Can San Diego stay classy?

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Official portrait of Bob Filner, mayor of San Diego

Stay classy? That may be too much to ask of San Diego these days.

“America’s Finest City” is in the middle of another one of its routine, self-destructive crises of local government. This one is an ugly fight over the fate of Mayor Bob Filner. He either has a nasty habit of intimidating women and needs help (that’s what the mayor and his supporters say, so you know things are bad) or he is a sexual harasser with a predatory move called the Filner Headlock (don’t ask) and should resign.

Either way, America’s Finest City, which has faced off-and-on scandal and gridlock for 20 years, desperately needs better management.  And, since this is California, such management could come from outside the city. This is a state with an enduring taste for outside interventions, from federal consent decrees to state takeovers. For Southern Californians especially, federal supervision is as much a part of life as the freeways.

Tapping into this tradition, a few San Diegans have raised the question of whether the city needs some sort of receiver—and they’re not talking about someone to catch the passes of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Filner himself nodded to this sentiment, by hiring a former county administrator and giving him power to make decisions, presumably so someone will be in charge while the mayor fights to save his job.

Perhaps this California instinct for turning power over to unelected outside administrators makes sense as a product of desperation. But the record of the outside saviors is mixed at best.

The state prisons, despite some improvements, remain a mess after years of federal oversight. Over the past two decades, L.A. has ceded authority over its police, sheriffs, schools, transportation authority, and remains something less than a governmental model. The state has taken over eight school districts for financial mismanagement, solving some problems while creating new burdens. The troubles in Inglewood’s schools have gotten so much worse under state control that there is talk of dissolving the school district altogether.

San Diego’s record is probably more disgraceful than that of other failed governments, when you consider how it squandered natural advantages with poor governance, corruption, and a weak civic culture.

In the 2011 book “Paradise Plundered,” the scholar-authors Steven P. Erie, Vladimir Kogan, and Scott A. MacKenzie call San Diego “an American Potemkin village” that is all façade. “The scale of San Diego’s governance challenges puts the city in a league of its own,” they write. “The state of disrepair of its basic infrastructure and the woeful levels of funding for core-city services put San Diego at the bottom even among other cash-strapped California governments.”

So if Filner is on his way out, who should take over San Diego?

There’s a good choice out there, and he’s already working in the San Diego region. He’s an elected official who has proven he knows how to make progress and run a city that’s bigger and in some ways more troubled than San Diego.

I speak of Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante. He’s a turnaround artist who has rebuilt roads, overseen a significant decline in violence, and presided over a civic revival in a city that’s become a trade-savvy manufacturing powerhouse. He’s also a native of San Diego (born in National City) who graduated from the University of San Diego. And he should make the San Diego establishment comfortable: he has a military background and was a businessman before becoming mayor in 2010. Bustamante, an old friend of Jerry Brown’s, has better connections in Sacramento than Filner ever will.

Putting Bustamante in charge would be surprisingly natural. San Diego and Tijuana have been strengthening their ties, even considering a joint bid for a future Olympics. Why not go one step further and share a mayor?

San Diego’s future should matter to Californians; it’s our second-largest city. But if we Californians can’t fix it, maybe we should give the Baja Californians a shot at doing so.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.