Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Should San Diego Keep Strong-Mayor Government?

Common Cause Debates the Issue, Upcoming Ballot Measure


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Adrian Kwiatkowski, Jeannie Brown, Simon Mayeski, John Hartley, John Falchi

Virtually no one in San Diego is currently aware that on June 8 the city’s voters will be deciding not only on whether to make the city’s five-year experiment with a strong-mayor system of government permanent but to strengthen the mayor’s power still further. Why so few people knew about this, what can be done to get the word out and whether passing the ballot measure would be a good idea were the topics discussed by the San Diego chapter of Common Cause Saturday morning, February 13, at the City Heights library. Though no official speakers for or against were announced, the meeting turned into a debate of sorts, with lobbyist and political consultant Adrian Kwiatkowski fervently defending the strong-mayor system and John Gordon — Kwiatkowski’s colleague on the city’s 2007 Charter Review Committee — and former City Councilmember John Hartley strongly against it.

“This is an important issue for San Diego, but it’s not getting the media attention it deserves,” San Diego Common Cause chapter president Jeannie Brown said at the start of the meeting. “I don’t want San Diego to go through what Toledo, Ohio went through — switching back and forth from a city-manager form of government to a strong-mayor form four times in 10 years. Toledo’s people found that what was most important was not the type of government but the safeguards in place to make sure the people are aware of decisions before they happen. We need to have more transparency and openness to the legislative actions of city government.” Much of the debate around the table centered around whether the strong-mayor government increases or decreases accountability and transparency.

Simon Mayeski, local community activist who monitors the San Diego Ethics Commission as a volunteer for Common Cause, kicked off the discussion with a review of the history of the strong-mayor system in San Diego. It began in 2004, when a group of people largely affiliated with San Diego’s downtown business establishment qualified Proposition F on the ballot and passed it by a narrow margin, 51 to 49 percent. In the same election, he recalled, “Dick Murphy was re-elected mayor over Ron Roberts and Donna Frye” — after Frye’s apparent victory as a write-in candidate was nullified by the local courts. The strong-mayor measure passed at an uncertain time in the city’s history in which City Hall was wracked by scandals, Mayeski recalled.

“Three City Councilmembers were indicted and one of them died before the case could come to trial,” Mayeski said. “”The city couldn’t borrow money because of exaggerated financial statements and an understatement of its pension debt. Mayor Murphy resigned and was replaced in November 2005 in a special election. Donna Frye lost again, this time to the current mayor, Jerry Sanders.” Mayeski stressed that San Diego’s entire experiment with strong-mayor has taken place against a context of intense financial stress.” Much of the blame may be placed today on the national and financial crisis, but San Diego was bleeding even before that,” he reminded his audience. “There have been several rounds of layoffs of city workers. The Ethics Commission is down from two investigators to one, and has the pension situation changed all that much? We can get financing from the capital markets again, but a lot of other changes haven’t occurred.”

Though Mayeski briefly speculated on how the city’s recent history might have been different had Frye won either of her mayoral races — “She might have taken the city into bankruptcy, threatened to do so or raised taxes” — he stressed that in considering whether strong-mayor is good for San Diego, “Don’t focus on the personalities, individuals or policies, but on the process. A lot of people were talking in 1996 about the closed-door meetings that allowed the pension to go wild, but with strong-mayor a lot of things can be moved behind closed doors from open City Council meetings to the mayor making decisions in private with his advisors.”

The reason is the essential difference between a strong-mayor government and the city-manager form San Diego had before that. Before 2005, the mayor sat as the chair of the City Council and had one of nine votes on it. The Council collectively hired a city manager to administer the city on their behalf. The mayor essentially functioned like the chair of the board of directors of a private corporation. Strong-mayor changed that; though the mayor no longer sits on the City Council, he or she is responsible for running the city day-to-day. In order to help with that, the mayor gets to appoint a chief operations officer (COO) who doesn’t have to be confirmed by the City Council and is responsible only to the mayor.

