Sometimes we reporters delight in government chaos and acrimony. Maybe it's because it makes stuffy elected officials look silly. Perhaps it's because it enlivens our otherwise miserable existence and provides additional news fodder. Or it could be that it's because we're sick bastards. Probably it's all of the above.
But sometimes it gets a bit much even for the most severely twisted among us. A slice of Monday's San Diego City Council meeting bordered on over-the-top.
Chaos ensued when it came time for the City Council to vote on a proposal from the mayor to declare a bargaining impasse and give the city's firefighters and deputy city attorneys no raise for the upcoming fiscal year. (The firefighters wanted a 6-percent increase, the attorneys 4 percent.) Some council members favored giving the firefighters something a little more than nothing for their troubles, but Assistant City Attorney Karen Heumann, sitting in and speaking for her boss, Mike Aguirre, said the council's only choices were to accept the mayor's proposal or reject it, not amend it.
Council President Scott Peters, whose trademark patience appears to have worn out, called Aguirre's legal opinion “bizarre” and “novel” and sought a second opinion from Rod Betts, an attorney assisting the mayor's office in collective bargaining. Betts refused to answer, saying he'd been instructed to do nothing beyond assist the mayor in negotiations and give a report to the City Council. Peters said that was “pathetic,” touching off a minor verbal scrum with Mayor Jerry Sanders, who eventually gave Betts the go-ahead to opine.
More acrimony surfaced when Aguirre came charging over from his office into City Council chambers to reiterate his position and to say, once again, that Peters was up to no good. Aguirre not-so-subtly hinted that Peters was violating collective-bargaining rules by negotiating with the firefighters behind the scenes. Peters denied it, but Aguirre didn't back up his charge with details, saying only that he would investigate the council president. He also chided Peters for browbeating Betts, which is ironic, coming from the King of the Browbeaters. (We've been largely supportive of Aguirre's broader crusade against business-as-usual, but, puh-lease, have some self-awareness.)
Peters is right—something is pathetic here. What's pathetic is the reality that San Diego's power structure jumped into a new form of governance-one that separates out the mayor as the chief executive-without having any idea how it would play out in certain situations.
Earlier this year, Sanders and the City Council fought over whether or not the mayor must seek permission from the council if he wants to make mid-year changes to the city budget. That still hasn't been settled. Now, no one knows if the council is allowed to suggest a compromise between the mayor and an employee union. Holy cow—the scenarios don't get much more basic than these.
When proponents were campaigning for the change in governance three years ago, the went on and on and on about 'accountability.' However, none of them said, 'Yeah, this system will be really confusing and vague, but don't worry-we'll figure it out as we go.' Despite tales of rainbows and unicorns and government accountability, CityBeat and others argued that, although the concept of a 'strong' mayor had long been debated for years in San Diego, the specific language of what would become 2004's Proposition F was jammed through the process quick-as-you-please, with very little public conversation and no time for adequate reflection.
Peters made an astute observation on Monday. He said critics will praise 'leadership' when they agree with their elected officials and accuse them of playing 'politics' when they don't. He's absolutely right about that. But, in retrospect, it would be hard for Peters to argue that he and five of his colleagues were providing leadership when they voted to put Prop. F on the ballot. Say what you want about allowing the people to decide-there's still an expectation that the fruit put before the public is at least fully ripe. We'd argue that Councilmembers Donna Frye, Toni Atkins and Ralph Inzunza showed leadership when they voted against it.
As entertaining as the political theater at City Hall sometimes is, it's often cringe-inducing. None of it's more embarrassing than when city leaders reveal that they don't know how the system is supposed to work. It's as if San Diego invented democracy. Trust us, this stuff's been done before.
The best thing we can say about the new system of governance is that it created the position of the City Council's independent budget analyst, which was filled by the extremely capable Andrea Tevlin—who, ironically, thinks the new system of governance is quite lame.
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