Friday, April 15, 2005 | Depending on who is on the other end of the telephone line, the San Diego City Council’s next move Monday is a brunt rebuke of the status-quo leadership, or another sly move in a series of clandestine power grabs orchestrated by that same leadership bloc.

The City Council is suddenly set to consider the appointment of its presiding officer Monday, and if it acts, the eight-member council will name the person who will serve as the council’s president for the foreseeable future under the city’s new strong-mayor form of government.

What true power or role that person will have is unclear, as the position still lacks any definition. It is undecided how the City Council would go about choosing this person and how long a term they would serve.

For now, it’s merely an idea in a ballot measure. But the goal: To have this person emerge as soon as Monday as the unifying public voice of the council as it works through its financial and political morass, say those pushing the measure ahead.

City Councilman Michael Zucchet, whose Wednesday memo sparked the surprise effort, said he is frustrated at a lack of leadership from all parties in City Hall. He said the council quickly needs a point person to better inform the public of what’s being done to confront problems such as the $1.37 billion pension deficit and the long-delayed fiscal year 2003 and 2004 audits.

“Collectively, all of us have been ineffective,” he said of the city’s elected officials. Councilman Jim Madaffer co-authored the memo.

In November, voters approved restructuring city government, moving the mayor from his position as a voting member of the council to the city’s chief executive. The mayor will be in charge of hiring and firing department heads and assembling the annual budget, roles previously assumed by the city manager in the so-called “strong-manager” form of government. The mayor will also have veto power under the five-year test run.

The council is then to act as an eight-member legislative body headed by a presiding officer or council president who is elected by council peers.

The switch takes place Jan. 1, 2006 though there’s a near consensus that the city is drastically behind schedule in planning and budgeting the transition.

Councilman Scott Peters, a Murphy ally, seems to be the favorite of those pushing the presiding-officer decision. But others are wondering why the rush, and why the move is being pushed through so quickly.

“Certainly these are noble and lofty goals,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye of her colleagues’ motives, “but I’m not convinced these are the real goals.”

She said she hadn’t thought about whether or not she would want the position.

Frye worries that the rushed process is being driven by politics and, if not properly vetted, will replace a flawed system with an equally-flawed system. In a Thursday memo to City Attorney Mike Aguirre, she questioned if it is legal to elect a presiding officer when the position hasn’t yet been legally created in the city charter. She also asks whether or not it is legal for the mayor to vote in the process.

Through a spokeswoman, Murphy said he won’t vote on the issue.

Norma Damashek of the League of Women Voters is chairwoman of the council’s citizen advisory group on the transition. She applauds the council for addressing the strong-mayor transition issue in general, but thinks the council must define the position and its terms before it takes any actions.

Under Zucchet and Madaffer’s proposal, the presiding officer would serve as the “presiding officer-elect” until Jan. 1, at which time he or she would become the presiding officer. Damashek would prefer the person chosen during the transition didn’t automatically become the presiding officer at the start of the strong-mayor era.

“There’s lots to decide, and at the same time there’s a real need for somebody to take charge right now in organizing the City Council,” she said.

The citizen committee meets to discuss the issue, and other transition topics, Friday at 11:30 a.m. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on the 12th floor of the City Administration Building, located at 202 C St.

The council hearing on the issue will be at the same location and begins at 2 p.m. on Monday.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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