Monday, April 26, 2010

Queer Democrats Oppose Strong-Mayor Proposition

Back Castañeda for Chula Vista Mayor, Butler for County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Donna Frye & Chris Ward, Todd Gloria, Steve Castañeda, David Butler

“This is the second time my opponents have refused to debate me,” said San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye to the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at their April 22 meeting. She was there to persuade the club to oppose Proposition D on the June 8 primary ballot, a San Diego city measure that would make the strong-mayor form of government permanent, add a ninth seat to the San Diego City Council and raise the threshold for the Council to override a mayoral veto from a simple majority (five of eight) to two-thirds (six of nine). The club had originally invited an advocate of the strong-mayor system, former San Diego Charter Review Committee member Adrian Kwiatkowski, to debate Frye, but he had pleaded a “family emergency” and backed out at the last minute — so the club drafted a volunteer, Chris Ward, to present the case for strong-mayor and serve as a devil’s advocate for the ballot measure.

Though Kwiatkowski didn’t make it to the Democratic Club, he’d delivered an impassioned presentation on the subject at a meeting sponsored by San Diego Common Cause in City Heights on February 13. At that meeting he’d argued that the superiority of strong-mayor over San Diego’s previous system of government — in which the mayor sat on the City Council and had only one vote, while the Council appointed a professional city manager to run the city’s day-to-day operations — was that it shifted principal responsibility for city government from an appointed official to a directly elected one. “Before 2004 [when strong-mayor first passed for a five-year trial period] every one of you didn’t get to elect the chief executive of the city, and now you do,” Kwiatkowski told Common Cause. “There are people here in favor of having the voters lose that power. Why would you think that would empower the people?”

Frye’s presentation to the San Diego Democratic Club was largely an attempt to answer Kwiatkowski’s rhetorical question. Having served on the City Council both under the city-manager and strong-mayor systems, she said it’s actually become more difficult to get needed information out of the mayor’s office since strong-mayor passed. Under the city-manager system, Frye explained, the mayor had to attend City Council meetings and was therefore available for questions and comments not only from Councilmembers but from the public. “Making strong-mayor permanent means less accountability because the mayor can make decisions behind closed doors,” Frye argued. “The mayor needs to come back and be the leader of the City Council so you can come to a City Council meeting and talk to your elected official, not just see the mayor during staged public ‘events’ and spin sessions. Right now there is no discussion [between the mayor and Council], only edicts.”

Asked whether the strong-mayor system had ever kept her from getting the information she needed to make responsible, informed decisions as a City Councilmember, Frye was eager to quote chapter and verse. “I can tell you about the Public Records Act request to get results on a city survey,” Frye said. “I can tell you about the contract on which the mayor overspent by $2.7 million for a program the City Council didn’t even authorize, and another contract that went similarly. There is no remedy under strong-mayor for the City Council to force or compel the mayor to provide any information he does not want to provide. The only remedy I had was to sue the city.”

Other issues the club discussed about making strong-mayor permanent included the cost of creating a ninth City Council seat — which the original argument for the ballot measure estimated at “zero to $1 million,” the zero figure apparently based on the idea that the mayor would fund the new Councilmember’s office by cutting the budgets of the existing Councilmembers, until Frye and others went to court and successfully got the language changed to acknowledge that an additional Council seat would cost the city money. Frye also praised one innovation in San Diego’s governance since strong-mayor — the 2007 creation of an independent budget analyst which, she said, “is not going to go away no matter how you vote on Proposition D.” But speakers at the February 13 Common Cause meeting — including John Gordon, Frye’s appointee to the Charter Review Committee, who also attended the Democratic Club meeting April 22 — said that the budget analyst is still dependent on the mayor’s office for providing the numbers he or she crunches for their “independent” analysis.

The club members who debated Proposition D framed it largely as a battle in the ongoing war for control of San Diego’s government between downtown business interests, who favor citywide elections and a strong mayor because that makes big-money campaigns more important; and neighborhood activists who favor district elections and a strong City Council because that returns power to the grass roots. The original strong-mayor initiative “was drawn up in the back room of San Diego by the old-boys’ network that controlled city hall before the passage of district elections [for City Councilmembers] in 1988, when people with money controlled who got elected,” said former San Diego Democratic Club president Craig Roberts. “This is their end run around district elections. They don’t need to worry about the City Council; they only need to control one office, the mayor.”

Club secretary and former city employee Brad Jacobsen said he was against strong-mayor in 2004 and was even more strongly opposed to it now. “There is no communication between the mayor’s office and the City Council,” he said. “I had to meet with City Council staff members privately because every request for an official meeting had to go through the mayor’s chain of command.” Eventually the club voted to endorse No on Proposition D with only one dissenting vote.

Another city proposition turned out to be an even easier sell for support than Proposition D was for opposition. This was Proposition C, presented by Third District City Councilmember Todd Gloria as a way to reform San Diego’s hiring practices by giving a meaningful preference to veterans. Amazingly, despite San Diego’s reputation as a military town and the large number of servicemembers who decide to settle here after discharge, San Diego hasn’t revised its city charter provisions on hiring veterans since the 1970’s — and the existing charter gives preference only to veterans who served due to “conscription.” That means a draft — and, as Gloria pointed out, the U.S. hasn’t drafted anyone into the military since 1973.

