Seeing Mayor Dick "Deltoid" Murphy sprinting is about as disorienting as watching him throw a baseball like it's a feather, which is how his inaugural pitch at Petco Park two weeks ago appeared to go. Even he admitted that the first toss from former President Jimmy Carter, 18 years his senior, demonstrated more zip.
But the usually molasses-paced Murphy is in a genuine hurry now, aided by some well-heeled cohorts who have framed the current hot-ticket debate about dumping San Diego's city-manager form of government as a battle for the very heart and soul of democracy as we know it-or at least knew it in better times.
Not known for his pitchman qualities, the mayor has nonetheless embraced the idea of a strong-mayor form of government for a town that hasn't known such a thing in more than 70 years-when city leaders figured a strong mayor would only lead to a concentration of power and, eventually, corruption.
A 1931 editorial in the San Diego Sun highlighted the sentiment of the times, when voters overwhelmingly backed the city manager system: "April 7, 1931, will go down in the city's history as the turning point when this city cast off the shackles of a rusty governmental form and put on the shining garment of modern business methods in public affairs."
Now, those who oppose the current system-they call themselves the Better Government Association-refer to it as antiquated and not adequately accountable for a city San Diego's size. But you'll have to pardon these folks, many of them with powerful business interests, if they tend to get caught up in the "for us or against us" democracy argument made famous by our current president.
"There are five things I believe in," association member George Mitrovich last week told the City Council's influential Rules Committee, which is run by Murphy and may wind up controlling the strong-mayor debate. Democracy, a representative government, one man one vote, no taxation without representation and, fifth, he said, "I believe to the core of my soul in the people's right to choose. And for 73 years in this city, the people have been denied those five principles because the people have not had a say in the person vested with the constitutional authority to run our city, the city manager."
The Rules Committee, which eventually voted 4-1 to keep the strong-mayor discussion going, came at the issue from a variety of angles, which suggests that the debate will be entertaining-at least for politics junkies.
But it won't be a particularly useful fight if the Union-Tribune editorial page folks do their usual hack job on the issue. Last Sunday, the U-T ran an editorial that seemed more intent on glove-slapping city attorney candidate Michael Aguirre, whom editorial page editor Bob Kittle is known to despise, than it did laying out the pros and cons of revamping the city charter.
Aguirre, who, unlike any City Council members, decided to review the transcripts and news reports of the Depression-era charter change, has suggested that the city might first ask voters whether they feel a change in government style is necessary. If so, they would be asked simultaneously to elect a 15-member charter review commission that would hold open, well-publicized hearings to determine if a strong-mayor form of government is the best antidote to this city's swirling financial woes and the mayor's self-professed frustration with a lack of authority.
Contrary to Kittle's contention that Aguirre "and other opponents" are attempting to "stymie the voices of voters," the consumer fraud attorney simply suggested that to have a coherent discussion of the matter and get it ready for the November ballot (which means an August deadline) would do a disservice to the "hard work that was done by our forebearers" of the early '30s.
Kittle, who attended a portion of the Rules Committee meeting, wrote that "opponents focused not on the meat of Mayor Dick Murphy's plan but rather on a bid to keep it off the November ballot. In a democracy, the people are the ultimate judge." But presently, that meat is about as lean as it gets. Even committee members wondered aloud how the political rubber would hit the road in a strong-mayor world. No one really knows-not even those who've spent years studying it.
Supporters are also using the term "strong mayor/strong council" to describe their latest version. (Four years ago, the City Council rejected a similar attempt by Mitrovich and real-estate mogul Malin Burnham to make City Hall a strong-mayor bastion, a proposition that only recently has again made it to the front burner of political discourse.)
Aguirre told CityBeat that he's actually glad Murphy has raised the strong-mayor issue, but he just hopes that the city doesn't employ its usual "ready, shoot, aim" mentality in bringing it to voters.
The City Council, he noted, "approved the pension plan increase without reading or understanding it, a Charger ticket guarantee without really understanding it, financing for the ballpark without understanding it. But there's no reason to perpetuate new mistakes in the name of past mistakes."
The problem, time and time again, is rushing-finding a problem and sticking a piece of gum into the crack to fix it. And if voters really think they're going to get good advice from the Union-Tribune editorial page, Aguirre is only happy to remind folks of that page's glowing endorsement of the Charger ticket guarantee and the shaky financing of Petco Park.
Of the U-T's editorialists, Aguirre said, "They make mistake after mistake after mistake, and it doesn't slow them down. And anyone else that tries to stand up and point out a more moderate and more responsible way to proceed, well it's very threatening to them. That's why there's a real credibility gap on the editorial page, and that's why their rhetoric has become more and more hysterical in their reaction to things."
So, pump up, Mayor Murphy. Work on that fastball. And listen to those people who aren't so caught up in making sure that you're re-elected come November, because they care just as much about this city as you do.
As City Councilmember Toni Atkins poignantly noted in opposing the rush to November: "I just don't know if the problem isn't more related to our current elected officials and how we take full responsibility for what we're supposed to do."
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