The Most Problematic Pieces of SD’s City Charter

The Most Problematic Pieces of SD’s City Charter

File photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego City Hall

It’s outdated and sometimes conflicts with state law but the city must follow its rulebook.

That rulebook, known as the city charter, has gotten more attention in the wake of repeated calls for Mayor Bob Filner’s ouster.

Nearly a decade ago, voters approved the switch to the strong mayor form of government, giving the city’s top executive more authority over the city’s day-to-day business and policies.

The city added an article to make that change but didn’t revise its charter or municipal codes to make it easier to remove the mayor.  (City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office suggested Thursday a court process might be possible but resignation, recall or a felony conviction are the only clear routes to his removal. He’s also acknowledged it’s easier to remove the president of the United States than the mayor of San Diego.)

Any tweaks would require a public vote.

James Ingram III, a self-proclaimed “charter geek” who’s spent years assisting with formal review processes in multiple California cities, declared San Diego’s among the most dreadful he’s seen.

“We have one of the worst city charters in the country,” said Ingram, who teaches urban politics at UC San Diego and San Diego State University.

The city has patched over antiquated rules with amendments and failed to update provisions that conflict with state law. When Ingram reviewed the charter in the 1990s, he said he also found spelling errors. (Ingram noted those seem to have disappeared when the city posted its charter online.)

Here are some especially puzzling and problematic provisions in the charter.

Recall Rules

Let’s start with the provision making so much news these days.

Recall Charter Provision

 

Notice there’s something missing here: the number of days recall organizers have to collect signatures.

That detail is laid out in the city’s municipal code, a document the City Council can change with a vote. (Any changes to the city charter require a vote of the people.)

San Diego recall organizers, as it happens, get anywhere from 39 to 99 days to gather signatures depending on the circumstances. This is far fewer than the 160 days afforded to recall backers in most of California’s other major cities.

Ingram said leaving the signature-gathering timeline out of the city charter is convenient for elected leaders.

“Current charter leaves it to city officials to set time limits for recall, so of course they set them at a ridiculously short period to protect themselves from being recalled,” he said.

Rush to Inauguration

General Elections Date - City Charter

 

City rules require that general elections be held on the same day as the state’s general elections, which seems logical enough. Both are generally held in early November.

But the city charter also requires city leaders elected in November to take office in early December.

This conflicts with a state law that allows the county registrar of voters more time to certify election results.

Last December, Filner and City Council members were sworn in a day before the registrar was required to certify the votes that put them in office.

And the swift turnaround puts extra strain on the new mayor, who has only about a month to hire staffers and set priorities.

The city charter also doesn’t allow officials to move the general mayoral election.

This wasn’t really an issue until the city switched to the strong mayor form of government in 2004. Now the mayor, who leads more than 10,000 staffers and oversees a $2.75 million budget, has less than a month to prepare for her new gig. Other major cities with the strong-mayor form of government, including New York and Chicago, give their officials more time to settle in. Fresno, Los Angeles and Oakland each give new leaders at least two months to hire new employees and set their agenda.

Nonexistent Rules Still on the Books

These three sections of the city charter were repealed years ago but they haven’t been removed. They involve a fund for firefighter pensions, labor rules and a court that heard low-level offenses.

 

Charter Historical Example

Charter Historical Example 2

Charter Historical Example 3

 

Special Election Limbo

Late last year, then-Council President Tony Young’s resignation  forced the city to hold a special election to determine his replacement. District 4 residents picked Myrtle Cole to replace him about six months later.

The city clerk’s office hoped to save money by pairing the special election and runoff with a race to replace state Sen. Juan Vargas, who resigned after he won a congressional seat.

The city charter complicated those plans because it didn’t match state law.

The city’s charter requires the City Council to call a special election within 90 days of a council member’s resignation. The timeline can be extended to 180 days if another election is already on the books. Meanwhile, the governor has 14 days after a vacancy to call a special election and it must wait at least 112 days before holding that election.

In the end, the city could only pair its runoff with another special election to replace former state Assemblyman Ben Hueso.

Mayor Filner, Council Member?

Despite the 2004 vote to move the city to a strong mayor form of government, the charter still includes references to the mayor as a member of the City Council.

Here’s one example:

Charter Provision: Councilman Mayor

Moving Election Years

Most city elections have long been held in even-numbered years but at least one provision in the city charter says otherwise.

Charter Odd Numbered Election Provision

 

This is yet another example of a systemic problem with the city’s charter: In multiple instances, city officials amended the document without reviewing other portions of the charter to see if they conflicted with the new edicts.

As a result, the errors have piled up, which means the process to make fixes will be more burdensome.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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8 comments
Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

Re-reading this, I realized that you left out what I consider the biggest flaw in the charter. The rather serious "mayor in a coma" issue. If an elected Mayor falls into a coma, or is otherwise unable/unwilling to fulfill their duties, we have no method of replacing him/her and continuing to run the city short of going through the long and expensive process of a recall.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

Re-reading this, I realized that you left out what I consider the biggest flaw in the charter. The rather serious "mayor in a coma" issue. If an elected Mayor falls into a coma, or is otherwise unable/unwilling to fulfill their duties, we have no method of replacing him/her and continuing to run the city short of going through the long and expensive process of a recall.

Mel Shapiro
Mel Shapiro

As Dwayne points out, our Charter can override state law.See Calif Constitution, article 11-sec 5.This is known as "charter city supremacy."The rub is that the supremacy is for "municipal affairs." But how is a municipal affair distinguished from a state affair ? California law does not define "municipal affairs."

Mel Shapiro
Mel Shapiro subscribermember

As Dwayne points out, our Charter can override state law.See Calif Constitution, article 11-sec 5.This is known as "charter city supremacy."The rub is that the supremacy is for "municipal affairs." But how is a municipal affair distinguished from a state affair ? California law does not define "municipal affairs."

Sam Ward
Sam Ward

Kudos to VOSD on highlighting some of the problems and inconsistencies in San Diego's City Charter. It would have been great if these issues were raised and addressed in a timely fashion by a competent City Attorney.

Sam Ward
Sam Ward subscribermember

Kudos to VOSD on highlighting some of the problems and inconsistencies in San Diego's City Charter. It would have been great if these issues were raised and addressed in a timely fashion by a competent City Attorney.

Dwayne Crenshaw
Dwayne Crenshaw

P.S. Having lived through the Special Election you reference in the article, I still hold the City Council, on poor advice from the City Attorney and City Clerk's office, actually acted inconsistent with law in consolidating the D4 runoff election with the AD-80 special, but not in doing so with the SD-40 special election in the primary. More importantly, as a charter city, the governance of local elections is actually one of the clear "municipal affairs" where the city can act independent from state law. The issue of the conflict between state law and local law on recall provisions, has more to do with constitutional questions than inconsistency between the laws (ex. state law calls for the 160 days signature gathering timeline, but as a charter city, San Diego has adopted a confusing and ridiculously shorter timeline).

Dwayne Crenshaw
Dwayne Crenshaw

Interesting article. The first piece of legislation I worked on many moons ago in Sacramento was an assembly bill to clean up various CA codes. We affectionately dubbed the legislation the "JUNK" law bill. JUNK = Jurassic Unproductive Negligible and Knucklehead laws. It was a tedious, several month junior staffer assignment to identify the JUNK laws, but the effort worked is way through the legislature and was signed by then Gov. Wilson. We could use a similar effort locally.