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San Diego Starts Effort To Update City’s ‘Constitution’

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Photo by Milan Kovacevic

San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner outside the Balboa Theatre after Mayor Kevin Faulconer's State of the City address, Jan. 14, 2015.

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The San Diego City Council's Charter Review Committee began its look at the city's charter on Thursday and hinted at potential major changes, including rewriting the entire document.

The San Diego City Council's Charter Review Committee began its look at the city's charter on Thursday and hinted at potential major changes, including rewriting the entire document.

The charter is essentially a constitution that sets government rules, how elections are run and what powers the mayor and City Council have. But the 84-year-old document is also out of date. It references a "city manager" even though the city no longer has one, and has no provision for removing an elected official from office, even if that official has died.

Four San Diego City Council members — two Democrats and two Republicans — are undertaking a year-long review of the charter and will suggest updates that will eventually go before voters as ballot measures. The city's charter can only be changed by a ballot measure.

Other piecemeal charter updates have been made, including a ballot measure that changed election deadlines, but this committee will review the entire charter.

City Council President Sherri Lightner, who heads the committee, said they're taking a proactive approach.

"We often discover problems with the charter when we're in the middle of some sort of crisis or major issue," she said. "We need to address these types of issues now when we have time to actually have a thoughtful, thorough discussion."

Council members noticed during the 2013 sexual harassment scandal involving former Mayor Bob Filner that there was no provision to remove an elected official from office. That realization led to the Charter Review Committee, Lightner said.

At the first meeting Thursday, Lightner said one decision facing the committee is whether to reduce the charter from its current 149 pages to a simpler, shorter version. That would require a complete rewrite of the document.

"Entwined with that question is how we want this committee to propose changes. Do we prepare specific amendments for different sections of the charter as applicable based on the feedback we've received, or do we prepare one single ballot measure?" Lightner said.

City Councilman Mark Kersey, one of the committee members, asked the City Attorney's Office if the committee decided to completely rewrite the charter, "is that something that can be done with a single ballot measure, i.e., 'Would you like to replace Old Charter with New Charter,' or would you have to do it some other way?"

A representative from the City Attorney's Office said the answer would be included in a memo on charter changes that will be presented in March.

"Can I give you a hint on what the answer should be?" Lightner asked.

Lightner said she also wants residents to suggest changes they would like to see. She said she's working on adding a direct link to the city's homepage where people can submit suggestions. The current Charter Review Committee link on the city's webpage is not working, but a spokeswoman for Lightner said that page would be updated and an email address would be set up. In the meantime, the public can email with "Charter Review" in the subject line.

While the method for public comment is not yet completely set up, there is limited time to weigh in. Lightner said the committee wants input before the next meeting on Feb. 5, when the committee will schedule "thematic meetings" to cover different areas of the charter over the next year.

Lightner has also asked city department heads and City Council members for their suggestions on what areas to review, but told KPBS she does not expect to make policy changes in the charter update.

City Councilman Todd Gloria has already requested the committee consider a significant policy change: new rules on how referendums qualify for the ballot. That request came after three City Council votes Gloria supported were blocked by referendums.

And City Councilman Chris Cate, the committee's vice chairman, said the review will provide opportunities for policy changes and cleaning up the charter's language.

San Diego's current city charter dates to 1931 and has been amended 245 times, according to the City Clerk's Office. The last Charter Review Committee was in 2007 and was made up of 15 citizens appointed by the mayor. After 51 meetings, its members recommended 14 charter amendments, six of which were grouped into three ballot measures for the June 2008 election. Voters approved all three, including increasing the City Council to nine members and scheduling a future vote on making the strong mayor form of government permanent.

Since 1931, there have been eight Citizen Charter Review Committees, which recommended 105 ballot measures, 79 of which were approved.


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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