The City Council is pissed. Oh, sure, they may be all statesperson-like about it, but in the wake of a recent budget debacle, they're gearing up for battle with the mayor.
First, some history: Last month, the City Council learned from constituents that Mayor Jerry Sanders had cut funding from a swim team in the money-losing aquatics program and $300,000 for a community-cleanup program staffed by homeless people. In both cases, Sanders chopped the money without publicly alerting the council. Members of the council's Budget Committee exchanged angry words over the flap with Sanders aide Julie Dubick.
The issue at hand is whether the mayor can simply take funding away from programs without first asking for council permission. Sanders' spokesman, Fred Sainz, offered the same explanation then as he gave CityBeat: “These are operational issues that the council should not be micromanaging. If they do, it will be government run amok.”
The mayor says it's his prerogative. The council says it ain't.
“That was potentially a turning point in the relationship between the City Council and the mayor,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives. “The mayor's office came forth and said it's our city; we run it, you're irrelevant-a shocking usurpation of what is legitimate City Council authority. Every member of the council was offended. They were mad. They realized they all got elected and they all have power and authority and nobody gets to say it's their city. It was kind of a shocking moment.”
During the Budget Committee hearing, City Attorney Mike Aguirre said he doesn't believe the mayor has the authority to make such changes, and he promised a formal analysis, but that won't happen while Aguirre is busy trying the pension case.
Meanwhile, Andrea Tevlin, the council's independent budget analyst, fired off a memo of her own, insisting that the mayor had overstepped his authority, and that the lack of transparency in the process was disturbing. “In my professional opinion, this government is not working as the voters envisioned when they passed Proposition F”-the “strong mayor” ballot initiative-“in that appropriate checks and balances with regard to the budget are not occurring,” she wrote.
“It's all outrageous, you know? Everything that's happening is outrageous,” said Councilmember Ben Hueso. “The council vote has to be as strong as the mayor's vote. But right now it's the mayor saying, ‘Oh, my vote is more important.' The mayor has overstepped his authority.”
“We're going to have some real tough fights,” said Councilmember Toni Atkins.
Councilmember Tony Young, who made his opposition to the mayor's power grab clear at the Budget Committee hearing, agreed. “I agree with the way the IBA sees it. I don't see why the mayor would disagree,” he said.
Oh, but the mayor wholly disagrees.
“He believes that the new form of government is going very well, that there's going to be an adjustment period, and, frankly, we're surprised it's gone as well as it has,” said spokesperson Sainz.
At stake here is more than just power over the city budget; it's also about who defines how city government functions. Just how much authority does the mayor have? How much the council? And will a politically damaged, lame-duck council find the backbone to stand up to a popular, powerful mayor?
And lest anyone think the problem is limited to control of the in-year budget, the basic gears of government are rusty and clogged.
Councilmembers Donna Frye, Atkins and Hueso say the rift runs deeper than the budget alone. They say legislative committees, where city policies are first hammered out, have become a low priority for the mayor's staff.
“The mayor has control of 12,000 city employees-that's tremendous leverage,” Hueso said. “The committees have a role, but we're dependent on city staff for reports. Unfortunately, there have been problems with reports being late or having missing information.”
“It does seem like council requests are secondary,” Atkins echoed.
“It's so often the case I get the information for the first time at the hearing, [and] there's no documentation for backup. That's very unusual; it's never been that way,” Frye said. “It needs to be improved. It really is not helpful to the public, and really limits the public's ability to participate.”
The question now: Just what will the City Council do? Will there be legislative action? Already two bills requiring the mayor to come before the council for his departmental reorganizations have been docketed. Frye believes resistance is best enacted through frequent public hearings and votes whenever the mayor oversteps his bounds. Atkins and Hueso seem to support legislation defining the mayor's authority, though both still speak of negotiations. That's more like Council President Scott Peters way of thinking.
“I talk to the mayor every week,” Peters told CityBeat. “It's probably time we got into the details of this a little more.”
Peters believes legislating the mayor's powers suggests a breakdown in the process, but outsiders argue the process is already broken down.
“In the two years of talks that produced Prop. F, I never heard anybody suggest the mayor had this kind of power,” said Steve Erie, a UCSD political science professor and a member of the Prop. F steering committee. Erie compared Sanders' move to President Nixon's 1970 showdown with Congress over impounding federal money to create a presidential budget.
Another observer, environmental lawyer Cory Briggs, would like to see Peters show more leadership.
“Scott Peters has to stop thinking like a second mayor and more like a leader of a second branch of government,” said Briggs.
Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that part of the problem is simply one of adjusting to the executive-mayor form of government. But even if that's true, the mayor's had 10 months to get his house in order. Up till now, the City Council has been trapped in the mindset of the old government, in which consensus was everything. That type of thinking played a role in the pension problem.
“I think they will get off the mat,” Cohen said. “I think they're realizing that we now have two branches of government, that we don't always agree, that debate is just as important as consensus in public life.”
The next budget year will be difficult, as the city, both mayor and council, will have to face up to a dearth of funds. The budget will be replete with cuts at all levels. The council will have to find its voice by then.