A long-simmering disagreement over the mayor's veto power-or lack thereof-under the soon-to-be-at-hand "strong mayor" form of government is fueling a larger power struggle over the composition of San Diego's City Council.
At the heart of the debate-which focuses on the number of votes it takes for the City Council to override a mayoral veto-is a math problem. It's an issue that will likely play out over the coming year.
Under the current structure, the City Council is composed of nine members, including the mayor, who each have an equal vote. The mayor has no authority to veto a decision. But on Jan. 1, the city will officially make the transition to the strong-mayor model, approved by voters in 2004 as Proposition F. The mayor will no longer be a voting member of the City Council-consequently reduced to eight members-but will gain many powers, including the theoretical ability to veto ordinances passed by the City Council.
However-and here's what some perceive to be the problem-the City Council can override the mayor's veto with just five votes, the same number of votes required to pass legislation in the first place.
Other government bodies that adhere to a strong chief-executive government structure typically require the approval of two-thirds, or 66.6 percent, of its legislative body to override an executive's veto.
But with a City Council comprised of eight, there's no mathematically clean way to impose that two-thirds threshold. Raising the bar to six votes requires a super-majority of 75 percent.
Those in favor of the strong-mayor model say a five-vote veto override defeats the purpose of giving the mayor a veto; those who seek to protect the City Council's authority say it maintains a balance that will force the mayor and City Council to work together. At a six-vote override, others say the mayor enjoys a stronger last word than President Bush while the City Council's ability to stand up to the mayor is cut off at the knees.
Some say the only way to alleviate the mathematical challenge posed by the fractious factions is to increase the size of the City Council. That's exactly what the proponents of Prop. F had originally intended to do when they submitted their blueprint to former Mayor Dick Murphy.
Adrian Kwiatkowski, a lobbyist who worked to land the proposition on the ballot, said the original proposal called for the city to permanently shift to the strong-mayor model, do some redistricting, add a member to the City Council and include a six-vote veto override.
But the strong-mayor shift was quickly made a pilot program that would require voter approval after five years, which made expensive redistricting and the addition of a possibly temporary new City Council member unlikely to meet voter approval.
Stuck with an eight-member City Council, strong mayor proponents pushed for a six-vote override, but Murphy ran into trouble when it came time to muster the City Council votes needed to place the proposition on the ballot.
Current Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, who voted against the strong-mayor proposal, told CityBeat it was former City Councilmember Michael Zucchet who held out for the five-vote override. "I understood that Mike Zucchet worked very hard and long behind the scenes to make sure it was a five-vote veto [override], not a six-vote veto," Atkins said.
Zucchet declined to comment on the record.
Voters approved Prop. F, with a five-vote veto override, by a slim margin.
But nearly a year later, in late September, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which strongly supported the initiative, sent a list of eight recommendations to a City Council committee charged with implementing the strong-mayor form of government. One recommended that the veto-override be increased from five to six votes.
According to the chamber's proposal, "with the mayor having no vote in the first place, the mayor under the so-called strong-mayor system may actually have less influence than under the current system, where the mayor can at least vote." Requiring a change to the city charter, and subject to voter approval, the recommendation was shelved.
However, City Councilmember Scott Peters, who chaired the City Council's strong-mayor transition committee and was elected Tuesday by his peers to serve as the council president in the new year, asked the chamber to study the possibility of creating new City Council seats and report back.
Peters told CityBeat he sees any discussion of changing the veto override as linked to a larger debate about the number of City Council seats. He suggested as possibilities: electing an at-large member, having an at-large member appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council and redistricting immediately and electing a new member in a new district in 2008.
Peters said he'd like to study the possibility of adding as many as three seats, for a total of 11 members. "I think both [the veto override and the number of City Council seats] will be discussed as part of a possible charter-amendment-slash-clarifications next year," Peters said.
By adding members, Peters may protect the City Council's power, but observers are wary.
Steve Erie, a UCSD professor who helped draft the strong-mayor blueprint, said he doesn't want to change anything during the first two years of what he says is supposed to be a "strong-mayor/strong-council" model. He sees adding City Council seats as part of a larger power grab.
"The at-large seat is the camel's nose under the tent," he said. "There are people in town who want to go back to pre-1988, when we essentially had at-large elections and district primaries... because it limits the power of the grassroots and neighborhoods.
"You start with one, and after you redistrict after 2010 maybe you add a couple more at-large seats."
Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders, who will be the first to wield strong-mayor power, said he's in no rush to change anything. "I'd just like to work through it before I make a decision on whether we need to have a six-vote veto [override] or anything like that," he said. "We will probably have a pretty good idea in the first several months of this and can make up our minds then."
Kwiatkowski said that considering its prior support, he thought the chamber's proposal was "funny" and urged patience."The reality is it's a three-part process," he said. "In order to get a six-vote override, you need to have a nine-member council, and you need to [first] make this thing permanent. Until then, let's let the lights come on and see what happens."