One of the arguments used to pass the strong-mayor system in the first place was the idea that people would have more influence if the power over the city’s day-to-day operations were given to an elected official rather than a City Council appointee. Kwiatkowski made that point fervently at the Common Cause meeting: “Before 2004 every one of you didn’t get to elect the chief executive of the city, and now you do. There are people here in favor of having the voters lose that power. Why would you think that would empower the people?”

One answer came from a young man who, like Kwiatkowski, arrived at the meeting late: Keith Cory, a staff member for Councilmember Donna Frye. Cory said that his boss actually had an easier time getting meetings with the city manager and the manager’s staff than they’ve had with the mayor and his staff since strong-mayor went into effect. “The City Councilmembers can’t call the mayor into their offices, the way they could with the city manager,” Cory said. “With the city manager, we had discretion to tell him what to do. Now with the mayor or his designees, the response is spotty at best.”

A quirk of the ballot measure to be voted on June 8 is that there is no way voters can choose to keep the status quo. If it passes, San Diego will end up with the charter changed to what one person at the meeting jokingly called a “stronger-mayor” form of government. Not only will the measure make strong-mayor permanent, it will add a ninth seat to the City Council and raise the threshold for overriding the mayor’s veto of a Council law or decision from five Councilmembers to six. The additional Council seat will cost the cash-strapped city between $1 million and $1.5 million a year — and the measure doesn’t identify a funding source. Mayeski suggested that each current Councilmember

According to Kwiatkowski, the package deal was approved by 65 percent of the vote in June 2008, when strong-mayor went on the ballot again and the voters approved a ballot measure setting up this year’s vote. Other people at the meeting questioned the timing both of the 2008 vote and of this year’s, suggesting that the businesspeople and developers allegedly behind the strong-mayor system deliberately picked historically low-turnout elections to improve the chances for getting the measures passed. One person said that in June 2008 “the air had been sucked out” of the electoral process by the hotly contested Presidential primary in California four months earlier, and thus turnout plummeted in the June election.

Though the strong-mayor government is the only major change in San Diego’s city charter that has actually been made in the last five years, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. In 2007 the city authorized a Charter Review Committee, which both Kwiatkowski and John Gordon served on, but according to Gordon it quickly became polarized. “The City Council selected seven members and the mayor selected six, but one City Council appointee threw their vote to the mayor and so it made a lot of decisions by a 7-6 vote,” Gordon said. Gordon started out his experience on the Charter Review Committee sympathetic to strong-mayor — “virtually all major U.S. cities with over 1 million population” had it, he said — “but there were still issues regarding the access to information on the part of the City Council.”

According to Gordon, one of the problems with strong-mayor as San Diego first experienced it in 2005 was that Councilmembers literally had no source for information about the city’s finances other than the mayor’s office. The mayor prepared a city budget and handed it to the Council, whose members heard as much or as little about the numbers as the mayor and his staff chose to tell them. One change that was made in 2007 created an independent budget analyst, which is supposed to advise the Council on the budget and give them a perspective different from the mayor’s — but Gordon said that this analyst is still dependent on the mayor’s office for the numbers he or she crunches. According to Gordon, his faction on the Charter Review Committee tried to solve this problem by making the city auditor an elected official instead of a mayoral appointee — but that was one of the many ideas they had that was voted down 7-6.

Like Gordon, former Councilmember Hartley began the debate favoring a strong mayor in principle — but got discouraged at the way strong-mayor’s supporters seemed determined to make the mayor as unaccountable to the rest of government as possible. “I feel neighborhoods should be empowered,” Hartley said — a theme at the heart of his thinking throughout his political career. “The more people participate on the neighborhood level, the more people are involved. For years, San Diego has been a leader in neighborhood policing. Every library has neighborhood participation and outreach. Look at the Park and Recreation Department’s facilities. My son has a great job in Washington and my grandson gets soccer, karate and private schools, but we have a lot of people who live below the poverty line, and if we cut back city services, the affluent will still have these opportunities, but the poor will not.”

