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Wednesday, April 27, 2005 | Despite Mayor Dick Murphy’s public wish Monday that his successor be chosen by the San Diego citizenry in a special election, a groundswell of support remains for the other option: a mayor appointed by the City Council.
The city’s constitution provides for both options, though a hefty majority of political operatives think the only true publicly palatable option would be a November special election.
“I think they want to say, ‘I want to vote for who is going to lead the city out of this morass,’” veteran political consultant Lou Wolfsheimer said of San Diegans.
Still, the jumble of political and legal challenges muddying the City Hall environment have others worried that a frenzied election that would include one or more council members would splice more pandemonium to an already mad plot.
With public confidence in City Hall shaken, a council blamed for not heading off a financial crisis begun by its predecessors would likely lack the credibility to choose who will lead the city in a time of unparalleled uncertainty, many say.
“Clearly an appointment would be preferable, but it may not be practical,” said Lisa Briggs, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
It is anticipated that the council will address the issue next week when it returns from legislative recess. To do so, Murphy must first officially hand in a letter of resignation to the City Clerk’s Office, something he hadn’t yet done as of Tuesday evening. The former Superior Court judge announced his resignation Monday under the weight of federal investigations and severe fiscal problems related to the city’s pension system and its $1.37-billion deficit.
Council members Scott Peters and Toni Atkins have publicly stated they prefer an appointment; council members Donna Frye, Brian Maienschein, Michael Zucchet and Murphy have stated their preference for a special election.
An appointed mayor would serve until the next regularly scheduled municipal election, which is 2006. A mayor chosen through a special election would serve out the remainder of Murphy’s second term in office, which expires in 2008.
Atkins said Tuesday that although she supports an appointed mayor, she is listening to both sides of the discussion and believes a public dialogue next week will serve the issue well.
If there is an election, a sitting deputy mayor would be in charge of the council’s day-to-day administrative affairs from July through November. That council member would play a powerful role in shaping the city’s actions in a crucial time.
The city’s access to capital markets remains seriously handicapped as its fiscal year 2003 and 2004 audits remained delayed pending an investigation into possible wrongdoing on the part of city officials.
The freeze from public markets leaves the city scrambling for cash for long-term and short-term projects alike, while the fiscal year 2006 budget is likely to be the toughest in recent memory. The city is also struggling to cooperate fully with Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Attorney investigations into city finances and politics. Additionally, the council will be in the middle of transitioning to a new form of government that bestows more power to the mayor.
“Any of those things by themselves would be a huge, huge issue we would need to focus on directly,” Atkins said. “And all together, an election would just add another distraction.”
Peters noted that the charged atmosphere surrounding an election doesn’t encourage the tough decision making and honest debate that will be necessary in the coming months.
Supporters of the appointment option say they’d prefer a candidate not already on the council and not interested in running for the position in 2006. Although Peters’ name has been tossed about as an appointee, he said he plans on serving as a councilman until his term expires in 2008.
Former state Sen. Dede Alpert, a Democrat, and Port Commissioner Stephen Cushman, a Republican, are most often mentioned as possible appointees. Both are known for their ability to work well with both labor and business.
Carl DeMaio, frequent City Hall critic and president of the private think tank The Performance Institute, threatened to finance the recall of council members if they took the mayoral decision out of voters’ hands.
“We had a flawed election in November that robbed our city of a leader with a public mandate. While we can’t undue the past, we can decide our future,” said DeMaio, referring to the tight November election that was won by Murphy with about one-third of the vote and only after a court disqualified several thousand votes for Frye.
Officials at the City Attorney’s Office are busy crafting a legal opinion on the structure of the proceedings following Murphy’s resignation, as a raft of unanswered questions has popped up since Monday’s announcement. The opinion could be out as soon as today.
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at