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Tuesday, January 03, 2006 | Voters last November approved Proposition F, the “strong-mayor” ballot measure that would remove the mayor from the City Council while granting him new executive powers to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city and hire and fire top administrators.
The question was posed to voters at a time of unprecedented chaos for San Diego, as federal investigators, outside auditors and Wall Street doubted the integrity of the city’s finances while it faced a multibillion dollar bill from its retirement system. Supporters of the strong-mayor form of governance, which is the rule of order in several other American metropolises, presented the switch to be the remedy. Bestowing new powers to the mayor would make him more accountable, the theory went, and he could be held responsible when the government stumbled.
Starting Tuesday, city business will be conducted under the new governing structure. Officials made assurances last week that everything will be running smoothly, even without some components being in place when the curtain is raised today.
“We’re ready,” said City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
However, resources and attention were diverted away from the transition last year as political turmoil and the city’s ongoing legal and fiscal problems worsened. Administrators and observers expect some early glitches in the switchover, mostly resulting from the unexpected change in mayoral administrations, as Jerry Sanders gets settled into the office Dick Murphy vacated in July.
“Nobody quite knows how it’s going to work,” said Keith Greer, a manager in the Planning Department.
Observers say that the Mayor’s Office hasn’t been thoroughly represented in making strong-mayor decisions since April, when Murphy announced that he was stepping down. Even beforehand, some argue that the mayor took little interest in the changeover.
Sanders, on the other hand, has had no choice but to take a strong and urgent interest in the transition. He was sworn in as mayor Dec. 5, giving him four weeks to prepare for a change that voters envisioned would occur over 14 months.
Because the start of his tenure coincides with the beginning of San Diego’s strong-mayor era – which will expire in 2010 unless there is public vote to extend it – Sanders will be carrying out his reform platform with more executive authority than any other mayor in the city’s history.
Sanders’ newfound powers will allow him to fundamentally change the way the San Diego does business, from the approval of construction permits to the staffing of lifeguards at the city’s beaches. On the campaign stump, Sanders vowed to use his strong-mayor authority to make tough decisions to revive the city’s fledgling fiscal health – and to be accountable for the choices he makes.
As an example, the mayor is implementing a plan to cut out waste in the city bureaucracy, which he now supervises. His senior staff said last week that there were four areas they believe need to be examined immediately because they are in dire shape: the city’s contracts, its human resources and personnel departments, information technology and the city administration.
Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said there was no way to figure out exactly how many contracts or employees the government had, and that there were problems with the city’s systems for e-mail and file sharing.
Each area will be assigned a “functional process review team” – comprised of representatives from the City Attorney’s Office, Mayor’s Office, Auditor’s Office, employee unions and affected businesses or residents.
The first of the four slated reviews is to start this month and be completed by June, the end of the fiscal year. The rest of the city’s functions could eventually be open to a similar review.
The task force will prepare a report that will be reviewed by Aguirre, Chief Operating Officer Ronne Froman, Chief Financial Officer Jay Goldstone and other members of the public before being turned over to the mayor as recommendations. If the reforms require legislation, they will be subject to the City Council’s approval.
“Even if we have no financial problems, this is something we should be doing regularly,” Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said.
He said it may take years to correct the city’s financial condition, just as it might be awhile before the city finds out if the strong-mayor model works for the city or not.
There is much guesswork about the roles and relationships in City Hall under the new structure, starting with the mayor himself. He will no longer preside over the City Council. Instead Council President Scott Peters will chair the meetings, set the city’s legislative agenda and dole out committee assignments to council members.
The mayor and council will have incentives to work with each other, experts say. The council will determine the fate of any legislation the mayor brings forward, as five council members are needed to approve policy. On the other hand, the mayor will be ultimately supervising pothole repairs, graffiti removal and block grant money – city programs council members ravenously seek for their own districts.
“It’s the ideal opportunity for horse trading,” said Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
John Kern, Murphy’s chief of staff and political adviser when Proposition K passed, agreed.
“There will be a lot of push and pull,” he said.
Kern said he is interested to see how city staff will respond to the City Council now that workers no longer report to a manager at the mercy of the council. At the same time, there may be added pressure to perform for one elected official – the mayor – instead of nine.
“You have the bureaucracy and the mayor being one in the same,” Kern said. “That’s a total culture change. It’s going to be a learning experience.”
The council will now have its own set of eyes to review the financial impacts of the yearly budget and other proposals. Andrea Tevlin, a former deputy city manager in Phoenix, was hired by the council in December to be San Diego’s first independent budget analyst.
Tevlin’s position will be of great importance, experts said.
“The council will have someone working for them who, in the first time in history, is in a legal position to go in and challenge the assumptions being made by the city,” Kern said.
Erie recounted a time when that office was the second most powerful in the Los Angeles, another strong-mayor city.
Ted Brengel, who served on a citizen panel that advised the council on the strong-mayor switch throughout the past year, said it would have been more beneficial for the council to have set up the Office of Independent Budget Analyst earlier.
“The budget analyst position isn’t going to be effective as it might have been had they staffed the office earlier,” said Brengel, a Mira Mesa resident.
The independent budget analyst will help create the separation of powers needed in San Diego, Erie said. He said he helped author the initiative years ago because he wanted to create a set of checks and balances for the city that was similar to the federal government.
He believes one oversight was that the auditor, who reports waste and fraud he finds in the city, should have more independence. Under the former system, the auditor was hired and fired by the council, separate from the city manager’s purview. Starting Tuesday, Auditor John Torell will report to Sanders’ chief financial officer, making him ultimately accountable to Sanders. If dismissed, he can appeal to the council.
Erie said he thinks the auditor should be elected, but likened the five-year strong-mayor era to an experiment. The public will can determine at a later date whether the experiment worked, and can make the right changes in the voting both.
“We’re going to be working a lot of issues over the next couple of years,” Aguirre said.
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