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Wednesday, December 21, 2005 | Voters last year approved providing San Diego’s mayor with new executive powers in hopes of holding one person accountable for the government’s operations, but the city’s switch to a “strong-mayor” form of governance may bar Mayor Jerry Sanders from making decisions on pertinent issues that are decided on behind closed doors.
After the government’s transition to the new structure on Jan. 3, Sanders will lead the City Council’s private meetings, where labor negotiations and lawsuits are discussed. But he will not be given a vote and it’s uncertain whether he can veto the decisions made in closed session.
The mayor’s role remains vague in deciding the outcome of civil suits at a time when a bevy of pending complaints could make or break the city’s financial solvency. The settlement of some lawsuits, such as the city’s attempt to roll back about $700 million in pension enhancements, could be a windfall for the city. However, a decision to settle any fraction of the $120 million sought by land developer Rocque de la Fuente would add a heavier weight to San Diego’s already strained financial back.
The uncertainty of Sanders’ authority in this arena concerns some who are watching the municipal government’s transition.
“I’m not sure I understand it, and I get nervous with things in government where you don’t understand logic that supports it,” said Barry Newman, a private attorney who helped craft the ballot measure. “It’s an unclear separation of the legislative and executive duties.”
Newman said the final language allowing the mayor to participate but not vote in closed session was designed to strike a balance between broadening the mayor’s power and allowing the council independence, but that the resulting idea “diluted” the line separating the mayor and council.
Sanders took office earlier this month, nearly half a year after former Mayor Dick Murphy stepped down. Observers note that Murphy’s July resignation worsened the chances for a smooth transition. The former mayor was able to alter some of the language of the ballot initiative in his favor – such as the one allowing the mayor to preside over closed session.
“There were a host of compromises,” Newman said.
In less than two weeks, the mayor will no longer chair or have a vote at the council’s public meetings. Instead, he will take on executive duties currently handled by the city manager, such as hiring and firing managers, overseeing the city’s everyday operations, and proposing an annual budget.
Councilmen Scott Peters was selected by his colleagues to serve as council president for the next year, meaning he will chair open session meetings and set the city’s legislative agenda under the new structure. Extending the strong-mayor government past 2010 will require another citywide vote.
The mayor’s role in the council’s closed session meetings after the switch is less clear. Sanders will preside over the private meetings, but will not have a vote, and it’s uncertain how much input the mayor will have on the approval of lawsuit settlements or labor deals. The state’s public meeting law allows the City Council to discuss personnel matters, litigation and real estate transactions privately.
“We believe the veto should extend to closed session, but we’re asking the city attorney to review the issue,” said Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman.
Sanders pledged during his campaign to renegotiate contracts for city workers to include mandatory work furloughs and salary freezes, but he will need the council to ultimately sign off on any amendment to existing labor deals, even if agreed to by the unions. Any pacts struck under the strong-mayor era will be supervised by Sanders, but the mayor will only be able to present the contracts to the council for their approval.
At the very least, proposals from the Mayor’s Office are going to have to appeal to the council, Sainz said.
“What we’re merely going to have to do is steer the ship responsibly so that hopefully issues that do come before council are ones that will have sufficient support,” Sainz said.
Without a vote in closed session, Sanders will also lose his ability to weigh in on the legal decisions presented to the council by the city attorney.
Councilwoman Donna Frye said it was apparent the proposition was not thought out very well if city officials are still wrestling with decisions weeks before the switchover.
“Just how poorly it was drafted will become apparent when it takes effect,” Frye said.
John Kaheny, a former assistant city attorney who helped author the language of the initiative, said he believes the mayor can veto closed-session decisions that result in ordinances, but that the language might not be so clear.
“I think everything they do under the new system will be up for interpretation,” Kaheny said.
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