Jerry Sanders isn't a “strong” mayor, despite the oft-used descriptor for San Diego's current system of governance. That's not to say he isn't a good mayor or a robust mayor—it's just that he's not a particularly powerful mayor. He can't enact new laws or make monumental changes to the way city government serves the public without the approval of the City Council. The fact that he needs five of eight members of the City Council to agree with him at any given time makes the council, not the mayor, the sheriff in this town.
Even some of the supporters of Proposition F, the voter-passed initiative that overhauled the city's governance structure, recognized that; during the campaign, they began referring to a “strong mayor / strong council” form of government. It's possible that voters wanted a benevolent dictator to take over, but that wasn't in the initiative. What was in initiative is more accurately described as an “executive” mayor who is in control of city departments and runs the day-to-day operations.
The strength Sanders possesses is more perceived than actual, thanks to the municipal corruption and incompetence that preceded his election. He has used this perceived strength to compensate for his institutional weakness by juxtaposing himself against a reeling City Council, grasping for political power whenever he finds a vacuum and controlling the media agenda by refusing to surrender the bully pulpit.
Into this mix came Andrea Tevlin, who, as the City Council's independent budget analyst, has become a sort of über policy advisor for a relatively unpopular council that desperately needed someone like her—someone who could give the council some built-in gravitas and political cover when time came to challenge a popular mayor. It was Tevlin—who's made no secret of her dislike for the “strong mayor” governance structure—who urged the City Council to pass a law prohibiting the mayor from making budget alterations that impact city services after the council has approved the budget. The council passed a version of the measure on Monday.
The mayor argues that he was elected to reform city government, and that the City Council is being obstructionist by stripping him of the tools he needs to do it. He charges that the council is nothing but a gang of marionettes whose strings are pulled by union bosses, and he's threatened to go to the voters to have the council's law overturned.
Members of the City Council responded by embarrassing the mayor in public. In particular, Councilmember Donna Frye essentially called Sanders a spoiled little baby, and the normally polite (to the point of excess) and confrontation-averse City Council president, Scott Peters, openly mocked Sanders' vow to take his gripe to a ballot and figuratively threatened to “punch” the mayor “in the nose.” Peters was especially annoyed because this council, to this stage, has been exceedingly deferential to Sanders. It's nice to see that Peters has the rhetorical goods when he needs them. The next step is to put his vote where his words are. On Monday, he supported an unsuccessful motion to delay a vote so the city attorney could tinker with the measure's language. Five council members favored immediate action lest the mayor attempt any more budget-fiddling.
Speaking of the city attorney, the brouhaha puts Mike Aguirre in an interesting predicament. There he was this week, recommending a delay. Maybe he genuinely thinks the proposal needs tinkering. Or maybe he wanted it derailed, temporarily or otherwise. You see, for whatever reason (backing in his next election campaign, anyone?), Aguirre has hitched his wagon to Sanders, and on Monday, he got into it with Frye, an Aguirre ally and a Sanders antagonist. Frye's consequent irritation with the city attorney recalled an incident in December when Aguirre said publicly that he thought Frye should not chair the council's audit committee, an assignment she wanted bad. The other candidate was Kevin Faulconer, Sanders' closest ally on the council. Could Sanders' support be more important to Aguirre than Frye's friendship?
In any case, the council was right to stand up to the mayor's chest-beating. First, the City Council has approval authority over the budget. If the mayor wants to change a service that was explicitly appropriated, he needs to ask the City Council for permission. Second, going to the council for approval effectively alerts us, the public, that a service is being impacted. We have a right to know such things. Remember, it's our money. Third, what is Sanders so afraid of? If a change is necessary, the council would most likely approve it. If he senses that the unions are getting in the way of sound public policy, he can say so when it happens. Saying so now just makes him sound like an anti-union zealot.
We hope the popularity isn't going to Sanders' head, for if there's one thing that's sure to bring down a once-popular figure, it's hubris. Just ask President Bush. With his I'm-in-charge-so-get-out-of-my-way-or-else stance, Sanders is sounding, a little chillingly, like “The Decider.”