San Diego’s backroom ‘reform’

Steven P. Erie, professor of political science at UC San Diego, is completing "Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Political Turmoil in San Diego." Norma Damashek is vice president of the San Diego League of Women Voters.

Nothing better illustrates the politics, power structure and civic maturity of a city than charter reform. A charter is a city’s constitution. It allocates authority at city hall and sets out rules by which interest groups gain access and influence city government.

San Diego is considering rewriting its charter to make permanent a “strong mayor” system that only last year began its five-year trial run. You might ask, why so fast? Why not let the experiment play out longer before taking the significant step of changing San Diego’s charter?

The answer is politics. Mayor Jerry Sanders is up for reelection in June, and his supporters hope that a charter proposal on the same ballot securing him and future mayors major new powers will ride his coattails to victory.


The rush has turned the city’s approach to charter reform into a civic sham. Orchestrated by the mayor’s office, with help from the downtown business and civic establishment, the effort seeks to turn back the political clock and marginalize progressive, labor, environmental and community groups that have only recently gained clout in San Diego government.

Two major events discredited San Diego’s previous city manager system. The first was a huge shortfall in the city’s pension fund. San Diego had increased employee pension benefits while cutting back its contributions, and pension managers had hoped the dot-com stock market would keep soaring and finance the plans. But the market collapsed. The second crisis was the devastating 2003 Cedar fire, which San Diego firefighters were helpless to stop because the city did not have water-dropping helicopters.

The next year, angry voters narrowly approved the experiment with a mayor-city council system similar to L.A.'s. Elected in 2005, Sanders sought to add even more mayoral powers after his first year in office. In March, he created a 15-member charter review committee, seven of whose members he appointed. The city’s eight council members nominated three candidates each for the remaining slots, with the mayor making the final choice.

The result is a stacked-deck committee, top-heavy with downtown lawyers and lobbyists. There are no labor, environmental or good-government representatives on the panel despite Sanders’ promise to make the committee broadly representative. And in a city with a large and rapidly growing Latino population, there are no Latinos on the committee.

The mayor’s office has controlled the review process from the get-go. Calling for “clarification and fine-tuning” of the strong-mayor experiment, Sanders’ staff wrote the agenda. They lobbied hard for the mayor’s positions and controlled the charter consultant. The mayor’s office scheduled only two community forums to discuss the recommended charter changes. But embarrassed by sharp criticism from labor, environmental and good-government representatives, the committee was forced to hold additional neighborhood meetings, though the public input did not influence the final set of recommendations.

After deliberating less than six months (charter reform in Los Angeles was a two-year process), the committee last week proposed far-reaching changes in San Diego’s charter that would strengthen and make permanent the strong-mayor form of government -- at the expense of the City Council’s and city attorney’s powers.

Under the proposed charter, the mayor would control San Diego’s growth and development, including the city’s redevelopment agency; appoint the city auditor, who, among other things, reviews the books of the city departments that the mayor manages; appoint two of the five members of a new audit committee; and get more appointment powers. The City Council would be expanded from eight to 11 members, with the veto-override threshold raised to a difficult-to-obtain eight votes. Most troubling is the committee’s proposal to weaken the elected city attorney’s independence and powers. For instance, the city attorney’s clients would be only city officials and not the public.

Sanders’ insider power grab is in keeping with San Diego history. In the last 150 years, special interests -- the military, the tourist industry, downtown business interests, developers and the building industry -- have exerted inordinate influence over city government. Sporadic grass-roots challenges, such as outsider Peter Navarro’s mayoral race in the early 1990s, were easily subdued, but new threats of insurgency have grown up. With the advent of district elections in 1988, Democrats, labor and community groups have gained a foothold on the City Council.

More recently, progressive City Atty. Michael Aguirre and Councilwoman Donna Frye, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor, have challenged old-guard rule by championing open public meetings, greater transparency in government and an end to special-interest rule. In response, a reinvigorated GOP-downtown business-developer machine, with backing from supporters who bill themselves as the “nominal Democrat allies,” has embraced Sanders’ quest for a new charter giving him greater power.

The charter committee’s recommendations will go to the City Council this month for approval or revision, and will appear on the June ballot as propositions. The council can preserve or strengthen San Diego government’s current system of checks and balances by proposing an independently elected or appointed city auditor, maintaining the city attorney’s independence and powers and keeping its membership at eight pending the 2010 census and redistricting.

But its performance under the experimental strong-mayor system has not been reassuring because the council has given Sanders nearly everything he has asked for. For instance, the mayor can transfer funds between departments and cut up to 15% of the total budget without council approval. This power far exceeds that of mayors in Los Angeles and most other big cities. Should Sanders not be satisfied with the council’s response to the charter recommendations, his supporters are threatening to use the city’s initiative process to place the proposals on the ballot.

San Diego has an ignominious history of backroom deals that benefit developers and business interests. Lavish corporate subsidies go hand in hand with penurious spending for such basic public services as police and fire, street maintenance and neighborhood parks. What San Diego needs is a bloodless revolution and an infusion of enlightened leadership, not retrograde charter “reform,” to address its real problems: fiscal insolvency and inadequate public services and infrastructure. Only then will America’s “Finest City” start to fulfill the promise of local democracy.