Wednesday, November 23, 2005 | The San Diego City Council’s selection of Scott Peters as its first presiding officer Tuesday provides a slightly clearer image of how the power structure at City Hall will work under the incoming strong-mayor government, although it remains unclear how the mayor-elect and embattled council will work together.
As Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders assumes the day-to-day managerial functions previously held by the city manager on Jan. 3, he will turn over the responsibilities of controlling council meetings and setting the legislative agendas to Peters, who was unanimously chosen by his colleagues Tuesday.
Sanders’ first task will be to implement his fiscal recovery plan for a city in the grips of a fiscal crisis highlighted by a pension deficit estimated to be more than $1.37 billion. The council’s cooperation could be key to how that plan is realized.
The everyday authorities bestowed to Sanders and Peters under the strong-mayor structure were studied by a citizen panel and a special council committee before being codified last month, and both say they have a clear-cut notion of their duties. Less clear, experts say, is how the political dynamics at City Hall will change after the New Year.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Municipal Employees Association president Judie Italiano. Sanders said during the campaign that the 6,000-member MEA should renegotiate its labor contract with the city in order to avoid bankruptcy. The council ratified a three-year agreement for the union in June.
“I don’t even know where to speculate,” Italiano said.
Speculation of the new mayor-council is all that exists at this point, said Norma Damashek, chairwoman of the citizen group that advised the council on the yearlong changeover.
Switching hats alone doesn’t map how the city will proceed with policy decisions.
“No system is strong or weak without looking at the people who fill those positions,” Damashek said. “That’s where personalities come into play.”
Under the new structure, the budget and labor negotiations hammered out by the Mayor’s Office in the future will be subject to council approval. The council, however, will be registering their requests for services such as pothole repairs with city administrators who are under Sanders’ purview.
“It’s the ideal opportunity for horse trading,” said Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego who was among the citizens advising the council. “Both parties have incentives to cooperate.”
Additionally, Peters will be in charge of scheduling votes on proposed public policy and maintaining decorum in the council chambers during weekly meetings. The council president will also nominate 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.
As the strong mayor, Sanders will take over many of the city manager’s current duties, which include drafting an annual city budget, supervising the day-to-day operations of the government and authorizing the hiring and firing of non-classified city employees.
San Diego’s voters approved the switch in November 2004 when they passed Proposition F. Continuing the strong-mayor structure past 2010 will require another citywide ballot measure.
The council, under a Peters presidency, will hold sway over key pieces of Sanders’ fiscal recovery plan. On the campaign trail, Sanders promised to use the threat of bankruptcy to force employee unions to renegotiate their labor contracts.
Without the council’s support for taking the city into bankruptcy, it will be nothing but an empty threat.
Likewise, Sanders’ reform package will be made easier if the council supports putting two proposed initiatives on the ballot. If not, Sanders will have to embark on a costly and lengthy signature drive to place the proposed charter amendments on the ballot.
In separate conversations Tuesday, Sanders and Peters said they were eager to work together to solve the city’s myriad troubles, which include various investigations into the city’s financial and political practices, an inability to issue bonds to pay for much-needed road and sewer improvements, and immense strains on the government’s everyday services budget.
“The council is eager to fix these problems and that’s best done by cooperating,” Peters said. “I’m encouraged by Jerry’s attitude.”
Sanders said he knows that part of cooperation entails compromise, and is aware that Peters has said before that he disagrees with Sanders’ use of bankruptcy to force the labor back to the bargaining table.
“As it plays out, Scott and I can talk about these issues,” said Sanders, who takes office Dec. 5. “Obviously we won’t agree on everything, but you wouldn’t expect that even from your best friend.”
Sanders has also said he will ask the City Council to place two initiatives on the June 2006 ballot as part of his recovery plan. One initiative would structure the city’s pension system more like one found in the private sector and require a vote of the public on any future pension benefit increases. The second initiative would open up some city services for privatization.
The two initiatives would likely be opposed by labor unions, which have been allied with Peters and selected other council members during this period of political unrest.
If Sanders cannot get the initiatives on the ballot with the help of the council, he would likely engage in a signature drive and shoot for the November 2006 ballot.
Both Sanders and Peters said they were concentrating on “moving the city forward” beyond the city government’s calamities, but some say the handling of labor issues could produce the first schism.
“Sometime in January will be the real test for the era of good feelings,” Erie said. “The problem is that the issues facing the city are so contentious that the honeymoon could fracture easily, particular on labor issues.”
Erie said the council appears to be more apt to side with labor than Sanders. The mayor-elect’s support of legal challenges to current pension benefits and his insistence that the unions renegotiate their contracts will likely be met with hesitation, and maybe outright resistance, several observers said.
Representatives from two municipal unions, City Firefighters Local 145 and the blue-collar Local 127, urged the council during Tuesday’s public comment portion to back Peters as president.
“I think we can get them back to the table,” Sanders said, saying it was preferable for workers to renegotiate when compared to a 10-percent cut to staff or the filing of municipal bankruptcy. “I preferred they come back voluntarily, and I think that they will.”
Italiano said she will openly and honestly communicate back to her membership any proposals put forward by Sanders, but that her union is not going to revisit contracts, without a vote of her full membership, that have already been approved. Sanders has not contacted her since the election, she said.
Also, the council can override Sanders’ veto power with five votes, the same number it takes to pass legislation.
The budget, too, could be a future point of contention as the council and the Mayor’s Office will have their own staffs to analyze financial information. Sanders will call upon the Office of Financial Management for budget information while the council will rely on the Independent Budget Analyst’s Office.
The independent budget analyst is expected to be hired in early December and will work with a staff of eight employees. Erie said that the position has carried a lot of political clout in other cities.
Also at stake in the new mayor-council relationship will be everyday services such as park maintenance, filling potholes and graffiti cleanup, Damashek said.
“That’s where council members are going to feel the heat from constituents,” she said. “The mayor can practice the art of withholding.”
Sanders and Peters said that the dynamic of service requests will be different than the city’s current council-manager structure, and that the mayor’s authority over that will certainly draw interest from council members.
The already austere service budget as well as probable cuts in the future will put even more pressure on council members to tend to their communities, observers said.
How much sway that will have on a council shorthanded until Jan. 10 remains to be seen.
“It’s too soon to judge,” said April Boling, chairwoman of the Pension Reform Committee and a member of Sanders’ transition team.
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