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Is Having A Strong Mayor A Strength For San Diego?

Audio

Aired 5/26/10

Five years ago, San Diego voters decided to embark on an experiment. The public supported a switch from a city-manager form of government to a strong mayor system. Now the time has come for voters to decide on Proposition D. The initiative aims to make the strong mayor system permanent.

— Five years ago San Diego voters decided to embark on an experiment. The public supported a switch from a city-manager form of government to a strong-mayor system. Now the time has come for voters to decide on Proposition D. The initiative aims to the make strong-mayor system permanent.

The seal of the city of San Diego. Voters will decide whether to keep the strong-mayor form of government or return to a city-manager system on June 8, 2010.
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Above: The seal of the city of San Diego. Voters will decide whether to keep the strong-mayor form of government or return to a city-manager system on June 8, 2010.

Every city council meeting starts with a roll call of who's there. 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 said that undermines the argument that a strong mayor is more accountable to voters.

"The way I would define accountability is that the public can come down to public meetings and directly address their elected officials," she said. "With a strong mayor, that is never going to happen. The mayor will forever not be a part of the council and direct public access is really limited."

Frye said 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 said 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 said most people don't notice the differences between the two forms of government.

"I think for the average person on the street, they wouldn't be able to tell one difference between a city manager from a mayor from a council from a giraffe," he said.

Luna says the city decided to go with a 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 said 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 Proposition D passes.

"Obviously we have not broken the dead-lock at city hall when it comes to outsourcing services, yes or no, or when it comes to balancing the budget," he said. "The hope is that if you get the right sort of structure to the office you'll be able to break some of this log jam. I'm not convinced that simply institutionally changing things around is going to solve some of the big problems."

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

"Under the old system an unelected bureaucrat was responsible for city administration. And he kept his job by sweeping problems under the rug. And we saw that over and over and over again," he said. "That's how we got an underfunded pension system and hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance."

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 ninth council district in the city. Council member Frye has opposed adding another council seat because she said it will cost San Diego at least one million dollars a year. But Proposition D supporter, councilmember Carl DeMaio, said the city can absorb the cost.

"We need to reduce the political staff, trim the budgets," he said. DeMaio said the existing eight council budget could be divided into nine shares rather than adding an additional share.

But Frye said that will further diminish the power of the city council which would already see its influence reduced if Proposition D passes.

"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," she said.

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.

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