Would you be interested if we told you that a cabal of 15 people were meeting regularly and deciding your city's future? Well, that's what's happening right now in San Diego. We're assuming you didn't know that because most of you-99.997547818 percent of you, to be exact, based on 2000 census numbers-were not at the cabal's public forum last Thursday evening in a University City High School auditorium.
It's also possible that you knew about it and don't care-after all, this group isn't discussing sexy stuff like immigration, abortion or war. Or maybe you care and are reasoning that you elected some of your fellow citizens to attend meetings that you don't have time to attend and to make important decisions for you-after all, that's representative government in action, right?
It's cool. No worries. But just in case you'd like to get in on the action, just in case you want to check in and see what your representatives are up to, here's what's happening:
The cabal (we know that word has a nefarious connotation; we're just trying to heighten the intrigue a little-don't sweat it) is called the Charter Review Committee. Mayor Jerry Sanders convened it earlier this year and allowed each of the eight members of the City Council to help him choose one representative apiece. They each picked three candidates to represent their district, and Sanders chose the one he liked best, settling once and for all the matter of how the mayor and his advisors feel about control. Sanders chose the remaining seven members himself.
The group's job is to lift the hood on the city's constitution, known as the City Charter, and recommend ways to tune it up. It kinda needs it, because a few years ago we voters let a group of amateur mechanics get in there and change the way the city governs itself, and they sorta messed things up. Now the timing's all off.
OK, let's dispose of the auto-shop metaphor: They changed San Diego's governance structure from one in which an appointed city manager had lots of power to one in which the mayor (the executive branch) and the City Council (the legislative branch) share all the power. But they left too much work undone.
Sanders wants the Gang of 15 to recommend changes to the charter that would: help the city avoid another financial disaster like the one in which it currently finds itself, better define the separation of powers between elected officials in the new form of governance and improve the 'functionality' of the new system during its trial period, which lasts until 2010, including such matters as adding a ninth, tiebreaking City Council district and giving the mayor's currently symbolic veto power some sharp teeth.
The usual suspects who addressed the committee at the public forum-and we use that term affectionately, for they are the hearty souls who monitor the halls of power on your behalf-expressed their belief that the committee would have been more legitimate had its members been elected by the public, as well as their concern that the process is little more than an elaborate mayoral grab for decisive power of city affairs. To a degree, we share that last concern, and that's why we'll watch this thing unfold. Wary of any consolidation of control in one place, we'll be suspicious of recommendations that shift authority into the mayor's office that would be better in the City Council's hands. Pending discussion, we're OK giving the mayor a meaningful veto, but only if a ninth council district is created.
But perhaps the most fascinating subplot is what to do about the city attorney. And, no, we're not talking about Mike Aguirre, although it's what Aguirre has done with his job that makes this discussion so interesting. Aguirre sees an elected city attorney as working exclusively for the voting public, and that has created conflict with the position's traditional role as legal advisor to the City Council. This next comment will likely send Aguirre into orbit, but we go back and forth on whether the city attorney should be elected or appointed. It might make more sense to have an elected city auditor and an appointed city attorney. In theory, an independent auditor coupled with a City Council that genuinely represents the public should provide an adequate check on an executive mayor. In any case, whatever comes out of the committee must state clearly that the role of the attorney is to advise the City Council in a way that truly benefits the citizens, not in a way that simply keeps elected officials out of jail.
This public service announcement is brought to you in honor of July 4 and its celebration of representative democracy. You can inform yourself by visiting City Hall's Charter Reform Committee website. Go to www.sandiego.gov and click the Charter Reform Committee button about halfway down the right side of the page.