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Election: San Diego’s Proposition D

Editor's note: San Diego's strong mayor plan was proposed by then-Mayor Dick Murphy and passed by voters in November, 2004. Mayor Murphy resigned in 2005.


We wrap up our weekly primary election previews with a focus on the City of San Diego's Proposition D. It would make the city's experiment with a "strong mayor" its permanent form of government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Our series on the issues and candidates on this June primary ballot is just about over because the primary is less than a week away. This morning, our focus is on the City of San Diego's Proposition D. San Diego voters embarked on an experiment five years ago with a strong mayor form of government. It came after Mayor Dick Murphy resigned and on the heels of a few city government missteps. The public supported the switch from a city manger run system and now voters will decide whether to make it permanent. KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr looks at both sides of Proposition D.

KATIE ORR (KPBS Metro Reporter): Every city council meeting starts with a roll call of who’s there.

CLERK: Council president pro temp Faulconer.

KEVIN FAULCONER (San Diego City Councilman): Here.

CLERK: Council member Gloria.

TODD GLORIA (San Diego City Councilman): Here.

CLERK: Council member Young.

TONY YOUNG (San Diego City Councilman): Here.

CLERK: Council member DeMaio.

ORR: But there’s a name that’s not called anymore: the mayor’s. When the switch was made to a strong mayor system of government five years ago, the mayor was no longer considered part of the city council. That means he doesn’t have to go to the council meetings. Council member Donna Frye says that undermines the argument that a strong mayor is more accountable to voters.

DONNA FRYE (San Diego City Council Member): The way I would define accountability is that the public can come down to public meetings and directly address their elected officials. With a strong mayor, that is never going to happen. The mayor will forever be not a part of the council and direct public access is really limited.

ORR: Frye says the city’s five-year experiment with the strong mayor system has shown it doesn’t work as well. Under the city manager system, the council hired a manager to run the city under the council’s control. Frye says the strong mayor system has added a level of bureaucracy that makes it more difficult to get information and to respond to constituents. But San Diego Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna says most people don’t notice the differences between the two forms of government.

CARL LUNA (Professor of Political Science, San Diego Mesa College): I think for the average person on the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell one difference of a city manager from a mayor from a council from a giraffe.

ORR: Luna says the city decided to go with the council manager government in the 1930s to try and break up entrenched political systems. Voters decided to temporarily try out the strong mayor system in 2004. Luna says he believes it’s good to switch up the government every now and then but he doesn’t think San Diego’s strong mayor experiment has been truly representative of what the city will be getting if Prop D passes.

LUNA: I don’t think the last five years have given you a really good feel for what was intended by the strong mayor. I mean, obviously, we have not broken the deadlock at city hall when it comes to outsourcing services, yes or no, when it comes to balancing the budget. The hope is if you get the right sort of structure to the office, you’ll be able to break some of this logjam. I’m not convinced that simply institutionally changing things around is going to solve some of the big problems.

ORR: But San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders says the city manager system was responsible for creating some of those big problems.

JERRY SANDERS (Mayor, City of San Diego): Under the old system, an unelected bureaucrat was responsible for city administration and he kept his job by sweeping problems under the rug. And that’s what we saw over and over and over again. That’s how we got an underfunded pension system, and hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.

ORR: Proposition D would do more than make the strong mayor permanent. It would also give the mayor more power. The council would need a two-thirds majority to override a mayoral veto. Prop D would also create a 9th council district in the city. Council member Frye has opposed adding another council seat because she says it will cost San Diego at least one million dollars a year. But Prop D supporter Council member Carl DeMaio says the city can absorb the cost.

CARL DEMAIO (Councilman, City of San Diego): I believe there’s plenty of room for cost savings in the city council budgets. We need to reduce the political staff, trim the budgets and, as Mr. Faulconer has indicated, we will carry legislation after Proposition D passes to divide up the council budgets in nine shares rather than adding an additional share.

ORR: But Frye says that will further diminish the power of the city council, which would already see its influence reduced if Prop D passes.

FRYE: Again, no matter how they spin it, it’s still more elected officials, it’s still bigger government, and it’s still going to cost at least a million dollars.

ORR: Voters won’t decide until June 8th whether to make the strong mayor permanent. If they do, the city will have to go through a redistricting process that would be completed by the end of 2011. A ninth council member would be chosen at the next regularly scheduled election. If the proposition fails, the strong mayor system will expire on the last day of 2010. Katie Orr, KPBS News.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Joining me now is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s an interesting bit of political background in how Donna Frye and Mayor Sanders feel about Prop D. They both used to be on the same side of the strong mayor debate. Tell us about that.

PENNER: They actually were. Both of them signed the ballot argument in 2004 when the strong mayor barely passed. It passed like 51.5 to 48.5. But they were both on the same side and the argument against it was then called Proposition F and this put in the five-year program that if the voters wanted to keep it permanent goes back on the ballot. That’s what we have now. And these were the reasons that they were against it. They said that downtown business interests wrote Prop F behind closed doors to give themselves more access. It said that Prop F decreases government accountability, weakens neighborhoods and communities, that if you have Prop F as a last minute, back room deal, that Prop F—and these are harsh words—puts the mayor in charge of behind closed door meetings, eliminates the mayor’s obligation to attend public hearings, and that it’s a power grab by inside players who would drain public services away from our neighborhoods. And it goes on and on. And it was, indeed, signed by Mayor Jerry Sanders and— actually he was just Jerry Sanders then—and by Donna Frye and by Norma Damashek, who is signing it this time as well. And I find that really interesting that he has now switched sides and he is going for Proposition D.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you say, Donna Frye still opposes this strong mayor experiment and certainly opposes making it permanent. She also spotted something about the fiscal impact statement regarding this proposition. She claims the mayor’s office simplified an analysis of exactly how much the strong mayor and new council district would cost. How was that issue resolved?

