You wouldn't have known it, gauging by the Union-Tribune's sleep-inducing reportage of The Day the Lights Went On at City Hall. But mark Spin Cycle's word: that day, March 29, will go down in the annals of local activism and progressive thinking as a watershed moment, and certainly more deserving than the U-T's bland B-1 headline, “Council approves meeting changes.”
“Strong-mayor wannabe neutered” would have been a vast improvement, while maintaining the original's vague intent. “Frye sends hissing mayor back into dark corner” would've hit the proverbial nail on the head(line).
This was smash-mouth politics at its purest, most unadulterated, raw-boned best, and it stuck a pin in the balloon of Mayor Dick “Scarecrow” Murphy's rising sense of himself only three days after he stood before reporters and announced his plan to grab even more power at City Hall.
Earlier last week, the City Council-minus member Jim “MadDog” Madaffer, who was traveling with the local Chamber of Commerce in China-deadlocked 4-4 on a multi-pronged proposal by Councilmember Donna Frye and Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins that promised to propel San Diego from minimalist follower of the state's Ralph M. Brown Act to the open-meeting law's most ardent disciple.
A few days later, Murphy-some say in a blatant political move to bolster his re-election chances come November-latched on to a long-percolating proposal to restructure San Diego's system of governing by eliminating the city manager position and instituting a so-called “strong mayor” form of government.
“It's important to strike while the iron's hot. The public is interested in this issue,” the Union-Tribune quoted the mayor as saying. Murphy, who wants to put the issue before voters in November as well, has argued that a city the size of San Diego would function more efficiently under the strong-mayor format, despite the fact that city-manager-run towns like Austin, Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio and San Jose seem to be holding their own.
But the mayor, during these times of fiscal crisis and federal probes, already starts his attempt to circle the wagons deep in the hole, with at least four City Council members reportedly questioning just how necessary such a shift in philosophy is-and, undoubtedly, how a strong-mayor government might weaken their powers.
Dave Childs, western U.S. director of the International City/County Management Association, who reviewed Murphy's plan, told CityBeat that anytime such a change in forms of government is proposed, the public needs to consider carefully why such a plan is advanced.
“I don't want to take a pot shot at the mayor, so I won't,” Childs said, “but the one thing I observed was that it was referred to as the strong mayor-strong council [proposal]. And in fact, our experience under the council-manager form, the council actually has more authority than under a strong-mayor form.
“When you hear somebody in any organization say, ‘You know, I need more power so that I can be effective,' I think everybody needs to take about two steps backwards and re-diagnose the problem.”
That problem, as some insiders see it, is Murphy's waning ability to keep his focus on his trademark 2020 vision thing. In the Union-Tribune's glowing interview with Padres owner and downtown kingpin John Moores last Sunday, Moores couldn't get further than a few paragraphs before jumping on the strong-mayor bandwagon.
“... [N]ow, our form of city government looks to me like a homeowners association meeting. It's absolute bedlam. Nobody is really in charge. I suspect the average voter is quite unaware of how chaotic council meetings are,” Moores told the U-T's fawning editorial board.
It's unlikely that Moores would prefer council sessions that resemble tea parties, with white doilies and cups of Earl Grey scattered about, but his intent is clear-give me one malleable “leader” I can wheel and deal with privately, and I'll be a happy multi-millionaire. Alex Spanos would probably love the same thing for his poor, under-appreciated Chargers, whose negotiations with the city seem in perpetual slow motion.
Intriguingly, two prominent city insiders report that both Moores and Spanos are prime backers of the strong-mayor movement, including some financing. Moores might be getting homesick for dear ol' Houston, not only a strong-mayor bastion but also a city with no zoning laws whatsoever. Think about that the next time you're traveling about town.
But even a maneuvering, agitated mayor couldn't slow the steamrolling public support for limiting secret meeting and, in the process, revamping of the way business gets done in the dark recesses of City Hall's closed-session chambers.
Councilmember Brian Maienschein, usually a Murphy ally, sided with the mayor's opposition on this one because he had never before seen an issue that had “100 percent” backing from the public.
“This was a historic day in the city of San Diego,” proclaimed city-attorney candidate and long-time open-meeting advocate Michael Aguirre as he basked in the sun on the first day of a week-long vacation on Catalina Island. “By bringing people together, Donna put herself into a major leadership position that has altered the calculus of the city's open-meeting laws and raised the bar dramatically for the leaders of other cities and counties, who should be asked why they are not engaging in the same practice.”
Plaudits, as well, should go to Madaffer, who will join Frye and Atkins on a city panel called the Right to Know Committee, which has 60 days to fine-tune the temporary rules adopted this week. Madaffer, who acknowledged the city's “image problem,” backed all 10 sections of the Frye/Atkins open-meeting manifesto, which Murphy insisted be voted on individually despite strong opposition from Frye, who wanted an up-or-down vote on the whole package.
The most controversial portion-reviving the practice of keeping transcripts of closed-door meetings, which Murphy had succeeded in eliminating in 2001-survived on a 5-4 vote, with councilmembers Scott Peters, Charles Lewis and soon-to-be-radio-talk-show-host Ralphie Inzunza joining Murphy in opposition.
“This breaks the back of the back-room deals,” Aguirre said, enjoying with renewed appreciation the warmth of the sun.
Shine some light on us: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.