May 25 , 2004

The Ross Retort

Strong-Arming the Strong Mayor

Picture this. A crème-de-la- crème cadre meets in a darkroom of quasi-secrecy to develop a radical change in the form of their government. By all accounts they are male, white and snuggly plugged into the halls of power. None are elected. Collectively and individually they are centerfold material for the ruling clan.

The project is embraced, after some cropping and tweaking, by the government’s weak elected top banana and his ministers during a hotly contested election. Their goal is to grant the executive branch sweeping new powers over a huge and failing government bureaucracy. They promise appropriate checks and balances.

This outrageous display of arrogance is not happening in one of the 31 flavors of autocracy flourishing in Southeast Asia, but in San Diego—which last time I looked was not only located in the Peoples Republic of California, but in America.

In Singapore, a benevolent Cambridge educated dictator fondly known as Mr. Lee makes all decisions for the over-arching benefit of his adoring lesser-brained citizens. The sewers work, the traffic flows and people live in affordable housing. Nobody doesn’t like Mr. Lee.

In Myanmar, a Constitutional Convention just convened. It is filled with junta hand-picked delegates who know what is best for the common people--no loyal opposition needs show. She is till under house arrest. But this is America. We are not ruled by cadres of elites.

Apparently, following a transparent Democratic process is too cumbersome and slow for the impatient folks who want city charter reform in San Diego, now. Such a process might include electing an independent representative commission to do the heavy lifting, public hearings with sworn testimony and open discussion among the unwashed masses.

But, the final product, once having been rifled through by the rabble, might not replicate the artful output of this smart, cherry picked and earnest cabal.

The current proposal awards the Mayor the ultimate bludgeons, a budgetary line item veto and control over all commission appointment nominations. The weak-kneed sycophantic legislative branch we call the City Council would have veto power, if any dare exercise it and risk plum subcommittee chair appointments.

If placed on the ballot as intended this November, this so-called strong mayor initiative (or whatever poll driven moniker is attached to it) is surely headed to the ash can of poorly conceived political strategies. San Diego voters are not the semi-comatose throng the charter reform folks imagine. By virtue of punching their chads or touching their touch screens, people who bother to vote believe in American-style Democracy--the slow deliberative kind.

Ask former Mayor Pete Wilson. Weary from the constraints placed on elected officials by San Diego’s City Manager form of government, his administration tried to change the City Charter to a strong mayor system in 1973. Crash and burn--the voters thought the whole idea was a Mayoral power grab. Silly them.

The Mayor and many of the people sitting on the City Council ran for office four years ago promoting a city charter change that would put them firmly in charge of the city’s huge bureaucracy.

Interestingly enough, they did nothing about it until the Mayor and his most loyal City Council ally were faced with unexpected electoral challenges in November. No charter reform commission was convened during this administration—not even one of the Mayor’s ubiquitous “citizen advisory groups” met for the purpose of examining San Diego’s City Manager form of government. Discussion of the issue at City Hall was sucked into the void of political expediency.

As more than one newbie elected discovers, charter reform always sounds good until the benefits of shifting the blame for unpopular land use decisions onto unelected city employees becomes clear. Certainly, they could have placed a Charter Change Commission on the 2002 ballot and allowed the voters to select commissioners.

This is permitted under the City Charter and the California State Constitution. In fact, City Attorney candidate Mike Aguirre, citing history and state government code, argues that established process favors an elected commission because of the profound charter changes suggested by such a proposal.

In the late 1990’s, Los Angeles accomplished successful charter reform with two commissions, one elected and one appointed by the Mayor, City Council and City Attorney. San Diego went through a similar process in 1931 with an elected commission. Most assuredly, an independent commission hearing public testimony and conducting open deliberations could have already established the need for structural governmental change in San Diego.

And, a reasoned winnable charter change might have taken shape for this fall’s ballot. It did not happen. As a result, even those of us who believe that charter reform is needed are skeptical about the seriousness of this new initiative.

The buck for the city’s financial ills has to stop at the feet of elected officials accountable to the voters. That requires an overhaul of the city charter.

But, when a Mayor in deep political trouble develops a vision for charter change five months before an election, it reeks of rank politics or at the very least, civic shallowness.

Not a pretty picture.