Monday, October 10, 2005 | Voice Special Report

Since the race for resigned former Mayor Dick Murphy’s replacement began five months ago, the City Council has been dismissed as everything from incompetent to irrelevant.

Whatever the case, there’s one thing the council won’t be come January: powerless.

While it sits stuck in the middle of San Diego’s financial and political crisis, the City Council will play a central role as allies or opposition to the financial recovery plans of the victor of the Nov. 8 election.

“I think the mayor definitely is going to be going in with a mandate from the people to fix this problem – whether the council is going to go along with that is still a question,” said Lisa Briggs, the outgoing CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Both candidates rely, to differing levels, on cooperation from the City Council that has in no small part been blamed for the financial crisis that grips the city and is most notably highlighted by a pension deficit estimated to be more than $1.4 billion.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye’s plan would be greatly assisted if the City Council were to vote to place two initiatives on the ballot. The first, if successful, would remove the council entirely from the recovery equation and give the mayor sole authority to negotiate a settlement package or take the city into Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings.

By the same token, former police Chief Jerry Sanders will need the council to appear willing to take the city into bankruptcy. Without signs that the council will vote for bankruptcy, the hammer that Sanders plans to use to get unions to renegotiate their labor contracts is weakened. So far, the council has been staunchly against any talk of bankruptcy.

Frye’s financial plan centers around public participation – so much so that she will need to go to the voters twice in her first year to make it work. First, she plans to ask voters for the authority to unilaterally negotiate a recovery package or take the city into Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

It’s a maneuver that she says is the only way to force the unions to reconsider the levels of the pension benefits that are a primary factor in the pension deficit. It would also remove any role the council would have in crafting a reform package.

But to painlessly put that initiative before voters, Frye will need to ask her council colleagues to vote to put it on the June 2006 ballot.

And therein lies the most popular critique of Frye’s plan, offered by the Sanders campaign, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and an editorial in a local newspaper. Critics doubt the City Council would approve a measure that, if approved by voters, would remove them from the equation.

For that reason, Sanders calls the plan a “sham.”

That critique isn’t shared by everyone.

Some observers believe that the City Council will have the obligation to put the initiative on the ballot if Frye wins. After all, they say, the majority of voters will have just selected their candidate knowing the details of her financial plan. Plus, the council has voted to put initiatives before voters in the past even if they didn’t agree with them.

“I would think that they would,” said Andrew Berg of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “All of them without exception have always said that it’s better for the people to decide, even when they didn’t agree with it.”

Berg said he believes the council will be inclined to support either candidate.

If she didn’t get support from the council as critics contend, Frye would begin collecting the 67,220 signatures needed to put an initiative on the June 2006 ballot that will also feature primary City Council races.

Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said that although most signature collecting drives are costly, Frye’s grassroots support could give her the volunteers to do it on the cheap.

“I don’t see that as a hurdle,” Erie said of collecting signatures.

Frye will also need the help of either the council or volunteers to put a second initiative on the ballot, probably in November 2006. That’s when she plans to ask voters for final approval on her negotiated recovery package.

Judging from one councilman’s statements, a signature drive could be necessary.

City Councilman Scott Peters said he wouldn’t support putting Frye’s first initiative on the ballot, nor would he back up Sanders’ bankruptcy threat, which the candidate says is needed to draw unions back to the table.

Peters said the new mayor will have sufficient powers when the city switches to a strong-mayor form of government at the beginning of the year. The new form of government removes the mayor as a voting member of the City Council, instead giving the office the day-to-day responsibilities of running the government. The Mayor’s Office will assume the city manager’s duties and function as the executive branch, allowing the mayor to prepare the city’s budget and control over department managers.

“I don’t think anyone has the appetite to make the strong mayor stronger, especially to go to bankruptcy,” Peters said. “I would not be doing my job if I would be putting the mayor in the position to do this.”

Such statements are the reason that John Dadian, a political consultant and Republican strategist, believes that the strong-mayor form of government that voters approved last November should, in fact, be called the “strong-council” form of government.

“The council is going to run roughshod over whoever the next mayor is,” he said.

The mayor will have veto power over the eight-member council’s decisions. However, to overturn that veto, the council will simply have to revote. A veto can be overturned by five council votes, the same amount of votes necessary to pass an ordinance to begin with.

“Their agenda might not be that of the mayor’s,” Dadian said of the council.

That means Sanders’ plan may be just as vulnerable as Frye’s to the prospect of a hostile council.

Existing pension benefits cannot be reworked even if the labor contracts are renegotiated. Instead, Sanders hopes to free up cash for larger annual pension payments and shrink future obligations by instituting pay freezes and work furloughs beyond what are already in place.

But some existing council members have strong ties to the labor unions. If the council doesn’t show a willingness to go to bankruptcy, publicly or privately, unions would have little incentive to head back to the negotiating table, as they wouldn’t need to worry about contesting their benefits in federal bankruptcy court. Labor leaders frequently cite what they consider significant concessions made by workers in the last labor contracts finalized in June.

Sanders said that if confronted with a lack of cooperation from the council, he has a solution.

“What that requires is leadership. Leadership is when you bring a group of people together and you persuade them about a course of action. That’s absolutely what the next mayor needs to provide. That’s exactly what I provide,” he said.

Additionally, he threatened a 10-percent across the board cut in jobs if unions don’t cooperate as part of his recovery plan. That, he estimates, could chop $64 million from the budget. However, Sanders said at a debate Friday that he’d be hesitant about cutting police and fire jobs. Without cuts in public safety jobs, the savings is more around $35 million, he said.

While the candidates take their plans across the city leading up to the Nov. 8 vote, the council has staked out its own plan in dealing with a pension deficit that threatens to consume city budgets for years to come and is central to numerous local and federal investigations.

For his part, Peters, the only council member who returned calls for this story, threw his support behind the council’s current pension solution plans.

Last month, a council majority directed staff to begin putting together a package designed to infuse $600 million into the pension system by 2008. The plan calls for selling $100 million in city land, issuing $400 in pension obligation bonds and securing an immediate $100 million loan.

These measures, combined with a leaner city structure and possible cuts in parks, libraries and pools, should be enough to cover the city’s annual payments into the system, Peters said.

He said it would be difficult to get employees to make any more sacrifices than they already have.

“I still think that our problem is not an intellectually challenging one. It’s like losing weight, you diet and exercise over time,” said Peters, a favorite to be the council’s president under the new strong-mayor system.

The council dynamics will also change within the new mayor’s first days. Primary elections for Districts 2 and 8, seats vacated by two councilmen after being convicted on federal corruption charges, will also be held Nov. 8.

Runoff elections, if necessary, will be held Jan. 10. And if Frye wins, the District 6 seat will also need to be filled.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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