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Strong Mayor Ballot Measure

Strong Mayor Ballot Measure
In June, San Diego voters will decide if they want to make the strong mayor system permanent and whether to add a 9th city council district. We discuss why some city council members wanted to postpone the vote.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Five years can pass quickly if you’re having fun and city government in San Diego hasn’t exactly been having fun since 2005 when the new form of government called the strong mayor form of government went into effect. And it was quite a change and has had its rocky moments as the new relationship between the city council and the mayor was hammered out. This June, voters will decide if they want the strong mayor system to be made permanent and whether to add a ninth city council district. So laying that all out, David, there was some resistance on the council for the vote to happen in June. Why?

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, there – I think it was – the proposal was coming from the League of Women Voters to put a competing measure on the ballot that would extend the trial period because, you know, there’s just been so much chaos in city government over the last five years or so, and the League thought that we just haven’t had enough time, you know, to really assess the situation. I think Donna Frye kind of supported that position then it went – So they did not vote to put the measure on the ballot and the next day it went to a council committee where they were going to kick it around some more but Donna Frye’s proposal to put a competing measure on the ballot, I believe—I wasn’t at this meeting but from the coverage that I’ve seen—I believe that that proposal just didn’t go anywhere so I imagine it’s going to go back to the city council and they’ll just go ahead and put it on the ballot as they’re sort of mandated by law to do.


PENNER: Yeah, well, one argument in favor of delaying the vote is that the new system, as you said, you know, has been a little chaotic in the last five years and it’s only been tried under one mayor, Jerry Sanders, and that it needs more vetting before it becomes permanent. So why the rush to get it done? What do you think, Andrew?

ANDREW DONAHUE (Editor, Why the rush to make this permanent?


DONAHUE: I don’t know – necessarily know that it’s a rush. I mean, we’ve had five years to look at it and I think it’s, in the end, better for the mayor not to have to spend his time as a seat on the city council but in the large part it’s a technicality. A strong mayor’s going to be defined by the person who’s actually in that office. Pete Wilson worked under a city manager form of government and he was a strong mayor. He was a leader, he rallied people around him, and he did things. This mayor is a weak mayor in a strong mayor system. He’s not leading us, he’s not solving problems, he’s not enacting any sort of visions. So we can sit here and talk about different forms of government. In the end, I believe it’s largely a technicality and it’s going to be defined by who we’re actually putting in that office.

PENNER: Well, let’s ask our listeners if you agree with Andrew Donohue? Is it simply a technicality to, let’s say, memorialize what’s been happening in the City of San Diego for the last five years, which is that the city manager form of government is no longer and that it’s the mayor who is in charge of both the administration and the policy of the City of San Diego. Is that what you would like to see? Because you’re going to get to vote on it in June if you live in the city of San Diego and you’re a registered voter. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. All right, you mentioned the League of Women Voters and – David, and certainly they – their idea was to extend it, to not – to give it a little more time, perhaps to give it time so that there would even be another mayor in before the people actually voted on it and see how it works out under a different kind of mayor. Doesn’t that make any sense to you at all, Barbara?


BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher/Opinion Editor, No, Gloria, I think it’s time to move on. We’re going to have a strong mayor form of government, it’s going to be strong or weak depending on the person who holds the office. What’s important about the June ballot initiative, which must go on the ballot, is that it adds a ninth council seat so that, you know, we don’t have deadlocked votes and it also will require six votes then to overturn a veto of the mayor. I think when we had a weak mayor/city manager form of government, the mayor actually sat on the city council and voted, so you had nine votes on the city council, which you don’t today.

PENNER: But the ninth council district will be expensive. How can a cash-strapped city afford another million dollars to set up another council office with staff and budget?

BRY: Well, I have an idea. I think we should just take the existing council budgets and divide them by nine.

DONAHUE: Yeah, that would – that would – this is…

BRY: So we don’t increase the total.

DONAHUE: Yeah, and this is an important longterm decision and a multi-billion dollar operation. I mean, a couple hundred thousand dollars in the long run on how you structure your government is a cost that we have to be willing to incur.

PENNER: David.

ROLLAND: It’s a total – the cost thing is a total red herring. We’re not adding constituents to the city, we’re simply dividing them up among more people. So you take the amount of money that you’re currently spending on constituent services, essentially, and you’re just dividing it up among just nine people instead of eight.


DONAHUE: I can’t…

PENNER: Go ahead, Andrew.