PENNER: Well, it was resolved with a settlement actually. The original fiscal impact language was put together by the financial management arm of the mayor’s office, not the independent budget analyst, and included 37 words about the potential costs of adding a new council district including the figure zero dollars up to one thousand – $1,072,000 annually for the cost of the new district. That’s all it said. The settlement language as a result of the lawsuit expands the language to 224 words and it goes into the details of the likely costs of the staff, the supplies, the facility improvements, and elections for the new district. And the important thing is to read the language. I mean, if you’re going to vote on this, you really need to do your reading. It doesn’t take all that amount of time, 10, 15 minutes and you’ll have most of the story.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’ve seen some TV ads urging votes for Prop D so a lot of people must be joining Mayor Sanders in support of this initiative. Do – Some people must’ve given money to support this proposition, so who supports it along with the mayor?

PENNER: Oh, well, the campaign disclosure report showed that the strong mayor proponents have spent $318,818.00 since November and they still have about $45,000 in cash. So the latest filings show that Cox Communications gave $45,000, Malin Burnham gave $35,000, something called the New Majority California—it’s a PAC—gave $34,000. These are big bucks. AT&T California Employee PAC gave $17,500. We see John Davies, who is connected with the mayor and the mayor’s office, gave $10,000. Corky McMillin, a big builder in the community, $10,000. Sempra Energy, $10,000. Irwin Jacobs gave five thousand, Joan Jacobs gave five thousand. So you can see that the group that is touting Proposition D, they’re putting their money where their mouth is, that they want that strong mayor form of government. And, you know, as it said in the ballot argument for Proposition F and probably says for Proposition D, it does give them access to the mayor without having to go through those pesky 8 city council members.

CAVANAUGH: So we find that the support, the people in support of Prop D, that is organized and financed. Any organized opposition to Prop D?

PENNER: If you mean money, no. I spent an hour trying to get any campaign funding against D and all I get is that there’s no organization opposing D but we do know that opponents include the League of Women Voters president, Norma Damashek, Brian Marvel, the president of the San Diego Police Officers Association and, by the way, that same organization opposed Proposition F back in 2004. Donna Frye, we know that, and San Diego’s Common Cause. So there are individuals and there’s some groups that oppose it but they simply have not gotten any money. They haven’t really gone after this. And it’s interesting because you would think that if they’re really a strong opposition, you’d see some money behind it but they haven’t put any there.

CAVANAUGH: Let us move on to the general subject of the primary because, Gloria, it’s right around the corner. It’s coming up next Tuesday, June 8th. Voter turnout is often low for primary elections but if you could, just take a moment or two, remind us about the important questions that are on this ballot.

PENNER: Well, there are important questions, there are also important races. Let’s talk statewide, talk about the race for governor and the race for U.S. Senate. Now most of the action is on the Republican side because it’s – the expected nominee for the Democrats for governor is Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate for the Democrats. But the race is on for the Republican race, and it’s an interesting race. I mean, the candidates are moving their positions around as they sort of feel where the voters are going to go. And the winner of the Republican race for both governor and the U.S. Senate will face the Democrat in the fall. Countywide, we have those two supervisors, you’re going to be talking about the supervisors, who are they and what do they do, two of them, Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, have been in their seats for about 15 years and so it’s a question of whether they’ll retain those seats and try to make it up to 20 years or close to it. And then, of course, we have the term limits, which would put a limit on county supervisors. Not on these county supervisors because the way it’s written they actually could serve until 2020, you know, if they live that long.



CAVANAUGH: If we all do. Now…

PENNER: Just quickly, propositions statewide, several can affect your pocketbooks. It could affect how much you pay for your automobile insurance, that’s Proposition 17. It could affect whether your tax money or public funds, which are now banned from being used for political campaigns, could be dipped into to be used for those political campaigns, all political campaigns, by the way, and whether your property tax will increase if you make your house earthquake proof. So, you know, these are propositions that will directly affect your pocketbook and, these days, we’re watching our pocketbooks.

CAVANAUGH: And they will not be on the ballot in November. They are on the ballot next week.

PENNER: That’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: Voting is already underway for people with mail-in ballots, and at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, and how can people, Gloria, get more information about how and where to vote?

PENNER: Well, actually there is a website and that’s I’m trying to find a more friendly number for you. I had it written down but, unfortunately, it’s disappeared in my mess over here. Let’s see, give me one moment and see if I…

CAVANAUGH: I think is going to do people very well, and they can always get in touch with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters to find out where their voting site is or when they can come down to the registrar’s office in Kearny Mesa…

PENNER: That’s right, and I…

CAVANAUGH: …and cast their ballot.

PENNER: …I think they can do that almost immediately. In fact, I would say the sooner the better because unless you do it quickly, you know, Tuesday’s going to come and go and you will not have voted. And if you have a mail-in ballot, make sure that you get it in, too.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Gloria, thank you for all the information.

PENNER: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can find all of KPBS’ in-depth election coverage online at

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