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San Diego Not Alone In Need For Charter Revisions

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.

San Diego Not Alone In Need For Charter Revisions
GUEST: Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus, SDSU School of Public Affairs

I Maureen Cavanaugh. Is about housecleaning the charter that's how San Diego city councilmember Sherri Lightner explains propositions a through G on the June primary ballot. The measures make changes in the language of the San Diego city charter regarding such things as the Windy City make payments and describes the city's budgeting process. The most substance a change in the charter props would allow an expansion of the city's redistricting commission. You can find a full inflation the proposed charter changes that Joining me now is Glenn Spero professor emeritus of Cindy to say University school of public affairs. He was a member of the San Diego charter review committee back in 2007 and executive director of the San Francisco charter commission back in 1979. Glenn welcome. Thank you Maureen. What is illegal other charter documents to get so out of date? Charters are voted on first of all, they are drafted and then voted on. Every time it changes made it has to go through a process in California -- in every state -- been California lay down in a particular manner. It can be a little convoluted and so things get in there, they get put in at the particular time at the moment San Diego's started in 1931. It's been amended 250 times or so. Things get stuck in their and then it takes a vote of the people to get them out or get them change sometimes is just easier to work around it. City charters are often compared to a state or federal Constitution. Are they the same? It's a nice way of explaining it simply but both state and the national government are sovereign governments. Local government seen as will governments are not sovereign they are what we call creatures of the state. That is the state of the sovereign government creates local governments and tells them how to operate. The charter -- and you can choose survey charter as a sitter or a county in California -- allows the city or the county or flexibility in the way they govern themselves. If you want to charter city in California you're a general law city, general law means to operate under the rules laid down by the city legislature. I see okay so you are involved in proposing changes to San Francisco's charter that was written in the 19th century for kind of dated clutter did you find in that? All sorts of things that get stuck in their that have to do with old ways of doing things. There was a huge amount in there about the municipal transit system. There was stuff in there about the way garbage should be collected and disposed of. It's just kind of a mess, they just allow them to clutter up all sorts of deadwood. You found something that had something about pigs eating trash and San Jose? That's kind of a traditional one. There was some he making a lot of money in the way that they were disposing of garbage in San Jose. This was in the mid-1800s. Some he was making a profit they didn't like that when they drafted the charter they made a special issue about whether pigs could eat garbage or not. That was done charter back in 1979? It was still in the charter, that was San Jose. Did you find problems in San Diego's 85-year-old charter? Certainly. Again, it suffers from the same problems and some of these changes that are being made for example the one dealing with simplifying the budget process basically takes out they say 17 pages of detail that's in there. The main problem if I might, on what the San Diego city charter is when we changed to the strong mayor system in 2004. What they did was add a section, section 13, which basically said wherever the word city manager appears substitute the word Mayor. The reason they did it this way is because they didn't want to have to reprint the whole charter to go out for the voter to see because the voter has to see what they are voting on. Instead they just added a section at the end. Well, the charter was built -- was made, was drafted created for a Council management form of government. We made a huge change and the charter needs to be brought up to date to reflect this change. That somatic problem is one thing that city councilmember Sherri Lightner ran into when she wanted to change firemen referenced in the charter to firefighter but it occurs so frequently that the city would need to print out the entire charter and election materials and that apparently is just too expensive. Correct. Your to pass it out to everybody and so forth, is a constraint on making changes. It's an idea of letting people see more which is fine, that's the way it should be but it can be ponderous. For instance, which are going to see now as they make these changes to the charter going to C-sections in there that are modernized, i.e. the sexist language gone and so forth and also in those sections there changing we are city manager used to appear it's not going to say Mayor but in other sections of the charter that they haven't touched it it still says city manager. They are going to go over it and president Lightner I think has to be commended for approaching is very positive and workmanlike manner. Just as props a through G in the primary ballot are going to ask us to change the charter language prop H asks us to change the charter again to dedicate some future revenues to infrastructure repair. I'm wondering what prompts city leaders to move for a charter change which needs approval by voters instead of just enacting a new ordinance? I asked that same question all the time. I think what they are trying to do is to assure the voters that money is going to be set aside in perpetuity and it's going to be stuck in there in the charter forever until we revise it and vote take it out. That's the only reason that I can see there. They could easily -- the Council could easily do exactly what they are saying they need a charter amendment for to the budgetary process, just said that money aside every year but I think they feel that future councils may not do it and they want to let the people know that they are serious about this. Finally, this time San Diego's charter review process actually started in the minds of those conducting it. With city leaders found out there was no way to remove Mayor Bob pillar from office back in 2013 that proposed change is expected on the November ballot. Why would it take three years to propose a charter change like that? It takes leadership. There are different ways that you can go about it, you can elect a charter commission to make those changes, you can appoint a charter commission to do it or the city Council can undertake it themselves. Finally, president Lightner took it upon herself to make these changes and to do a thorough look. What their strategy is -- I think it's a good one -- is they are going to do the easy stuff first. The stuff we see this June is going to be stuff that is kind of a shrug and a yes, sure that's obvious. It will get more difficult and there will be more policy issues as we move along. In fact I understand that the issue of having to do with removal of officers is going to be on the November ballot. I've been speaking with Glenn Spero Professor. emeritus of San Diego State University school of public affairs . Thank you very much. Thank you Marine.

San Diego’s original 1931 charter set out the the powers of city officials and how elections should be run. But the document, likened to a constitution for San Diego, also included passages on the disposal of ashes, the supervision of dance halls and control over public school playgrounds.

Seven of the nine local ballot measures in the June 7 election are “housecleaning” for the voluminous charter, including removing 17 pages that are no longer valid on issuing bonds, according to City Council President Sherri Lightner, who is also in charge of the city’s Charter Review Committee.


While the U.S. Constitution broadly sketches out the government’s structure and its founding principles, many city charters have extremely detailed sections, such as Minneapolis’ rules over the size and weight of bread. Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs, said city charters are so detailed because state rules allow cities to have greater control over their affairs if a law is put into its charter, opposed to a usual ordinance.

Sparrow served as the executive director of the San Francisco Charter Commission from 1979 to 1980, trying to get voters to enact a sweeping revision of the city’s charter, but voters didn’t pass the measure. He was also a member of the San Diego Charter Review Committee in 2007. He said charters accumulate decades of clutter that needs regular pruning.

“People get excited about things and they want to put them in the charter or constitution, opposed to just make them regular laws,” he said. “Fifty years later, you look and say: ‘That’s kind of silly.’”

Sparrow discusses the cumbersome process of revising city charters on Midday Edition Tuesday.