Thanks in part to the San Diego City Council's insistence on taking a two-hour lunch break in the middle of its Tuesday meeting, CityBeat had to go to press before we learned exactly which way the City Council would go on the question of whether or not to ask voters to change San Diego's form of government to a so-called "strong mayor" system.
So, just for fun, in the tradition of "Dewey Wins!" we'll venture precariously out on a limb and predict that the City Council sent the proposal on to the voters. Our sources say it was looking like a 5-4 vote in favor, so we'll comment accordingly-and we'll find out how good our sources are.
Voters will be asked to consolidate municipal power in one place-the mayor's office-and they'll be asked to do it for a five-year, no-obligation trial period beginning in 2006, when Dick Murphy, if reelected, will be beginning the second year of his second term as mayor. In 2010, voters will be asked to make the strong-mayor system permanent or change the city charter in some other way. Or they can do nothing and let the trial period lapse, thereby restoring our current system.
Currently, the mayor does little more than chair meetings, cut ribbons, shake hands and make snoozy speeches. Well, a group of business-leader types wants to change all that. They've been busily working on a proposal that takes much of what the city manager does and gives it to the mayor, such as overseeing the day-to-day management of the city and preparing the budget. Under the idea, the mayor would no longer be a part of the City Council. Instead, he or she would be given veto power over policies approved by the City Council (of course, that veto would be subject to override by the City Council). Essentially, the mayor would be more like a governor or a president.
The drivers of this process-namely, people like real estate mogul Malin Burnham, Padres owner John Moores, downtown bon vivant George Mitrovich and firefighter union chief Ron Saathoff-argue the change will make someone accountable for whatever happens to go wrong in this city. They say, quite rightly, that elected officials too often pressure the city manager to shape his policy recommendations to match their desires so as to avoid the appearance of conflict. They argue that a City Council member would not have the ability to exert that same level of influence over a strong mayor.
Proponents say this idea's been around for 30 years and that we've debated it over and over again for the last five years. That's not quite right. Yes, this general idea has been kicked around at various times during the last three decades, but the specific language of this latest proposal has seen the light of day for only a couple of months, and it's been the subject of only three public hearings, without any meaningful give-and-take on the specific merits.
They also say we'll have more debate as Election Day draws nearer. But, as social- and economic-justice advocate Donald Cohen said Tuesday, a campaign is not a genuine debate. A campaign is not about finding the truth; it's about winning.
The City Council and the proposal's proponents should not have rushed this to the ballot. They've run a great risk of losing the election because the public will see how much conflict clouds this thing. A lack of consensus tends to doom local ballot propositions. And there is no consensus here. Consensus wasn't given a chance. The idea has been pushed by business-oriented groups and individuals, and it's being resisted by most progressive interests.
CityBeat could conceivably support a strong-mayor form of government, but we would have preferred what some of the opponents suggested-an elected commission to fully and publicly vet the matter. To say this issue has been sufficiently debated because it was brought up in the 1970s, the late 1980s and the late 1990s isn't good enough. This proposal was crafted by a small group of people who say they did their best to solicit input, and maybe they did, but a city-sanctioned commission would have guaranteed that everyone had their chance to help fine-tune the language.
Some opponents are very concerned that this proposal concentrates too much power in one person's hands, and that that person is vulnerable to the influence of powerful and nefarious interests. Supporters say that if it doesn't work, it'll go away in five years. But if it doesn't work, that's five years' worth of damage that can't be undone.Now, if the City Council on Tuesday chose not to send this to the voters... well, never mind.