Hartley’s argument against strong-mayor is that a mayor elected citywide and beholden to the people who give him or her the money needed to run a citywide campaign is actually less accountable than a city manager appointed by eight Councilmembers, each elected from a district in which campaign costs are lower and candidates can use grass-roots volunteers and activists instead of big money. “I’d rather have a strong City Council that’s accountable to the neighborhoods than a strong mayor who may or may not be,” Hartley said. “A strong mayor elected with big money hurts neighborhoods. Even if we had a progressive mayor, I’d much rather have power diffused through the neighborhoods that are accountable to the people.”

“This idea that neighborhoods are at a disadvantage [under strong-mayor] is hysteria,” Kwiatkowski replied. “The City Council’s power has not dropped one iota. The only power the City Council lost was the power to pick the executive. Under the city-manager system you had nine different officials pulling in nine different directions. You had City Councilmembers giving directives to city staff — which was a violation of the City Charter, but they were doing it anyway. The City Council still controls the purse strings and can check on what the mayor is doing. Fifty-three of America’s 100 largest cities have strong-mayor forms of government. San Diego outgrew the city-manager form of government.”

Much of the frustration that swept the room February 13 came from the sense that while the strong-mayor government has been strongly pushed and is about to come up for its third vote, other ideas that could help the city have been ignored. “What if this is defeated in June?” said community activist John Falchi. “Then there’s an opportunity to go to something new. There are other cities with a great deal more civic participation than San Diego, and which are better at keeping the City Councilmembers on course. One of the concerns is with the mayor’s appointment of the COO. We should learn from other cities about how they’re keeping them in line. Even though we elect the mayor, we have less power than we think we have. The powers that be citywide and the media have a lot more power citywide than they do at the neighborhoods.”

Another person at the meeting commented on the vast array of neighborhood organizations in San Diego — community planning groups, business associations and improvement districts, town councils — each credentialed by the city to serve an advisory function. “A lot of neighborhood groups are concerned that the mayor and City Council are trying to restrict the authority of the planning committees,” one woman said. “There were three or four different issues on our list, and to me it looked like the mayor’s office, which is in charge of land use, is no longer interested in the input of the planning groups. Just as Councilmember Frye’s representative had complained that it’s harder to get the mayor’s staff people to visit the Councilmembers’ offices and discuss issues with them than it was with the city manager, so this activist said the mayor’s staff people don’t attend planning committee meetings anywhere nearly as consistently as the city manager’s people did.

“Originally, I wanted strong-mayor, but now I don’t want to call the mayor when I’m upset, and the City Councilmembers are too timid,” said another woman, Margie. “I like Jerry Sanders, but I’m not too comfortable with who might get in later. I’d like to have another mayor get in there before I decide [whether strong-mayor should be permanent]. The City Councilmembers have not stepped up with the authority they should have.”

John Falchi pointed to another problem: the almost total lack of serious local government coverage in San Diego’s mainstream media. “We need a lot of changes in the media in San Diego,” he said. “A lot of smaller organizations are using the Internet, and there are a lot of small radio stations and projects like Zenger’s. We need to pay attention to these new media opportunities and ways to support them.”

“If we came together to look at potential safeguards, we could have the best of both worlds,” said Jeannie Brown. “The media are crucial to getting the word out. We pay attention to what’s going on in government, but most people on our block don’t.”

“There have been some people who have worked on this matter differently from the official sources,” Falchi said. “Other cities in other places have accomplished some good things. I’m sitting on a grant proposal and looking for groups who are doing these things and getting ideas for how to accomplish things differently. There was a whole conference last year here in San Diego on how to increase public participation, and we should have a different form of involvement than what we have now.”