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District Elections Causing Ripples

The approval of district elections for the San Diego City Council has started sending ripples through local politics, and eventually may bring changes in how elected officials do business.

Bringing issues, such as growth initiatives or tax increases, to a citywide vote will be more difficult, because there will be fewer citywide votes with district elections. Mayor Maureen O’Connor has proposed eliminating the council committees, and the chairman of the Charter Review Commission is pushing for strengthening the authority of the mayor. It has also been suggested that the council be reduced to a part-time job.

Changing the year that the mayor and city attorney are elected would help take care of the citywide election problem, if indeed it is a problem. Making it a little tougher to put initiatives on the ballot might be a blessing.

But the idea of a part-time council is preposterous. San Diego’s problems are not going to get smaller just because council members have to run only in their district. A part-time council would only exaggerate parochial thinking, giving council members less time for citywide issues.

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What’s needed with the advent of district elections are ways to assure that the district emphasis doesn’t become divisive or pull too much attention from citywide problems. What’s not needed are scenes like the one last week when five council members ganged up to strip more than $1.7 million in federal money from Bob Filner’s district, which has the city’s highest proportion of low-income neighborhoods.Lost was the money for a cultural center in amenity-poor San Ysidro.

O’Connor’s idea of eliminating council committees is one worth considering, even if its genesis was her inability to name the committee chairmen she wanted. There is some logic to her arguments that abolishing committees would be more efficient and more unifying. But the idea needs more study, and the council was wise to put the decision off.

The most controversial of the proposals is that of strengthening the powers of the mayor.

Pete Wilson tried to accomplish this when he was mayor and failed. Ed Butler, who chaired that charter review as well as the current one, is the strongest voice for reconsidering the issue. His proposal would remove the mayor from the council and give the mayor veto power. He also proposes that the city manager be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council and that the mayor submit the budget, rather than the city manager. He argues that the current system--where the mayor is just one of nine votes on the council--depends too much on the personality of the mayor.

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City Manager John Lockwood, on the other hand, says that the current system isn’t broken and shouldn’t be fixed.

But there is the oft-heard complaint that San Diego lacks leadership. In part, that may be a fault of the current system. If strengthening the office of mayor could facilitate strong leadership, then the idea merits serious reconsideration. And with the changes being brought on by district elections and the need to encourage a citywide focus, now is a good time for that debate.

There are many approaches to strengthening the office of mayor, and completely removing the mayor from the council may go too far. But we would hope that the Charter Review Commission will not reject the whole idea of a stronger mayor out of a knee-jerk fear that San Diego might become like Chicago.

San Diegans finally rejected that worry about district elections. San Diego might also be ready to give the mayor a few more tools with which to lead.

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