—and bringing in new leadership teams —that gives us the opportunity to bring in the people with the skills that are needed.
TB: The mayor also promised to bring the unions to the table, but the municipal employees union has balked over proposed ballot initiatives from the mayor’s office on outsourcing to private businesses and voter approval of pension increases. Are the unions cooperating?
RF: Nobody ever expected anybody to be happy about all the things that needed to be done. But we’re working with the unions—and yes, they’re cooperating. In fact, I’ve got teams looking at contracts. A team starting with human resources. One starting for information technology. We’ve got one looking at warehousing. And the unions have been part of that process. Our first guinea pig group was contracting. And I think we had two meetings without the unions, and then we realized we needed them. And so the other teams we put together, we’ve incorporated the unions right from the beginning.
RF: We’re learning as we go along.
TB: It’s been only three months, but so far, Mayor Sanders has been able to do what no other elected official at City Hall has been able to do: He’s getting along with City Attorney Mike Aguirre. I presume you are, too. What’s the secret?
RF: No secret. We need the city attorney; the city attorney needs us. He was here trying to identify issues and problems. But he couldn’t do much about them as city attorney. So now we’re able to work together to identify issues and problems and actually implement what’s needed to solve them. And I think there’s mutual respect between Mike and Jerry. Jerry has the ability to bring all kinds of people together.
TB: Obviously, a lot of things contributed, but some San Diegans contend the millions of dollars we spent to lure the Republican Convention here a decade ago contributed to the city’s current financial mess. Last month, the mayor declined an invitation to bid on the 2008 GOP Convention. Was that symbolic or pragmatic?
RF: I think pragmatic. Realistic. We’ve got more problems than Carter has liver pills. And to take on another major thing wasn’t going to happen. We’ve got issues up the wazoo!
TB: San Diego Magazine wrote the first stories half a century ago about San Diego’s inadequate airport. And nothing has changed. Now, the Airport Authority is again suggesting joint military-civilian use as the best solution to our narrow options for a new airport. The military seems adamantly against that. As a retired Navy admiral, how do you feel about the joint-use option?
RF: I haven’t been involved. And I purposely stayed out of it. You know, joint use has worked in other places. But the military has been adamant that it won’t work here. So I think we need to look at other options. Once the military buckles down—they go into their garrison—that’s it. The military has spoken.
TB: Many who have worked with you talk about your personal charisma. They say there’s something about you that attracts good people and makes them want to work for you. What do you think that something is?
RF: I like people. And I also know what I don’t know. So bringing people in, letting them know what the vision is—having them help create the vision—and then just staying the course. People get excited about doing that. I was surprised how many people I’d worked with before called and wanted to come to the city. We’ve hired a few of them. And it’s wonderful, because we understand each other’s style, so we could get started immediately. I love people, and I really don’t care who gets the credit. My job is to make the council look good, Jerry look good, the city look good, and just stay focused. When you’ve been a lady in the Navy, you just get done what needs to be done.
TB: Would you ever consider running for elective office?
RF: I will not run for office. That’s not who I am. I’m more the running-the-office type than running for office. The only way I’ll run for anything is if somebody’s chasing me.