Friday, March 10, 2006 | When the City Council met Jan. 17, it was a new sight for regular attendees of those weekly meetings who were used to seeing the city’s mayor presiding over the council.

Instead, newly elected Mayor Jerry Sanders took a seat at the staff desk, which was sunken and facing the legislative body he and other San Diego mayors once chaired. Sanders wasn’t there to direct the council, but instead to ask for its permission.

Council President Scott Peters sat at the head of the council, read the mayor’s proposal and then peered down at the mayor, who he politely referred to as “his honor.” Peters gave the mayor an OK to start his presentation.

“This feels very different,” Sanders said while blushing. “I think Councilmember, um, Council President Peters looks very good sitting there.”

While much attention has been given to the fact that Sanders is the city’s first “strong” mayor in more than 70 years, Peters has ascended into a position of head dealmaker: He’s the liaison between a mayor with ambitions and a legislative body that has the final say.

And a person in that position has some power.

At the same time voters re-elected the calm and calculated Peters as the representative of Council District 1 – city’s northwest bedroom neighborhoods from La Jolla to Rancho Penasquitos – San Diegans citywide approved transforming City Hall into a “strong-mayor” form of government.

Supporters marketed the strong-mayor system as cure for the city’s ills. Removing the mayor from the City Council and affording him the executive authorities of managing the municipal government’s everyday operations brought new accountability to the beleaguered city, they said.

But assuming the duties formerly held by the city manager also meant the strong mayor had to forfeit his position of setting the city’s legislative agenda, which was turned over to Peters when he was officially installed as the city’s first council president this year.

Sanders was certainly bolstered when he took over the day-to-day reins of the city, but Peters will oversee a City Council that will have the last word on the annual budget, labor negotiations, settling the city’s myriad lawsuits and – to an extent – placing ballot initiatives before the voters. Those are all crucial aspects of Sanders’ recovery plan.

The council is still very much at the table after the so-called strong-mayor switch.

“We prefer ‘council-mayor form of government,’” said a grinning Peters, who always seems to choose his words carefully. “Everyone got stronger because the city manager’s gone.”

That fact seemed to sit well with Sanders this week as he talked about the new dynamics at City Hall, even after berating the council during his campaign for mayor last fall. Sanders dumped on his opponent Councilwoman Donna Frye for council decisions that that he labeled as being irresponsible, even when Frye went against the council majority.

“I think the council’s priorities are the same as mine,” Sanders said in an interview. “I actually expected everything that’s happened and I think it’s a healthy process.”

During the first two months of the strong-mayor era, which will expire in 2010 unless it’s renewed by voters, the mayor has quickly recognized that his strong-mayor whipping-stick is often only as firm as the bond he forges with the council and its leader, Peters.

“I think the mayor understands that either one of us can sink the boat,” Peters said.

As council president, Peters has made a point of projecting a more prominent place in the public eye. He holds his own weekly briefings for the press and even delivered his own State of the Council address at picturesque Balboa Park – well outside his council district. When asked to elaborate on a football analogy he made about City Hall, one reporter asked if Peters saw himself as the quarterback.

“I’d say that’s the role for me this year,” he replied.

Others have also caught on to his new leadership role.

“I cannot say what the next council president will be like, but as far as Scott’s concerned, it bears quite a level of prestige for him at this time,” said Lou Wolfsheimer, an attorney and City Hall lobbyist.

Peters has already clued in Sanders to the reality about several fronts: If the mayor wants the budget he proposes this spring or the labor deals he strikes with the unions to pass, he has to gauge the council’s opinions. As council president, Peters privately provides the mayor his impressions of how a given proposal will be received by the council and has publicly informed the mayor that the bigger issues – labor pacts, the budget – will need a thorough debate.

“Scott often comes forward and will let us know what the likely concerns are, and as a result, that has sometimes slowed things down so we can get answers to those various questions,” Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz said. “It is a benefit to the city to address those before they mushroom into something larger.”

In the first two months of strong-mayor, Sanders has spent some of the political capital he earned in November by pushing ballot initiatives to allow “managed competition” between private companies and public employees for city contracts, and to require a public vote before pension benefits are increased.

After the mayor publicly rolled out the initiatives, Peters approached Sanders with an alternative version of the managed competition initiative that required the company who won a competitive bid to interview the public employees whose job was outsourced.

The mayor has since asked the council to delay its consideration of whether to place the reform measures on the November ballot, and City Hall sources say the mayor will likely end up borrowing from Peters’ version of the managed-competition initiative. (The mayor said he is ready to gather the signatures to place the measures on the ballot if the council denies his requests, but the propositions will likely attract more support if the council also signs off on them.)

