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San Diego City Council wants more options to oust wayward officials

Former San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, right, listens to public comment about former Mayor Bob Filner during a special meeting in the council chambers in San Diego on Aug. 23, 2013.
Former San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, right, listens to public comment about former Mayor Bob Filner during a special meeting in the council chambers in San Diego on Aug. 23, 2013.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly three years after San Diego struggled to remove embattled Mayor Bob Filner from office, officials will ask voters in November to help expand the city’s options for ousting wayward officials.

Under the proposed ballot measure, officials would be suspended if they’ve been criminally charged in a case, not simply when they are convicted. The City Council also would be allowed to put a removal vote on the ballot by unanimously declaring “no confidence’ in the mayor or city attorney.

An official also could be removed for being convicted or pleading guilty in a felony case, for the same in a misdemeanor case involving moral turpitude or after being found civilly liable for misconduct related to that person’s job.

The conditions, which the council is scheduled to debate July 11 and eventually place on the November ballot, also include removal for dereliction of duty, unlawful non-criminal conduct such as racial discrimination or being declared mentally or physically incompetent by a judge.

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The list would dramatically expand the opportunities for removing elected officials in San Diego’s City Charter. Currently, removal is limited to a person’s death, resignation or through a recall election. 

The charter lists six types of misconduct that could lead to removal, but they are narrowly focused situations related to city contracts and fraud.

City Atty. Jan Goldsmith has called the new list, which the city’s Charter Review and Rules committees began debating this spring, a much-needed set of safety valves that could help if there’s a situation similar to the 2013 Filner sexual harassment scandal.

Because the charter provides so few options for removing officials from office, Goldsmith had to employ unusual tactics like threats and bluffs in his effort to get the former mayor to resign. And the deal Goldsmith finally forged included the city’s agreeing to cover Filner’s legal defense against multiple harassment lawsuits.

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To reduce the chances that political divisiveness will play a role, the more aggressive methods of removal would require either a three-fourths council vote or a unanimous council vote to put the question of removal on a ballot. Once on the ballot, the question of removal would need support from a simple majority of city voters to be approved.

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All of the new removal methods would apply to all elected officials except the “no confidence” vote, which would apply only to the mayor and city attorney.

The proposed changes include a new charter section called “Removal for Cause,” which would allow the council, with a three-fourths vote, to place a removal vote on the ballot for a variety of misdemeanor transgressions described as crimes of moral turpitude. They include such things as embezzlement, child abuse, arson and possession of heroin for sale.

The council has nine members, so a three-fourths vote would require support from seven of them.

This new section is similar to removal procedures in many other cities, but the charter update proposal would go significantly further by allowing the council to put a removal vote on the ballot without a specified reason if it unanimously declares “no confidence” in the mayor or city attorney.

Goldsmith said this is a legally untested approach that no other cities in California use. Supporters, however, contend that a unanimous vote would be highly unlikely unless the mayor or city attorney has done something significantly troublesome.

Another unusual element of the proposed changes is allowing the council, with a three-fourths vote, to suspend an elected official who has been criminally charged — but not convicted — with a misdemeanor crime of moral turpitude or any felony. The council also would be given the latitude to appoint a temporary replacement while the official is removed from his or her duties by the suspension.

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The goal would be preventing a wayward official from remaining in office during the course of a lengthy trial.

This week, Councilwoman Marti Emerald said that goal must be weighed against concerns about due process.

“It’s easy to make allegations against a person in the public eye, but it’s another thing to actually see that person convicted by a jury of their peers,” Emerald said.

Council President Sherri Lightner stressed that a suspension would require the filing of criminal charges for a significant crime and a subsequent three-fourths vote by the council.

Emerald, however, said during a June 20 Rules Committee meeting that council members could feel political pressure not to stand up for the due process rights of an accused politician.

“Those votes are often taken politically, not necessarily based on the legal theory that a person is innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “People go along to get along.”

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @UTDavidGarrick

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