John Gordon approached the podium and spoke quickly into the microphone. He had a lot to say and only a couple of minutes to say it. It was last Wednesday, and Gordon, appointed to the mayor's Charter Reform Committee by City Councilmember Donna Frye, was speaking to the City Council's Rules Committee about the charter-reform panel's final recommendations, which were being presented to council members for the first time.
The mission of the 15-member Charter Review Committee was to suggest changes, in categories narrowly defined by Mayor Jerry Sanders, to the city charter, which is essentially San Diego's municipal constitution. The process has drawn fire from critics who charge that it's little more than a sham, perpetrated by a downtown business cabal, to consolidate political power in the mayor's office—the executive branch—and make the City Council subservient.
Gordon was giving a minority report of sorts, a response to the official rundown articulated by committee chairman John Davies, a real-estate and probate lawyer, and vice chairman John Milliken, also a lawyer and a retired judge—both appointed by Sanders.
But wait—Sanders appointed seven members while the City Council nominated the other eight. One would think Gordon would be in the majority in this tug-of-war between the mayor and the council. That's what was interesting about Gordon's comments. He hinted that one of the council nominees (I say “nominees” because Sanders picked one person from among as many as three nominated by each of the eight council members) had switched teams and voted along with the bloc of the mayor's appointees on all the controversial items.
Gordon didn't name this team-switcher that day. I initially thought he was talking about Adrian Kwiatkowski, the lobbyist nominated by City Councilmember Ben Hueso who's sort of a pied piper of the executive-mayor form of government that San Diego switched to a couple of years ago. But I was wrong. Gordon told me later that he was talking about Donna Jones. Nominated by Council President Scott Peters, Jones is a lobbyist, real-estate lawyer, committee chair for the Chamber of Commerce and member of the team that transitioned City Hall into the new form of government.
“She never represented the… council, or the populist influence,” Gordon told me. “She was always with the other side. It never was a majority-council committee process.” He added, “I would note that on all of the difficult issues, all of us tended to vote the same way on matters of centralizing power with the executive—approximately the same way—other than Donna.”
I've been critical on this page of the decision by three council members—Peters, Hueso and Kevin Faulconer—to nominate lobbyists to the committee. I believe lobbyists are burdened by inherent conflicts of interest. They work for clients who do business with the city and, therefore, stand to benefit from the consolidation of power in one place.In an interview, Peters said he nominated Jones because of her expertise in land-use (though none of the study areas defined by Sanders had anything to do with land-use). He said he assumed that, if chosen by Sanders, Jones “would be part of a mix that represented a broad range of points of view, and I'll let you decide whether that happened.” (I've decided: It didn't; the majority were lawyers, lobbyists, business representatives and other insiders who outnumbered the few community leaders on the committee.)
Peters said he never communicated directly with Jones during the committee's deliberations and was unaware of how she voted on the key items. Those key items are: how the city auditor and an audit committee are chosen, whom they report to and how they're dismissed; how many City Council seats are added and how high the threshold should be for a council override of a mayoral veto; whether the mayor should be put in charge of important entities such as the Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Commission; whether the new form of government, which is currently in the middle of a voter-mandated, five-year trial, should be made permanent; and whether the city attorney should be appointed, rather than elected, and whether the city attorney's client should be defined as the city government or the citizens.
In each of the votes for which Jones was present—she was absent for the votes on the number of council districts and the veto override—and there was a split between the mayor's appointees and the council's nominees, Jones voted with the mayor's people.
Gordon's “reasoning presupposes that there ought to be a natural division between council people [on the committee] and the mayor, in terms of how the city should work,” Peters countered. “What I had hoped to get was 15 people who would do their best to come up with the best system, understanding that the mayor has some role and council has a different role.”
Peters' comment speaks to his penchant for compromise and his desire to avoid confrontation. But some of us believe that government works best when there's tension between the branches. He told me he favors the executive-mayor form of governance because it engenders accountability and transparency. But that's only when the legislative branch tugs hard on the executive.
Councilmember Frye this week acknowledged that Peters has opposed the mayor on occasion but said it's rarely on matters relating the way the branches of government interact. After the City Council and Sanders battled over whether or not the mayor should be required to get the council's permission to make mid-year changes to the city budget, it was Peters who forged a compromise that critics, such as Frye, thought gave the mayor too much power to move money around without transparency. The council later tightened the rules on the mayor.
More alarming, perhaps, were Peters comments to me about what types of people are qualified to study the way government works and what types aren't.
Two of Peters' nominees are lobbyists. According to city records, Jones represented more clients—20 of them, mostly developers—than all but six of the more than 150 lobbyists registered with the city before severing ties in July with eight of them. Another Peters nominee, Clif Williams, his former chief of staff, works for the high-powered law firm Latham & Watkins and represents eight clients. Peters' third nominee, Andy Berg, is not listed as a lobbyist but is well known at City Hall for representing the local electrical-workers union.
