Thursday, December 29, 2005 | Jerry Sanders won the Mayor’s Office by wooing nearly 177,000 voters in November, but starting Tuesday he will have his hands full winning over the eight constituents that can make or break his ambitious reform agenda: the City Council.
Sanders’ aides say the new mayor has not talked to current council members about where they stand on his “Action Plan for Recovery” package, which would overhaul the city’s workforce and make significant changes to its embattled retirement system, but Sanders has been courting the support of the candidates vying for two vacant council seats.
After distributing a seven-question survey asking if they supported in concept his reform proposals, Sanders backed one candidate, public-relations executive Kevin Faulconer, in the District 2 race, but stayed out of the District 8 contest altogether.
The mayor’s support should aid Faulconer’s quest for the vacant council seat, and he and his supporters have been playing up the endorsement in campaign ads. While mayors have supported council members in the past, experts say the coinciding switch to a strong-mayor form of government on Jan. 3 has forced Sanders to scratch the backs of supportive candidates.
The strong-mayor structure grants Sanders more authority over the city’s day-to-day happenings, but he will not have an official voice in deciding the legislative policies, such as the ones required to move his reform package forward.
The new dynamic at City Hall will allow the mayor to use his executive and ceremonial powers as a bargaining chip when it comes time to asking the council to act a certain way on legislation, oberservers said.
“These endorsements take on an added urgency under the new system because the strength of the strong mayor is really a function of whether he can command a council majority,” said Steve Erie, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego who helped craft the strong-mayor proposition voters approved in 2004.
Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz said the mayor hasn’t discussed his initiatives with the sitting council members, noting that the questionnaire was created specifically for endorsement purposes.
“We are in the process of developing specific proposals, and as soon as we have those, we’ll approach various council members,” said Sainz, who noted that Faulconer was the only candidate to return a survey.
The mayor argues his plan will improve the fledgling city government, which has been unable to gain access to the public bond markets after its credit rating was suspended. The city is also mired in investigations by the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission and its books haven’t been certified by outside auditors since 2002.
The questionnaire, which was prepared by Sanders’ political consultant Tom Shepard, asks the candidates for yes-or-no answers to general questions related to the mayor’s plan, which would reshape the management and makeup of the city’s workforce if enacted.
Sanders proposes freezing employees’ salaries until the city regains its financial footing while requiring workers’ to pay more of their paycheck into the pension system.
Additionally, Sanders proposes eliminating about 150 “senior and middle managers.” Sainz said approximately 100 of those layoffs will be at-will workers, and that downsizing will not happen until the mayor has hired the rest of his top management team to assess the city’s workforce numbers.
He also asked candidates if they would rule out a tax hike to “fix the pension crisis.” The city’s pension plan has a deficit of at least $1.37 billion and has been the focus of investigators from the Justice Department and the District Attorney’s Office.
Sanders’ plan also requires City Charter changes, which the council can approve before sending it to voters. He wants to ask voters to overhaul the existing pension plan in favor of a hybrid system; combining the safety of a defined-benefit plan, to a lesser extent, with a more predictable cost for the city that comes with the 401(k)-style plans in the private sector. He also plans to ask voters to allow him to accept bids from private companies vying to perform certain services that are currently handled by city workers. A third proposal that would require voter approval, requiring a citywide vote to increase workers’ pensions, was not included on the questionnaire.
If the council does not approve putting a question on the ballot for voters, Sanders can still present a proposition for his platform by rounding up signatures from 10 percent of the city’s registered voters.
Lorena Gonzalez, an environmental attorney competing against Faulconer for the District 2 council post, said she would rather make decisions about Sanders’ proposals if they were more specifically worded and didn’t rely as much on assumptions.
She said the yes-or-no questions were prefaced with vague information about complex topics, and that she did not feel comfortable answering them.
“The last thing we need is a council saying ‘yes’ to whatever the mayor puts in front of them. That’s what got us into this mess,” said Gonzalez, who said the survey was a political piece. “I don’t think that’s being obstructionist, I think it’s looking for real solutions.”
Faulconer said he didn’t agree with the mayor’s plan wholesale, saying there needed to be more safeguards to protect the city’s public safety workers. He said the purpose of the survey was to gauge candidates’ commitment to “making tough decisions.”
“I think from a global perspective, people want a mayor and council that are going to work together to solve the fiscal crisis at City Hall,” he said. “The mayor has laid out a very specific and aggressive agenda, and I think voters want us pulling in the same direction.”
Faulconer, who was endorsed by the unions representing firefighters and police officers, said those city workers chose him to fix the city’s financial problems, even if it meant it that new employees would not enjoy retirement benefits as nice – or as cheap – as current workers.
The pension sacrifices included in Sanders’ platform would free up more money to spend on public safety equipment, Faucloner said,
School board president Luis Acle and organizational consultant Ben Hueso, who are running in District 8, shared Gonzalez’s concerns.
Hueso said he admired Sanders for presenting a plan, but didn’t agree with many of its components. Namely, he said, cutting staff and requiring city workers to pay more into the retirement fund will not solve the pension shortfall, which is estimated to be at least $1.37 billion.
“The positive thing is that at least he has a plan,” he said. “There are some things in that plan that aren’t really going to help … that are political wedge issues that mighty muddy the conversation about fixing the city’s problems.”
Acle said he did not remember seeing the survey, but favored some of the proposals. He said that he applauded Sanders for recognizing that the city had a spending problem and not a revenue problem.
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