San Diego City Councilmember Tony Young had heard the word repeatedly Monday night: compromise. And it didn't sit well with him. Not that he has something against the idea of compromise; it's just that he didn't understand why he should have to compromise—especially given the identity of the adversary.
At issue Monday were a series of proposals to “reform” San Diego's governance structure, the most controversial of which involved how the city's finances should be overseen in the future and who should pick the folks that oversee them, and how many votes the City Council should have to come up with to pass a law that the mayor doesn't want passed. CityBeat editorialized last week on the matter of who oversees the finances. We shan't go through that again, except to inform you that the majority of the City Council didn't see things our way—they concluded that it's OK for the mayor to appoint the person charged with monitoring the person who handles the city's financial reporting, even though the latter person is, for all intents and purposes, the mayor.
More contentious Monday was what to do when the mayor vetoes a law passed by the City Council. At the moment, the same five members of the eight-member City Council who vote to pass a law can successfully override a veto. Yes, that's kind of silly, but it's better than the proposed alternative—to require the council to come up with six votes to trump the mayor. Reportedly, no local government nationwide has to clear a three-fourths-majority hurdle. And for good reason: It upsets the balance of power in favor of the executive branch over the legislative branch.
And here was the legislative branch considering ceding power to the executive—with that word coming up again and again: compromise. It begged the question: With whom was the City Council negotiating? And, for heaven's sake, why?
Tony Young knew. It was the folks known as San Diegans for City Hall Reform, who are backed largely by the local real-estate and tourism industries and other business interests. The group raised more than $1.2 million in 2006 alone to get a ballot measure passed that allows the city to outsource more jobs to the private sector. In the first half of 2007, it raised $69,169; second-half figures are due soon. The group has reportedly been advised by Mayor Jerry Sanders' political consultant, Tom Shepard, and its 19-member steering committee includes three people who were appointed a year ago to the Charter Review Committee, a citizens panel convened by Sanders to recommend changes to the city's governance structure. Those three members obviously weren't satisfied with merely making recommendations—they've threatened to battle the City Council in the election booth if the council doesn't turn more authority over to the mayor.
City Council President Scott Peters revealed Monday that he'd met with representatives from San Diegans for City Hall Reform and reached an informal compromise: He told CityBeat that he—joined by Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and Jim Madaffer—would support putting a six-vote veto-override threshold on the ballot if the group would drop its demand for a seven-vote threshold for overriding mayoral vetoes on proposed laws requiring a super-majority. Generally speaking, votes to spend taxpayer money currently require a six-vote super-majority.
Along with Young, Councilmember Donna Frye wasn't having any of that, especially, she said, if it means requiring future city councils to muster three-fourths majorities on votes on touchy social issues. If San Diegans for City Hall Reform want a fight, Frye challenged, they can “bring it on.” Later, Frye was heard telling lobbyist Adrian Kwiatkowski, a member of San Diegans for City Hall Reform and the Charter Review Committee, that she didn't much appreciate being threatened before the council even had a chance to debate these issues.
In the end, Peters, Madaffer and Faulconer got Councilmember Brian Maienschein's vote. Councilmember Toni Atkins joined Frye and Young. Councilmember Ben Hueso was absent due to illness. Since passing anything requires at least five votes, a 4-3 vote meant the compromise failed.
San Diegans for City Hall Reform campaign manager Janette Littler told CityBeat that the group is “disappointed” and plans to move ahead with its initiative, even though the City Council endorsed a six-vote veto override if and when voters elect to add a council seat.
After the meeting, Peters summed up his approach by quoting 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible,” Peters said. In other words, given the public's low regard for the City Council, it's very possible that the mayor's well-funded surrogates would kick the City Council's butt in an election, particularly considering that an opposition campaign would likely have no money to spend.
There's a stark contrast between Peters' low-risk, low-reward, get-what-you-can pragmatism and Frye and Young's high-risk, high-reward, come-and-get-it idealism. Both are politically legit. But Peters' approach makes the City Council look like pushovers, and that's a possible reason why San Diegans don't think much of their legislative branch.
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