“Everybody's a registered lobbyist,” Peters exaggerated. “The point is that the lobbying laws are very broad now, so anyone who talks to me on behalf of a client has to register as a lobbyist. Well, if you kept all those people out, then all these people with experience dealing with the city who've got perspectives to offer, would essentially be excluded. I think you should be very concerned about excluding those people as much as you are about excluding anybody else.”I'm not. I'm far more concerned about excluding those who represent common people and San Diego's diverse communities, who almost always get the shaft when insiders get together. And Peters seemed to be saying that forcing everyone who seeks to influence him on behalf of a paying client to register as a lobbyist is unreasonable, when those are precisely the people who should; they are the reason lobbying laws exist at every level of government—so that citizens can know who has access to elected officials and what they're discussing.
“You have to admit,” Peters continued, “that people who actually deal with the city day to day might have a better understanding of what the problems are in dealing with the city than someone who is never here.”
Maybe. But five people on the Charter Review Committee nominated by City Council members were not lobbyists, and they seemed to do fine. Among them were a financial consultant (Gordon), two community activists, a professor and a public defender.
Responding to a characteristically high-energy critique of the charter-review panel's membership by local AFL-CIO honcho Jerry Butkiewicz at the Rules Committee meeting, Peters referred to Berg, saying he'd nominated a labor representative but Sanders didn't pick him. However, two City Council members—Frye and Jim Madaffer—nominated only one person, forcing Sanders to appoint the people they really wanted on the committee. Following the rules is often appropriate, but sometimes it's just playing someone else's game.
“The beautiful thing, in terms of the Sanders folks,” said UCSD political science professor Steve Erie, “once they saw the council appointees, they could pick and choose; they can count to eight just like anyone else.” Erie helped plan the executive-mayor structure for San Diego yet is a vocal critic of the Charter Review Committee. “It was the mayor's committee,” he said. “The fix was in from day one.”
For his part, Gordon doesn't go quite so far. “I think it's a stretch to say that all of that was stage-managed,” he said, “because the process isn't that clear cut.” But he does believe it was rushed, partly in order to give Sanders a running mate of sorts next June when he seeks reelection.
The City Council will have to decide which, if any, of the charter-reform recommendations to put before the voters, and among the stated goals of the committee was to get proposed changes on the 2008 ballot. “I was thinking that the mayor was looking for a theme to be able to campaign upon,” Gordon said. “We can see the campaign spots now: ‘San Diego has its first-ever strong mayor; it's showing good results—reelect Jerry Sanders in 2008.'”
Gordon, it should be noted, supports the new governance structure; he just thinks the committee needed much more time to better study a broader range of issues. Erie noted that Los Angeles' recent charter-review process lasted two years and was much more inclusive.
It should also be noted that Peters doesn't agree with all of the committee's recommendations. He favors making the current government structure permanent as soon as possible, but he opposes raising the City Council's veto-override threshold to six out of eight votes, as the committee recommended.
However, he supports allowing the mayor to have some involvement in appointing a city auditor and the audit committee to which the auditor reports, a position critics such as Frye, Gordon and Erie rightly find, using Gordon's word, “ridiculous.” An auditor is a necessary check on the chief executive's handling of city finances. There's no reason to let the mayor have any involvement in the process of selecting audit personnel.
Peters' position is an unnecessary compromise. There's no conceivable way the public benefits from giving the mayor a role. There's a greater chance an auditor will blow the whistle on a books-cooking mayor if that auditor wasn't appointed by the mayor than if he was. And that's my issue with Peters, and why the City Council should not have voted this week to give him a third tenure as City Council president. I don't believe, as City Attorney Mike Aguirre does, that Peters is corrupt, but I do believe he gives away too much in his zeal to find common ground, and he's mired in a worldview that says the business of government is best left to the insiders—who, I might add, are the folks who brought us the enormous pension debt the city's trying to get out from under.
At last Wednesday's Rules Committee meeting, City Councilmember Tony Young remarked that the Charter Review Committee's recommendations should be given no more weight than anyone else's recommendations—especially considering that even Sanders has backed away from some of them (cynics say it's a ploy by the mayor to appear reasonable).
Young has a populist streak that I'm really starting to admire. He displayed it again at Tuesday's City Council meeting when, in unsuccessfully challenging Peters' hold on the council presidency, blasted business-as-usual. In a jab at Peters, he said that if he were president, he would “advocate for this council and not be an adjunct to the administration.”
The members of the City Council are the direct representatives of the people, as well as a check on the chief executive. The council president should be someone who fights aggressively in those roles.
“I think you can be fairly confident that the City Council will take care of the City Council,” Peters told me.
For the sake of the people it represents, I hope so.