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Tuesday, April 05, 2005 | Public displays of affection. People, you can influence the daily machinations of your local governmental bodies. That much was evident Monday as a cavalcade of citizens individually plopped down into the padded seats at City Hall and patiently waited their turns to speak out against ordinances that would’ve essentially narrowed public comment at council meetings and banned write-in candidates from general elections. “I will do everything I can to make sure the public be heard,” Mission Hills resident Tim Holmberg warned the mayor and City Council. “If it means voting against some of you, so be it. If it means running against some of you, so be it.”
At day’s break, both ordinances seemed destined to pass. But an e-mail campaign by City Councilwoman Donna Frye proved successful, and a body often unmoved by individual comment was prodded into change by some at-times moving speeches (that happened to overshadow a couple of lewd and offensive performances).
Non-agenda public comment is the bureaucratic moniker for the first 45 minutes-to-an-hour of Tuesday council meetings in which any member of the public has the opportunity to address the elected officials for three minutes. City officials said they were concerned that other members of the public attending the council on scheduled items were unable to plan their trips to the council because of the varied length of the public comment. Others, like Councilman Ralph Inzunza, were a bit more blunt. He called the public comment time “the silliest part of my job.”
At first it was only Frye, Councilwoman Toni Atkins and Councilman Tony Young who supported leaving the public comment where it stood. But Monday’s civic outpouring sparked a metamorphosis in more than a couple councilmen and ended in a unanimous vote to instead adopt Frye’s suggestions for shortening the meetings, which include cutting the council’s lunch hour from two hours to one.
Only weeks ago, the council had voted 6-to-2, with Young absent, to adopt the changes that allowed for only five public speakers at the start of the meeting. The mayor was to handpick the five speakers. Anyone else who wanted to speak would have had to wait until the end of the oftentimes marathon Tuesday sessions, essentially discouraging anyone but the five chosen to speak. The council only had to formalize their previous vote with a formality Monday. Although the amateur orators can at times be vulgar, foulmouthed or off-task, others from anti-gang activists to workers’ rights advocates use the public comment time to advance non-docketed issues. Perhaps it was comments like those of Noel Neudeck that changed council minds: “Any elected official who votes to end public comment should be voted out of office next time up.”
“It does work, democracy does work,” said a smiling Frye after the vote. The council then took a quick five-minute break and heard from many of the same speakers equally begrudged by a scheduled vote that would’ve banned write-in campaigns of the sort that nearly gave Frye the mayoral title in November.
The ordinance would have reconciled differences between the city’s two governing documents, the city charter and the municipal code, that had thrown a shadow over Frye’s candidacy. Basically, the city charter called write-ins illegal, while the municipal code called them legal.
A council committee voted 4-to-0 in February to change the municipal code and outlaw the write-in option. Councilman Scott Peters had been absent from that committee hearing, and it was generally thought he would vote with his colleagues when it came before the full council. But again on Monday, strong statements from the public compelled the council to reject the idea on the table. They instead decided to take time to evaluate different options. One would be the instant run-off that’s gaining popularity. Another would be a change to the city charter, which would require a vote of the people.
Many speakers felt the scheduled move was an overreaction to the legal problems that arose after it appeared that Frye had won the election and discrepancies between the city’s laws were cited by her opponents. Mayor Dick Murphy eventually prevailed, as the Registrar of Voters determined that more than 5,000 votes cast for Frye were invalid because voters failed to fill the corresponding oval next to the write-in space on the ballot. The margin was enough to shift victory to Murphy.
“This is not something we need to rush through,” he said.
Ewell be seeing more of him. City Manager Lamont Ewell’s stood at the center of San Diego’s municipal beehive since his predecessor bowed out last year, sometimes with a look like he couldn’t wait to get out. However, Ewell, who was slated to relinquish his seat in June, announced Monday that he’d be staying around until Dec. 31. Ewell has said he prefers to be the head of a city in a strong-manager system, which San Diego will only be until Jan. 1, at which time it switches to a strong-mayor system.
Many council members and the mayor felt it was a good idea, with the city lodged in the middle of two federal investigations, uncompleted audits for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, and a district attorney investigation. It is also prepping for a complete rewrite of its legislative system.
Ewell said he had interviewed for jobs in four communities, though he refused to name them. But he said he decided to stick around to see the city out of its fiscal troubles.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre called the decision “a very serious mistake.” He said the city should be starting new with someone who’s known for rebuilding troubled municipalities.
He repeatedly accused the mayor and city officials of acting to insolate themselves from their own misdeeds rather than trying to move the city out of the pending fiscal and legal woes, specifically citing the continued delay of a long-awaited investigation into possible illegal acts by city officials in the errors and omissions discovered in the city’s bond disclosures.
Troy Dahlberg, an outside accounting expert brought in to reconcile the city’s issues with the Securities Exchange Commission and auditor KPMG, said that the scope of the investigation had widened and KPMG isn’t prepared to accept an investigation that isn’t complete.
KPMG needs the investigation to be able to bless the city’s fiscal year 2003 audit, which, in turn, the city needs to reenter the financial world. Without the audit, the city is stuck with few options for long-term funding for essential city projects such as water and sewage infrastructure, as well as library and fire station construction.
– By ANDREW DONOHUE, Voice Political Writer