San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' proposal to slash $16.5 million in city services contains a lot of fodder for controversy, including $12 million in cuts to police and fire services and the closure of seven branch libraries.
But getting less attention is Sanders' plan to shutter all six of the city's customer-service centers—those convenient outlets where residents can transact such business as paying utility bills, processing passport applications and paying parking tickets. As the City Council considers Sanders' proposals this week, look to the discussion of those service centers as a potential flashpoint of acrimony over the mayor's relatively new role in overseeing constituent services.
For 60 years, residents' complaints and requests for information or services were handled through the office of the city manager. That changed on Jan. 1, 2006, when City Hall was reorganized, jettisoning the city manager and giving the mayor sweeping new executive powers. One of those new powers was control over constituent services.
The switch was so profound that the RAND Corp., a Washington, D.C., think tank brought in to make recommendations on the transition, saw constituent services as a potential sticking point between the City Council and the mayor. Under the city manager form of government, a council member could easily step in to make sure this or that constituent was being properly serviced. Under the new order, such a move would be considered an intrusion on the mayor's powers and forbidden under the city charter.
“Although this provision seem clear on its face, it could severely limit Council members' ability to provide direct services to their constituents,” the RAND report said. “And there are very strong incentives for Council members to ensure that complaints and inquiries from their districts' constituents are promptly dealt with.”
While the City Information Center in City Hall handles the lion's share of constituent-service requests (an estimated 100,000 per year) a good many of those requests begin—and end—with residents showing up at one of the city's six customer service centers, which handled 114,027 customer transactions in fiscal year 2008. During the last 12 years, the number of service centers has been cut from 15 (in 1996) to just six today.
For sure, few of the official dealings at the service centers are transactions that can't be handled elsewhere, even through the mail. But the requests for basic information—inquiries about which city department handles what kind of complaint, questions about fees and business hours and locations, etc.— would all roll over to the little City Information Center in the lobby of City Hall should the last service centers be closed per Sanders' request. If the center can't handle that load, will those constituents start calling their council members for help and thus create the kind of tension RAND warned about?
Only the council members can say, and neither the mayor nor the four council members we contacted for comment returned our calls.