Thursday, November 17, 2005 | City council members will select among themselves Tuesday a president who will set the legislative agenda and chair meetings when the city transitions to a strong-mayor form of governance next year.
When Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders takes over the responsibilities currently enjoyed by the city manager on Jan. 3, he will be leaving behind the mayor’s former capacity as the council’s presiding officer. That role will instead be filled by a council president, who will begin making decisions about how the council does business as early as Thanksgiving week, when council committee assignments are doled out.
It appears that Councilman Scott Peters is the only member of San Diego’s City Council to publicly express interest in the leadership role. If installed president, Peters, who said he has sporadically asked some of his colleagues for their support, will be in charge of scheduling votes on proposed public policy and keeping order in the council chambers during weekly meetings.
Additionally, the council president will appoint a mayor pro-tem, committee chairs and vice chairs, subject to council approval. It will be the president’s job to enforce council rules, refer legislative items to council committees, coordinate closed session dockets with the mayor and city attorney, and determine which items are voted on without discussion.
Those duties currently are performed by the mayor – or whoever is acting mayor. Come Jan. 3, Sanders will take over many of the city manager’s duties. Those responsibilities include drafting an annual city budget, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the government and authorizing the hiring and firing of non-classified city employees.
The city’s voters approved the change in November 2004 when they passed Proposition F. Maintaining the strong-mayor structure past 2010 will require another citywide ballot measure.
City Hall observers said the council president will be vital to reviving the city’s financial situation, which is currently in tatters in light of the city’s inability to gain access to the municipal bond markets and investigations the city’s fiscal dealings. The city has also felt continued strains on its operating budget because of a lawsuit settlement that forced it to make larger payments into the deficient pension system.
“First and foremost, the council must settle the pension and financial problems,” said Andy Berg, a member of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association’s executive committee. “We would definitely like to see the council pass a real budget this year.”
Under the strong-mayor form, an independent budget analyst will advise the council as it reviews the financial plan Sanders puts forward in the spring as well as legislation on an ongoing basis. The Office of Financial Management will report to the Mayor’s Office after January. The staff, consisting of a director and eight professionals, has not yet been hired to work in the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.
Peters chaired the council committee that oversaw the strong-mayor transition over the past year.
Along with managing council legislation, the president will also be charged with maintaining order during weekly meetings, a task more daunting than a year ago as council members and City Attorney Mike Aguirre have sometimes feuded. Aguirre said that he believes the new president, whoever it is, will have to facilitate compromise between the many voices on council, the mayor and his office.
As for Peters, who has had several spats with Aguirre since he took office, the city attorney said he thought they could work together with the new mayor. This summer, Aguirre issued Peters a non-binding citation for allegedly providing the council unauthorized legal advice and the two have both been vocal about where they stand on the city’s pension situation. Aguirre has on occasion publicly suggested Peters, who represents District 1, should step down.
“I’m looking for the future to be the better part of our relationship,” Aguirre said. “The number one priority is to cooperate with the new mayor and implement his agenda.”
Councilwoman Donna Frye, who finished second to Sanders in last week’s mayoral election, said she is willing to support Peters and hoped that he will listen to and accommodate his colleagues’ views, even if he disagrees with him. She said does not want to be punished for bringing a different perspective to the council with her, as was the case when former Mayor Dick Murphy chaired the meetings.
“The president should be honest and should make sure items are docketed when they’re requested,” Frye said.
Peters said he hopes to help the council focus on fixing the city’s financial problems quickly and then work on quality-of-life issues that have taken a back seat to the fiscal and legal woes the city faced in the last couple of years. He said that after the city’s outside audit committee gives their report in the first quarter of the calendar year, the city will push to get its audits out so it can return to the bond market.
After that, the city’s efforts should be concentrated on deferred maintenance of roads, waterlines and public safety facilities.
“We need to continue to move the city forward after spending the last year looking backward and talking about what happened before,” Peters said.
Sanders said communication between his executive office and the legislative arm of the city government need to be firm.
“I have the opportunity to be held responsible, but I will also have to work with the legislative group if they’re going to approve the budgets I submit and the legislation I put forward,” Sanders said. “It’s really going to take a collaborative effort.”
Peters said the council “doesn’t really have a lot of room for politics right now” and that San Diegans are expecting officials to cooperate as leadership positions are being replenished.
“Everyone wants to work with the mayor,” he said. “The mood in the city is that we certainly should be cooperating – it’s what the taxpayers expect.”
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