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San Diego To Begin Preparing Ballot Language For City Charter Changes

An image of the cover of San Diego's City Charter, which was adopted in 1931.
An image of the cover of San Diego's City Charter, which was adopted in 1931.

The City Council Monday unanimously directed staff to begin preparing language for proposed ballot measures intended to clean up San Diego's archaic city charter, but placing them before voters could prove costly.

A series of proposals to change the city's 84-year-old governing document was the product of nearly a year's worth of work by the council's Charter Review Committee.

The panel has met monthly to go through charter provisions and bring language up to date, get rid of items considered obsolete and insert current policies — in what Councilman Chris Cate called "a very tedious process."


Amending the charter requires a public vote of city residents. Therein lies the rub, because the more pages that have to be published by the county Registrar of Voters Office, the higher the cost for the city.

City Clerk Elizabeth Maland said Registrar Michael Vu recently estimated that a 10-page ballot measure would carry a price tag of between $450,000 and $550,000.

Among the things Charter Review Committee members want to eliminate are male-oriented references like "policeman" and "fireman," which would become "police officer" and "firefighter."

Deputy City Attorney Priscilla Dugard said if San Diego is required by state law to publish all gender-neutral language changes, that could run to 55 pages. The City Attorney's Office is studying ways to lower the cost, but ultimately, the city will be bound by the requirements of state law.

Maland said the city has budgeted $4.2 million for elections during this fiscal year, which includes the June primary. About $2.7 million is available for ballot measures, she said.


Besides the gender-neutral language, voters could see suggested modifications involving the budgeting process, taxation, bonding and financial reserves. Some are as mundane as changing references to the now-non-existent city manager to "mayor."

Voters could also see charter amendments on the Redistricting Commission, which changes district boundaries every 10 years based on U.S. Census data. The manner in which members were appointed to the commission last time around was heavily criticized.

Numerous flaws in the charter were discovered in 2013 as officials and the public searched for ways to remove scandal-plagued then-Mayor Bob Filner from office.

The charter has been amended 245 times over the years, resulting in a document that City Attorney Jan Goldsmith described last year as a "mess" that is "ambiguous, outdated and incomplete."

Council President Sherri Lightner, who chairs the review committee, thanked her colleagues and city staff for their diligence since the panel's first meeting in January.

"The committee's approach has been to simplify the charter, harmonize the charter within itself and with other documents — including the municipal code — and, to the extent possible, rewrite the charter in plain talk — ageless, high-level language," Lightner said.

She said the amendments considered by the City Council were reviewed multiple times by the committee, the mayor's office, the City Attorney's Office and Independent Budget Analyst's Office — and received unanimous support.