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Charter Board Chief Seeks to Give Mayor More Power, a Veto

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to allow the mayor of San Diego to “lead with both the carrot and the stick,” the chairman of the city’s Charter Review Commission Monday night proposed a dramatic expansion of the mayor’s powers, including a veto and broadened appointment authority.

Arguing that the move is necessary to “restore the balance of power” at City Hall, in light of voters’ approval last month of a district election plan for council members, retired 4th District Court of Appeal Justice Edward Butler recommended adoption of a plan that would leave San Diego with a form of government somewhere between the current council-city manager system and the strong-mayor approach.

Although many commission members expressed conceptual support for Butler’s ideas, concerns also were raised, particularly about whether the veto authority would concentrate too much power in the mayor’s office. Moreover, some members supportive of Butler’s proposal said they were reluctant to vote hastily on such potentially sweeping changes, prompting the panel to postpone a decision until next Monday’s meeting.

Proposed Veto Power

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Under Butler’s proposal, the mayor could veto any council action, subject to an override by two-thirds of the council. The mayor also would receive a line-item veto on any appropriation measure, including the city’s annual budget, again subject to a two-thirds override.

Another major change would give the mayor the right to appoint all members of all city boards and commissions, subject to council confirmation. The mayor and council now share the power of nominating board and commission members.

The city manager’s authority also would be increased under Butler’s plan, which calls for the city’s auditor-comptroller and personnel director--positions now within the council’s jurisdiction--to be placed under the manager’s control.

However, the centerpiece of Butler’s proposal--and the question certain to generate the most debate within political circles over the next week--are the provisions to strengthen the powers of the mayor, who now essentially functions as the first among equals on the council.

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Increased Powers

Increased powers for the mayor, Butler argued, are necessary because of San Diegans’ approval last month of Proposition E, which established district-only races for the eight council members, beginning next year. Under the old system, council candidates ran in district primaries, with the top two vote-getters facing each other in a citywide runoff.

Noting that the advent of district elections will leave the mayor as the only voting member of the council elected citywide, Butler said his proposed changes simply reflect the altered political realities at City Hall. Unless the mayor’s leadership role is expanded, Butler warned, City Hall could be wracked by “chaos and a dissipation of the unitary concept . . . with eight mini-mayors fighting like mad.”

“These changes simply recognize that the mayor, elected citywide, represents the city,” Butler said. “The council speaks to district interest and city concerns, and the city manager continues to provide professional management services. The council-manager form of government remains intact (and the) balance of power and symmetry of the 1931 charter affected by district elections is restored.”

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Proposal Altered

Earlier, Butler had suggested even more sweeping changes at City Hall, including removing the mayor from the council to further elevate the office’s status and to give the mayor authority to select the city manager. At Monday night’s meeting, however, he explained that he moderated his proposal “in the light of the testimony we’ve heard, San Diego’s strong attachment to the council-manager form of government and political reality.”

Most of Monday night’s nearly 2 1/2-hour debate centered on the proposed veto power for the mayor, which Butler argued could be used to balance the mayor’s citywide perspective against the more district-oriented concerns of council members. And the line-item veto, Butler contended, “could act as a very salutary constraint . . . against a lot of pork-barreling on the council.”

But commission member Ronald Ottinger voiced a worry shared by some of his colleagues when he questioned whether a mayor might use the veto power “in a punitive way” against council opponents. Conceding that the potential would exist, Butler argued that the two-thirds override and the mayor’s need to work with council members on other issues would dictate against the mayor’s use of the veto as “a vicious punitive tool.”

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Jeanette Roache, a former City Council aide who sits on the commission, also cautioned the panel about automatically accepting the premise that the impending shift to district elections necessitates other major changes in city government’s structure.

“I’m not convinced that, when the voters of San Diego voted for district elections, they were advocating a line-item veto for the mayor,” Roache said.

But other commission members sided with David Dorne, who argued that “some kind of veto . . . is needed” in order for the mayor to more easily exert leadership over the council.


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