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Five years later, concerns remain on strong-mayor form of government

San Diego voters will have until June to decide whether the strong-mayor form of government should be permanent, though concerns remain among leaders despite the five-year trial period.

Mayor Jerry Sanders is the first San Diego mayor to test the strong-mayor form of government.

The strong-mayor form of government – a structure change from the council-manager form and popular among major U.S. cities – transforms the relationship between the mayor and the City Council into one similar to the President and Congress or the governor and legislature.

But some local leaders remain concerned about the initiative to make the strong-mayor permanent even though it was tested for five years.

“It’s not a perfect system and it has a lot of flaws,” said Councilmember Donna Frye who has represented District 6 since 2001. “Some of the problems are internal inconsistencies related to the role of the legislative branch of government versus the executive. It was hard to get information before, it’s harder now.”

The strong-mayor form of government, which began shortly after Mayor Jerry Sanders entered office in 2006, was enacted for a trial period after voters approved Proposition F in 2004. It’s a structure popular among major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, and was changed from the former council-manager form of government.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to place the measure on the ballot in June, allowing voters to decide whether the form of government was successful in the past five years and if it should remain.

But because of the shift of power between the mayor and city council, some leaders remain apprehensive.

Frye, a former mayoral opponent to Sanders, noted her frustration with the balance of powers. She said because of the authority now given to the mayor, information is harder to obtain. For example, most recently, she requested documents from San Diego’s Housing and Urban Development office (HUD) but didn’t receive them until long after she requested them.

“CCDC [Centre City Development Corporation] was provided the reports before they were actually provided to the board members of the Redevelopment Agency even though I was asking for it months before,” she said.

Frye also added that anytime she meets with heads of city departments, a “monitor” from the mayor’s office is sent to the meetings to take notes and that the mayor’s office “does this with all the councilmembers.”

Councilmember Todd Gloria also raised concerns during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. He cited issues with the way the city’s redevelopment agencies are run; how appointments are made to boards and commissions; the authority of the independent budget analyst; and budget authority.

Frye said the flaws can be changed, though — if or when the permanency of the strong mayor form of government is adopted — because of the way the original ballot measure was written in 2004.

But because the changes won’t be adopted until voters decide in June is why Norma Damashek, president of the local chapter of League of Women Voters, is concerned. She said voters will be, essentially, deciding on a form of government that is different from the one tested the past five years.

Damashek, whose organization proposed a competing ballot measure last week to extend the trial period by four years but was rejected by a City Council committee, reiterated the words of Frye, citing “many problems” with the form of government and the disparity between the balance of power.
“The strong-mayor (measure) will increase the number of council seats and give the mayor a very much stronger role in being able to veto an initiative,” she said. “The mayor will have a lot more power and it’s just not the same question that we’re being asked to decide on – it’s a step up but it’s being worded so that it looks the same to the voter.”

Damashek also cited the problem of no longer having a city manager to “manage all the departments” even though the mayor is supposed to appoint one.

If the strong-mayor form of government is approved by voters in June, a ninth council seat will be created.

Local political consultant Tom Shepard, who worked on Proposition F, said Damashek simply has a “personal axe” with the strong-mayor form of government.

“If you look at the League of Women Voters’ position in other cities, you will see one contrary to her position,” he said.

Shepard said the history of and the reasoning behind the strong-mayor form of government dates back further than recent history in San Diego.

“There has been an effort over several decades dating back to the 1970s and it took on more urgency after the adoption of the 1988 district-only elections for councilmembers,” he said. “After 1988, the mayor was the only citywide elected official and citywide issues became less of a focus because councilmembers had to only answer to their district.”

When the strong-mayor was adopted in 2004, he said, it was “largely due to public anger” with pension problems and the ability for the city council to adopt certain measures without question.

“The strong-mayor system sets up an adversarial relationship between the city council and the mayor,” he said. “There is no longer an incentive for the city council to sweep controversial issues under the rug.”

Shepard also argued that the addition of the ninth council seat wouldn’t raise costs for the city as some distracters may believe. He said the budget allocated to the city council will “just be divided nine ways rather than the eight ways.”

Additionally, a spokesperson for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said the mayor did appoint a city manager but simply serves under a different title.

“Charter section 265(b)(7) gives the Mayor the authority to appoint the City Manager subject to Council confirmation,” said spokesperson Gina Coburn in an email. “Jay Goldstone is the City Manager and his appointment was confirmed by the Council. He just has a working title of Chief Operating Officer.”

Like Shepard, Councilmember Kevin Faulconer said Tuesday the strong-mayor system has been successful.

“I personally believe this system is vastly superior to the old system where we had an unelected city manager proposing a lot of the things for the city,” Faulconer said.

Despite the concerns of the strong-mayor system, Frye believes it’s better than what the city had before. Frye would maintain the Independent Budget Analyst role, which was created with the strong-mayor deal.

“I wouldn’t try to reduce any power,” she said. “I just think the city is putting too much power into one part of the government, it needs to be a balance. The executive branch just isn’t sharing it with the council.”
If voters don’t approve of the measure in June, a repeal will be enacted at the end of the year. The council-manager form of government will be reborn, said mayoral spokesperson Darren Pudgil.

“If the ballot measure did not pass, we would likely go back to a system of government in which an unelected bureaucrat was running the city.”

City News Service Joe Britton contributed to this report. Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network. Follow her on Twitter or add her on Facebook.