DONAHUE: I can’t remember exactly what the specifics are on this number but it’s – we have fewer council members now than we did than in like 1956 or something like that. So our elected officials represent a mass – a much more massive chunk of people than they used to and I don’t think that that makes a recipe for responsive government.

PENNER: Might there not be another way of doing it? Since they are going to change the Charter anyway, why not leave it at eight council districts and then have the mayor break any ties.

BRY: I think adding the ninth council district is important, as Andy said, so that you have more responsive government. And I think it’s time to move on and get it done, and if the voters aren’t happy, you know, in ten years they can put another ballot on the – you know, another thing on the ballot to overturn strong mayor.

ROLLAND: Well, and then you have…

PENNER: David.

ROLLAND: …some kind of weird hybrid between where your mayor is, you know, the chief executive and sometimes he’s the member of the legislative branch. I mean, I suppose we have precedent for that. You know, the vice president can break ties in the Senate, I, you know…

PENNER: Yeah, he can.

ROLLAND: …I believe. But, you know, this just so people understand, this is – the difference – I don’t like to call it a strong mayor system, I like to call it an executive mayor system because that’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken the mayor off the city council and put him in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city. He is the chief executive. And he’s been taken out of the legislative branch so now you have more of a kind of traditional tension between lawmakers and the chief executive.

PENNER: It’s interesting because a study was done back in 2005 when this executive, if you want to call it, mayor or strong mayor situation was first proposed, and it was done – the Rand Report laid out the problems that the strong mayor system would have to face, including keeping the administrative function and the policy function of the mayor separate. Has Sanders been successful at that?

BRY: No. Well, he’s been a weak mayor in an executive-dash-strong mayor system. And so he has not been as effective as I think many voters would have liked.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s find out what Ann in South Bay wants to know about it. Ann, you’re on with the editors.

ANN (Caller, South Bay): I’m just a little confused. I just need some clarification. It seems to me when we moved to the strong mayor situation, taking the mayor off the city council, that that replaced another management position, city manager or CEO, is that correct?

PENNER: Right. And if you’d turn down your radio, that would help us, Ann.

DONAHUE: Yeah, the caller’s right. There was basically a city manager that served as the executive that was placed there by the city council. So essentially what this did is just removed that position, if you will. The mayor became an executive, more like a president rather than just a voting member of a senate who had a little bit of a higher chair than everybody else. But another interesting point, you know, when he – when the mayor was removed from the council, you left eight people so, first of all, you can have ties. I think, you know, that’s a problem. And second of all, the mayor was given veto power. But the city council right now at five to three can override his veto with just a simple five to three majority vote. So the mayor’s veto is relatively toothless and I think adding another council member will actually, you know, help us mature a little bit more in having checks and balances.

PENNER: Ann, thanks for your phone call. David, those who opposed the strong mayor system in 2005 said they believed it was being pushed by business interests that wanted to just deal with one set of ears rather than nine sets of ears. Has the mayor been, let’s say, the person who has been able to deal with those interests well? I mean, are the business interests, powerful business interests, happy with what’s happened?

ROLLAND: Oh, I think so. I think a lot of people are essentially happy with, you know, with it. Not maybe how it has gone from a day to day, you know, day-to-day standpoint but, you know, look, we – I think this city was going to be heading in this direction eventually. I would say that, you know, CityBeat and I, as the editor, were opposed to the strong mayor system simply because although it had been talked about for, I think, decades even, you know, we’d been kicking around the idea for a long time, the specific language of the proposal wasn’t hammered out until the last minute, you know, in, I think it was in 2004. So, you know, we thought that just the specifics of it needed more work but, look, it’s – what’s done is done. The voters wanted it this way. I think the – that the trial system was really just kind of a non-issue to begin with. I mean, I just couldn’t imagine that, you know, we’d change our government, you know, for five years and then decide to change it back. I never thought that that was going to happen. And your question about whether, you know, powerful business people are happy with this, you know, they’re happy if the people in power are serving their interests, you know, and they – they have – they can have willing ears on the city council as well. The city council’s, you know, is who makes policy. So it all – Like Andrew was saying at the very beginning, you know, it all depends on the personalities. You can have malevolent people on the city council, you can have incompetent mayors, you can have great people, you know, in charge. It all depends on who’s there.

PENNER: Okay, well thank you very much. And we will be moving on after this break to talk a little bit more about attitudes in the state of California. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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