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Erase the Question Mark

Mayor-elect Maureen O’Connor no doubt already knew that the City Council she is to join on July 7 would be a feisty bunch--one that has become more and more independent in recent years as the city went through lengthy periods without a mayor or with a weakened and distracted one. But she probably didn’t figure on stepping into the tense situation that has developed in the past two weeks involving the council and City Manager Sylvester Murray.

It is hoped that by the time O’Connor takes office, reconciliation will have occurred among Murray and the council members who have criticized his management style and philosophy. But to the extent necessary, O’Connor should play the role of conciliator, capitalizing on the fact that she was not publicly involved in the dispute and was not part of the heavy review session during which he was rebuked by the council.

Perhaps O’Connor is fortunate that the clearing of the air over Murray’s role as city manager took place before she takes office. The new mayor will have enough problems trying to provide strong leadership to a council that has had a question mark at the head of the dais since Sept. 19, 1984, when then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock was indicted for the felony offenses that eventually drove him from office.

Returning after nearly eight years, O’Connor will find the City Council and the job of mayor considerably changed from her days as a young councilwoman in the 1970s. Now dominated by members with several years experience, the council has become increasingly independent-minded. Several have carved out spheres of influence--Gloria McColl and William Jones have become quite proprietary about their districts, for example; Mike Gotch considers himself the major-domo for Mission Bay and the beaches, and Ed Struiksma has taken the lead in transportation. O’Connor will learn that there are areas of city government where the council members may consider her involvement an unwelcome intrusion.

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O’Connor also goes onto a council in which she has no natural coalition to lead. She, Gotch and Jones will be a Democratic minority on the nine-member council, but Jones and Gotch--both of whom supported Hedgecock over O’Connor in 1983--have a history of going their own way. Of the others, only Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer will likely feel some allegiance to the incoming mayor because of a personal relationship. Councilmen Bill Cleator, O’Connor’s campaign opponent, and Struiksma, who would like to be mayor, may have political motivations to thwart her policy initiatives.

This is not to say the council doesn’t need and won’t accept mayoral leadership. Only the mayor has the opportunity to bring forth a blueprint for the whole city. Only the mayor has a large enough staff to build ties with many segments of the community and draw upon that base for help. Only the mayor can say that she has put herself on the line and been chosen as the leader.

Two challenges face O’Connor immediately: the first being to name a staff of about a dozen aides, the second being to seize one or two significant issues of her own and give the council and the rest of us some ideas about her goals.

Over the years, she has been known as a politician who keeps her own counsel, with only her twin sister, Mavourneen, being a steady confidant. It is crucial that she now reach out and find a cross-section of aides who can build bridges with the various segments of the community, including business leaders who largely supported Cleator.

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During the campaign, neither Cleator nor the press succeeded in forcing O’Connor to share more than a vague notion of her priorities. If she’s indeed going to be an activist mayor, she must do more than hold her promised office hours out in the neighborhoods once a month--which is really a matter of style, not policy, anyway.


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