Sanders and Peters meet every Wednesday morning to assess upcoming council votes and review where the city is in its efforts to climb out of financial morass and various legal troubles. The two men along with City Attorney Mike Aguirre – Sanders’ recent ally and Peters’ longtime nemesis – will be most responsible for charting the city’s course out of malaise this year, when Peters predicts the city will have its long-withheld audits certified and its financial credibility restored on Wall Street.

Tom Shepard – a political consultant who worked on campaigns for Sanders, Peters and Proposition F, the strong-mayor measure – said the new dynamics at City Hall add a needed tension.

“I think it’s healthy,” Shepard said. “A lot of problems that the city of San Diego got into resulted because there weren’t effective checks and balances.”

Sanders and Peters say they recognize and appreciate the intended tension the strong-mayor structure provides, but both used the word “collaborative” to describe their relationship so far.

Strong-mayor proponents point to the federal and state models of government that the new governing structure mimics, but the balance between the executive and legislative branches was evened out with a veto power for the executive that is non-existent in San Diego. Sanders could veto a piece of legislation, but the council will only need the same exact five votes that initially approved the proposal to override the mayoral veto.

The council now relies on the mayor to competently manage the 11,000-worker bureaucracy and provide the neighborhood services their constituents regularly take notice of – such as tree-trimming, graffiti removal and filling potholes. In return, the mayor will depend on the council to approve the legislation he introduces as well as his budget.

The upcoming budget season will be the relationship’s first true test, many observers say. The mayor will roll out a proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year in mid-April, which will then go through weeks of public hearings and tweaks by the council. By June 30, the council must pass a final budget for the 2007 fiscal year, which will likely be quite austere given the city’s financial challenges.

Peters also has the discretion to schedule council votes on dates he wants or to deny hearings altogether if he desires. There have been instances were officials’ proposals were put off because the amount of supporting information that was submitted wasn’t to his liking, but the officials and staff members interviewed for this story say he has not flatly denied any requests so far.

Peters said that he has also taken strides to run a tighter ship with the council, limiting the public comment at council meetings to avoid marathon sessions, he says. Also, he has asked for officials to turn in their proposals earlier so that they are included on agendas that are distributed several days before a council meeting. He said that the supplemental dockets that are released the Friday afternoon before a Monday meeting is frustrating to the public.

As president he enjoys other privileges as well, such as having a priority over other council members for number-crunching requests to the independent budget analyst. The new post also means Peters was responsible for doling this year’s committee assignments and chairmanships.

Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and an author of Proposition F, said the council president will become a more powerful office as time goes on, but will not have the significance it plays in other cities.

The one-year term of the presidency and the general term limits will ultimately curb the potential power of a council presidency in comparison to a strong-mayor city such as Los Angeles, where John Ferraro was the most powerful politician there for nearly two decades.

“The shorter window means it’s a different dynamic,” Erie said. “You’ve really got to hit that starting gate early to make an impact.”

Aguirre said he has bristled slightly at Peters’ elevation. The two consistently butt heads on how to resolve the city’s financial troubles, with Peters labeling Aguirre as incompetent and Aguirre charging that Peters is corrupt. Aguirre, who was elected citywide, suggested the city reevaluate how the council president is chosen. It should probably occur after a citywide vote instead of an election between council members, he said.

“I’m not sure that the issue of the council president was so well thought-out,” Aguirre said.

Leaders of legislatures such as Congress or the state Legislature are normally elected along partisan lines, where the majority political party chooses the speaker or the president. The vice president of the United States is officially the president of the Senate, but it is largely a ceremonial position and a member of the majority party is elected among that party’s senators to regularly preside.

Councilwoman Toni Atkins, as acting mayor last year, held a visible citywide office despite being only elected in her council district, similar to Peters. Speaking on behalf of the council requires a whole new responsibility, especially when Peters disagrees with several of its members, she said.

“It’s appropriate for the council president to be the visible point person for the council, but you do have an added sense of responsibility when you’re not just speaking for yourself,” Atkins said. “You can’t just be parochial.”

Peters’ council colleagues say they recognize his room for political maneuvering has been boosted since he was chosen to lead the council, but said they would be able to remove him from the post if he abused his office.

“Scott knows he’s five votes away from not being council president,” Councilman Jim Madaffer said. “I don’t think he’s going to play favorites.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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