Measure Would Add 2 Members to City Council : Advocates Cite Growth, Fairer Representation

Times Staff Writer

President John F. Kennedy lobbied Congress to pass civil rights legislation, while his superpower counterpart, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, pulled the Soviet Union out of the race to the moon. "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" were among the nation's most popular television shows. Few Americans could have located the Gulf of Tonkin on a map. Amid concerns over a recession, the stock market soared past 750 to record levels.

And, in that same week in mid-September, 1963, San Diego voters approved an amendment to the City Charter increasing the size of the City Council from six to eight seats.

Much, obviously, has changed in the intervening 24 years, including San Diego's population, which has grown by more than 40%. The size of the council, however, has remained the same--though that, too, may soon change.

Expansion Argument

With some political activists arguing that expansion of the council is long overdue, an initiative drive aimed at adding two seats to the council is under way.

Spearheaded by county supervisorial aide and former council candidate Neil Good, the initiative would, if it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters next June, increase the council to 10 members (11, including the mayor) prior to the 1989 elections. To make the proposal more politically and economically palatable, the measure also would essentially freeze council budgets at their July, 1985, levels.

"It's time to recognize that this is 1987, not 1963," said Good, an administrative assistant to Supervisor Leon Williams who was defeated in last September's 8th District primary. "The population increase alone shows that the council's structure hasn't kept pace with the city's growth. We're trying to run the 7th largest city in the country with a system set up when communities like Rancho Bernardo, Scripps Ranch and Mira Mesa didn't even exist."

Of the 15 largest cities in the nation, none has a smaller council than San Diego, Good said. That fact, combined with San Diego's dramatic population growth since the last adjustment of the council's size, forms the heart of proponents' argument for the initiative.

"Local government is supposed to be the level of government closest to the people," Good said. "When you start having council districts the size of state legislative or congressional districts, that defeats the purpose of local government."

The added seats not only would bring citizens closer to their elected representatives, supporters contend, but also would enhance opportunities for minority representation on the council--a possibility that has helped the plan to attract support from black and Latino political groups. With the exception of the heavily minority 4th District, minority communities' voting impact now is diluted by their inclusion in geographically large districts.

Mixed Reviews

To qualify the proposal for next June's ballot, supporters need to obtain 40,292 registered voters' signatures--a figure based on 15% of the local turnout in the last gubernatorial election--by next Feb. 6. With the initiative's backers hoping to secure 60,000-plus names on petitions to leave a comfortable margin for error, Good estimates that the petition circulation process will cost about $30,000; two-thirds of that amount has already been pledged.

With the debate still in its early stages, the council expansion plan has drawn mixed reviews from current council members and others.

Mayor Maureen O'Connor, for example, says that she personally opposes the proposal but would be willing to allow the city's Charter Review Commission to examine it along with a number of other suggested Charter changes--including the often-debated subject of district elections--early next year.

Good, though, favors the initiative process over the Charter Review Commission approach, primarily because it could expedite action on the proposal. With the commission unlikely to make its recommendations until late next year, the additional council seats probably could not be established until 1991, two years later than his hoped-for timetable.

City Councilman Ron Roberts, meanwhile, questions the proponents' guiding tenet that adding two seats to the council would improve the level of representation by reducing the districts' size, thereby theoretically reducing each councilman's burden. If the measure were approved, the council itself would determine the districts' new configurations--as it does now when redistricting occurs once per decade.

'Slightly Cynical'

"I'm slightly cynical about the idea, because I could see how this might make the council bigger but not necessarily better," Roberts said.

Noting that the proposal also would add two voices to the council's already often protracted debates, Roberts added: "I wonder whether this would really make the council's deliberative process any better. My general feeling at this point is that it would not. I guess I remain to be convinced this is a good idea."

Similarly, Councilwoman Gloria McColl argues that the plan would "just add more overhead to the city without any corresponding benefits I can see."

"Just adding more politicians and bureaucrats usually isn't the most effective way to solve problems," she added. Council redistricting, scheduled to occur before 1989, also could address some of the concerns cited by the initiative's supporters, McColl said.

But Councilman Bob Filner, who endorsed the council expansion plan during his recent successful 8th District campaign, says he believes that the proposal could meet its primary objective of providing "closer and better representation." Filner also dismissed skeptics' concern that the two-seat increase would have a deleterious effect on the dynamics of the council's twice-weekly meetings.

"Two extra seats aren't going to make things unwieldy," Filner said. "If efficiency is all you're concerned about, you could get down to one person and have a very efficient meeting. To me, better representation and the feeling that people are closely connected to their government are far more important than worrying about whether this will add a little time to the council meetings."

Limiting the Budget

Hoping to preempt criticism that the plan would simply make big government even bigger--at additional cost to taxpayers by creating two new council staffs--Good has devised a formula under which the council's $2.3 million 1985 office budget would serve as a base that would determine future years' budgets.

That figure, plus modest annual increases--up to 8% or the rise in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less--would be used to calculate future years' budgets. Moreover, because that total dollar amount would be divided equally among 10 council members rather than the current eight--now, budgets vary from district to district--the plan would effectively scale back the individual office budgets. (One increase that could not be avoided is the salary for two additional council members, who currently earn $45,000 annually plus $13,284 a year in fringe benefits.)

Even some of the plan's proponents, however, have misgivings about the budget-freeze facet of the proposal. Saying that the council expansion plan has "sufficient merit to justify" the additional expense of two new staffs, Filner termed the budget freeze "an unnecessary addition to the package," and suggested that the extra seats and the attendant budgetary considerations might be best viewed separately.

Mark Nelson, executive director of the San Diego Taxpayers Assn., explained that his organization is concerned that limiting the council budgets might "alter the balance of power" within City Hall, giving the administrative departments--which would not face the same restrictions--an edge over the legislators.

'Unusual Position'

"It might not be fair to limit the council budgets unless you do the same to General Services, the Police Department and so on," Nelson said. "This is kind of an unusual position for us, because you'd ordinarily expect the Taxpayers Assn. to jump on anything to hold the line on costs. But we're still taking a look at this one.

"Besides, you could make the argument that we elect these people to manage budgets, so they certainly ought to be able to manage their own office."

Filner, meanwhile, suggested that any potential drawbacks to the budget restriction could be offset by one of the major advantages of the additional seats.

"If you had more compact, homogenous districts, you probably could get by with less staff," Filner noted. "Right now, the 8th District really is three separate districts--the South Bay, downtown and Uptown. You need sufficient expertise in different people to cover that. Depending on how the new districts would be drawn, you probably could live with a smaller budget and less staff."

Although he has framed the early debate on the proposed council expansion along good government lines, Good concedes that his recent candidacy likely will lead some people to question his motives.

"Like, am I really trying to create new seats so I can win one?" Good asked, chuckling.

The answer to that question--at least for now, Good professes--is no.

"Since I live in Filner's district and don't plan to move, I probably wouldn't be running the first time the new seats are up in 1989," Good said. "In the future, who knows? But I'd hate to see that detract from the main issue here. And that's that this is good for the council and good for the city."

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