“San Diego is the largest point of discharge for people in the military,” Gloria explained. “We have more people coming back to the county [from military service] than ever, including 27,000 who have already returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. We also don’t have a special consideration for people who were disabled in the military. Proposition C will strike the word ‘conscription’ and add another point [on the city workers’ exam] for a service-connected disability of 15 percent or more. We should be able to have a policy to help our military. Many people are leaving San Diego after discharge. The unemployment rate for veterans is one in four, 10 percent above the general rate in San Diego.” Gloria got what he came for: the club’s unanimous support for his ballot measure.

On the five propositions on the statewide June 8 ballot, the club took the same positions as the ones of the California Democratic Party. It endorsed yes votes on Proposition 13, which allows people to have their homes retrofitted for earthquake safety without triggering an automatic reassessment, and resulting property tax increase, under the original Proposition 13 in 1978; and Proposition 15, which allows for direct public financing of elections for the office of secretary of state. It opposed Proposition 14, which would eliminate party primaries and replace them with a system in which the two top vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, would be the candidates in the general election. The club also voted to support no votes on Propositions 16 and 17 after speakers pointed out that these were sponsored by single corporations — Pacific Gas and Electric for 16 and Mercury Insurance for 17 — to protect their incomes against legitimate government regulations and actions.

The club also heard from two candidates for office. One was County assessor/recorder/clerk David Butler, a rare Democrat in a countywide office in San Diego. He started as a staff member in that department 34 years ago, worked his way up and was considering retiring when he was appointed by the all-Republican County Board of Supervisors to replace the previous officeholder, Gregory Smith, when Smith retired. “I’d like to think it’s because I’m the most qualified candidate, but I think it was because they were hoping I’d serve out the rest of Greg Smith’s term and just retire instead of running for a full term of my own,” Butler joked. He described the office as “a technical position” and said one of the reasons he was running was to bring electronic data recording to the office.

As the only serious Democratic candidate in the race — there’s one other registered Democrat seeking the office, but Craig Roberts described him as “a perennial candidate who ran for the Board of Supervisors a few years ago and came to the County Democratic Central Committee and was unspeakably bad” — Butler won a unanimous endorsement.

The other candidate the club heard from on April 22 was Chula Vista City Councilmember Steve Castañeda, who’s running for mayor of his city. The club never endorsed in a Chula Vista mayor’s race until 1998, when it backed Steve Padilla — who, ironically, beat out another Democrat, Mary Salas, both for the club’s endorsement and the office itself. Padilla subsequently came out as Gay and lost his re-election bid to a Republican — Cheryl Cox, wife of San Diego County Supervisor Bill Cox. In presenting his candidacy, Castañeda pointed out that Chula Vista is the second largest city in the county and that 43 percent of its registered voters are Democrats, to 30 percent Republicans and 26 percent “decline to state” (California election-speak for people who don’t register with any political party).

Like Donna Frye and the opponents of Proposition D in San Diego, Castañeda cast his election as a battle between entrenched business interests and new grass-roots neighborhood-based sources of support. “What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the establishment folks running Chula Vista,” he said. “In 2004 I started to look at ways we could be neighbors to city hall. Back then we had no neighborhood groups in Chula Vista; now we have four. We need to do more with respect to opening our government. I want to make those changes; the current mayor wants to run the city like it was 30 years ago.” Castañeda won his endorsement, with no opposition and only one member abstaining, but his own campaign wasn’t the only issue he addressed before the Democratic Club.

Castañeda also spoke out against Proposition G, an initiative on the June 8 ballot in Chula Vista that would allow voters there to ban Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s). According to Craig Roberts, PLA’s “force municipalities to hire local businesses and make sure they pay living wages.” Without them, PLA supporters argue, a contractor building a project for a city could bring in out-of-town workers and low-ball their pay — thus saving the city money at the expense not only of its working people but of its own economy. Local Right-wingers like San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio and County Republican Party chair Tony Krvaric have made banning PLA’s a major political priority, and initiatives eliminating them will be on the June 8 ballot not only in Chula Vista but Oceanside as well.

According to Castañeda, Proposition G “is so poorly written the Chula Vista city attorney said he couldn’t figure out what it meant. It is being pushed by people outside of Chula Vista to attack labor unions. As a City Councilmember and an individual, I’m going to have to go home and tell people what’s going to happen to the bayfront development, the university we’re seeking and all our other plans. Give us the opportunity to help our citizens and our future.” The club voted to oppose Proposition G with no one against and only one abstention — but it declined to set aside the notice requirements in the club’s bylaws to vote on opposing the similar initiative being voted on in Oceanside. Ironically, Bill Irvine of the Uptown Democratic Club pointed out that neither Chula Vista nor Oceanside has ever approved a PLA as part of a city development.

Finally, an attempt by several club members to make an endorsement in the primary for California attorney general petered out when former club president Doug Case questioned whether there still was a quorum. Before that, members had split on the question of whether to take up this hotly contested race, with seven candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Roberts and Matt Corrales had seen the candidates at the Democratic party’s recent statewide convention, but came to opposite conclusions as to whether the club should endorse. Roberts called on the club to avoid a potentially divisive primary endorsement and instead get solidly behind the primary winner for next November’s general election; Corrales said he’d left the state conventions with his own preferences in the race and wanted to discuss them. But Case’s quorum call — which revealed that there were only 24 club members in the room, eight short of the number needed to conduct business — short-circuited any discussion of the race and left club president Larry Baza with nothing to do but adjourn the meeting.