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Strong Mayor System Debated

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Video published February 5, 2010 | Download MP4 | View transcript

Above: In June, San Diego voters will decide if they want the strong mayor system permanent and whether to add a ninth city council district. We discuss how the strong mayor system has worked for San Diego over the last five years.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): The city of San Diego's experiment with a strong mayor system is also attracting attention. In June, city voters will decide whether to make that system permanent and whether to add a 9th district to the city council. Alright, at this point we’ve only had one mayor since – let me start with you Barbara – since the system began five years ago. How fair a test is that?

BARBARA BRY (SDNN.com): Well Gloria, I think we just have to put this issue to bed. We’ve got a strong mayor system in place. The voters are likely going to pass it in June. It has to go on the ballot. Legally, the city council has to put it on the ballot. They don’t have a choice. You can have effective mayors, ineffective mayors; you can have effective city council members, ineffective city council members. So lets just move on, pass this measure, have nine council seats so that we don’t have eight – right now we have eight – and then you can have ties. And we just have to get on with trying to run the city effectively.

PENNER: But that system was put into effect when there was a question about whether we could hold the elected officials accountable with decisions that were being made by a city manager. How has that worked out? Can we now hold the mayor accountable? And what happens if we say, well, he's accountable and we don’t like what he's doing.

ANDREW DONOHUE (voiceofsandiego.org): I think that’s exactly the point. That is not really going to be the structure. It’s going to be the personality and the person that comes in there. We’ve had very strong mayors in a weak mayor system. Now we have a weak mayor in a strong mayor system. So what it all comes down to is are we paying attention actually to the person that’s in that office, and are we – the people in the media – and our San Diego residents holding them accountable? It doesn’t matter if they’re on the city council, if they're a strong executive – are we paying attention to them and are we holding them accountable?

PENNER: But one challenge is that in this “strong mayor” system, the mayor is supposed to not only lead politically, lead the city politically, but also he's supposed to be the administrator. So how do you keep politics and administration separate?

BRY: Well Gloria, you can't keep politics and administration separate in any city. And most of the major cities in this country have an executive/strong mayor. I mean, L.A., New York, Philadelphia. So it’s just I think a better way to organize a city. And of course in the end it all gets down to the people.

PENNER: Gets down to the people, but there was some concern when Proposition E was first put on the ballot five years ago. The opponents said this gives powerful business interest a direct ear to the mayor. They don’t have to go through their city council members, they can go right to the mayor and get their needs served. Has it happened that way?

DONOHUE: I don’t think that it’s happened any differently than it would have happened before. You still have to have all major initiatives passed by the city council, so there're still plenty of checks and balances. And if there is power and if there are people that have a lot of power in city hall, they had if before, they have it now, and they’ll have it tomorrow.

PENNER: Ok. Well this is really kind of a not just a yes/no question, but I want to know… I want you to justify it. Let’s start with you Barbara. How is the city better off now? Is it more efficient? Is it more accountable under the strong mayor system than it was for the many decades under the city manager system? And I want you to prove it to me. I’m a voter now.

BRY: Well I don't know that I can prove that the system… I think the system is a better system. In the end it all gets down to people. Remember, the pension fund problem that we have arose when we had a city manager system. So I think that the public is more aware, it’s more transparent the problems that we have. We now have to get our elected officials to perhaps do a better job of dealing with them.

PENNER: Can you give me one fast reason that we shouldn’t vote for this?

DONOHUE: No. I just think we need to pay attention to actually who is the mayor.

PENNER: Ok, well thank you very much Barbara Bry, Andrew Donohue.

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