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Committee to Weigh-In Tonight On Expanded Mayoral Power

Thursday night, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ Charter Review Committee will finalize recommendations for a ballot initiative to strengthen the mayor’s powers.

Thursday night, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ Charter Review Committee will finalize recommendations for a ballot initiative to strengthen the mayor’s powers.

The big question used to be the balance of power between the mayor and city council. However the more controversial issue now is how to restrict the power of the city attorney. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more on what’s at stake in the coming over the city’s constitution.

When San Diego’s strong mayor initiative passed in 2005, it was far from a perfect plan. Council President Scott Peters, who worked on the transition to a strong mayor form of government, acknowledges it needs work.

Peters : We knew that there were things that had to be fixed, we knew that we couldn’t go with an eight-member council because of the even number, we knew that the mayoral veto override would probably be something that needed to be looked at again -- but we wanted to try this out and see if it worked.

Peters says with some tweaking it will. He would like to see 11 council districts instead of eight which would avoid tie votes. It would also strengthen the mayor’s veto power because the council would have to muster seven votes rather than only five to override him.

Peters : I think this form of government is a tremendous improvement over the city manager form of government which was a bureaucratic government, it was a secret government.

Not everyone is convinced things have improved.

Norma Damashek of the League of Womens’ Voters says there’s a reason the public voted for the strong mayor system on a five-year trial basis -- to see if it would make government more transparent and the mayor the more accountable to the public.

Damashek : And what we’re finding is that there’s less transparency than ever before. Things are happening at the city that nobody seems to understand; city council is out of the loop, the public is out of the loop, and we are not getting the kind of accountability that we were expected with this new kind of system.

Damashek wants to see a public charter commission retooling the city’s constitution, not a committee of people picked by the mayor.

Damashek : It’s the mayor’s committee, to strengthen the role of the mayor and to make the change permanent.

Damashek wonders: why the rush to make the strong mayor form of government permanent with a ballot initiative next year, when the trial period doesn’t end till 2010?

But supporters of the strong mayor system don’t want to risk seeing the experiment sunset in five years. They would like to see the legislation locked-in sooner rather than later. One unpopular mayor could erode support and undo years of planning that have gone into making the transition.

Richard Ledford, chair of Chamber of Commerce task force on the city charter, says the mayor’s popularity shouldn’t be the issue when crafting a city charter.

Ledford : Right now the business community may be in love with Jerry Sanders -- we may not -- but the truth is we‘re trying to screen this whole thing out of personality, and that’s harder than you think.

In fact, the personality that appears to be dominating the issue at the moment is neither that of the mayor nor the council -- it is the city attorney’s. The feud between city attorney Mike Aguirre and mayor Sanders has intensified. Now the question of the city attorney’s independence has bumped another big issue: the city auditor’s independence, out of spotlight.

Glen Sparrow, a member of the charter review committee, says he would prefer to craft a ballot initiative that avoids highly controversial issues.

Sparrow : The committee, however, has determined, by a majority vote, not by a unanimous vote, that the city attorney issue should be loaded on there as well.

Both Sparrow and Ledford think it’s risky to include a clause to clip the city attorney’s  wings. That’s because if Aguirre can sway voters, their support for him might threaten the whole charter amendment ballot initiative, leaving the strong mayor form of government experiment facing sunset in 2010.

Sparrow : The sunset, the removal of the sunset, is absolutely critical. If that doesn’t work, it’s all over.

Sanders hopes to put the charter changes to the voters next June, or November at the latest. But before that happens, the whole ball of wax heads to the city council for approval later this month.

Alison St John, KPBS News.

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