When it comes to the debate surrounding the proposed fixes to the way City Hall governs San Diego, much has been said about ensuring that the mayor doesn't end up with too much power. Indeed, power consolidation on the 11th floor, where the mayor and his staff work, has been CityBeat's prime concern as time draws near to ask voters to approve structural government changes.
But the pendulum swings to and fro, and leave it to City Attorney Mike Aguirre to remind us that loading the City Council up with power might not be the smartest thing, either.
On Monday, the City Council's temporary Audit Committee talked about how members of a permanent audit committee and a new city auditor would be selected.
Hey, wait! Where are you going? This is more important than it sounds. If it isn't done right, you and your fellow citizens—and, perhaps, your children—could be feeling the unpleasant aftereffects long into the future, in the form of some combination of degraded government services or higher taxes. So pay attention.
At issue is who keeps an eye on the person who does the city's books, and who keeps an eye on the person who keeps an eye on the person who does the city's books. That system is broken, and only a vote of the people will fix it properly and legally. The City Council next Monday will consider what remediation proposal to ask the voters to approve.
The Charter Review Committee, convened by Mayor Jerry Sanders, recommended that an auditor should be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, and that an audit committee should consist of five people—a combination of City Council members and citizen experts appointed by the City Council. The City Council's independent budget analyst, Andrea Tevlin, agreed with the Charter Review Committee's recommendation.
Sanders favors a proposal that allows the mayor to appoint the city auditor and two citizen members of a three-person audit committee (along with a City Council member).
A group of Sanders supporters known as San Diegans for City Hall Reform wants an auditor appointed by an audit committee that includes a City Council member and two citizens appointed by the mayor.
When the temporary Audit Committee met on Monday, Aguirre carefully tried to warn the committee—City Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer, Tony Young and Toni Atkins—against making a recommendation that puts too much oversight power in the hands of the City Council. He gingerly attempted to walk the committee through a hypothetical scenario in which an audit structure controlled by the council would be faced with what happened at City Hall in 1996 and 2002, when city officials struck a deal with the municipal employee pension system's board of trustees that granted the employees enhanced retirement benefits that the city had no way of paying for. The city auditor at the time, Ed Ryan, blew no whistle, and the deal was endorsed by the council. It was Aguirre's way of recommending that a city auditor be elected by the voters. He also said he favored an audit committee made up entirely of City Council members because citizen experts aren't accountable to the voters.
The only acceptable solution is one that ensures that the auditor and the audit committee that oversees the auditor's work have complete independence from the mayor. Why? Because the chief financial officer, who handles the city's finances, prepares all the financial documents and builds the city budget is hired by and reports to the mayor. If the mayor and his CFO aren't wearing any clothes, the auditor and the audit committee must be relied upon to say so without fear of reprisal.
Neither Sanders' proposal nor the one favored by his advocates in San Diegans for City Hall Reform are acceptable because both have the mayor in control of the audit structure. We're confident that the City Council will see those proposals for what they are and reject them.
The recommendation proposed by the Charter Review Committee and endorsed by Independent Budget Analyst Tevlin is not as bad because it includes an independent audit committee, but it still allows the mayor to appoint the auditor, and we see no compelling rationale for that. As city watchdog Mel Shapiro noted at Monday's meeting, none of the nation's 10 largest cities allows the mayor to appoint the auditor.
An audit structure controlled completely by the City Council, while preferable to one that involves the mayor, isn't perfect. But neither is one in which the auditor is elected by the people. Voter approval is not a panacea. Why? Because money influences elections, and the likelihood of an outfit such as San Diegans for City Hall Reform pouring money into the campaign of an auditor candidate who's favorable to a sitting mayor is high. Elections won't be truly democratic until private money is removed from the equation.
But we live in an imperfect world, and all things considered, either an elected auditor with an independent committee, or an auditor and committee selected by the council is OK by us.