Monday, Oct. 2, 2006 | A couple of years ago, there was only member of the City Council you could go to for any kind of perspective about the city as a whole: Donna Frye.
The rest of the group focused on their own particular district. Regardless of what was happening with the city as a whole, they wouldn’t really have anything to say. And forget about getting any records, documents or memorandums from them. They were concerned about their district. And it was natural that they would be: their neighbors were the source of their power. When a crucial decision outside their district required their attention, they would defer to the thinkers, lobbyists or interest groups they trusted to provide guidance.
Sure, each one would emerge as the leader on a particular project of citywide importance: former City Councilman Michael Zucchet, for instance, helped craft the city’s current agreement with the Chargers. Jim Madaffer has unflinchingly pushed the downtown library even though his district is quite far from the proposed monument.
Madaffer was also big on goats. He and former Mayor Dick Murphy were good about rounding up goats here and there to eat up the flammable goods on local hillsides.
But Frye, like her or not, was the only one thinking about the city as a whole on every single issue.
Council President Scott Peters has solidified his spot as one of the most powerful people in the city. When the city switched to the “strong mayor” system and the mayor became the city’s chief executive, Peters became the City Council’s president, occupying the spot that many decades-worth of mayors had held.
We all knew that there would be a “council president” when we switched to the new form of government. But it was a blank slate. Peters, upon election to the post, might have just printed new business cards.
But he mobilized the office. Peters became the point man – promising always to have the council’s perspective on any issue at hand. He hired a new aggressive press secretary. He began to hold weekly meetings with reporters. He deftly coordinated the hiring of the council’s new independent budget analysis – realizing quickly that such a person would have significant persuasive power.
After all, it’s one thing for a member of the City Council to oppose the mayor or one of the mayor’s plans. It’s another thing for the City Council as a whole to oppose something the mayor is proposing. And it’s yet another thing for the body to be mobilized with the data and expertise that the independent budget analyst provides.
Combined with a streamlined communication system, the budget analyst gave Peters an upper hand and legitimacy previously unavailable to council leaders in the past.
He created a system that made the once desultory City Council into one that could get things done. Whatever you think about the guy, you have to admire his instant recognition of the possibilities this new government offered someone like him.
But here’s the problem that makes all this impressive power consolidation rather pointless: this City Council doesn’t want to get anything done.
Because of Peters, the City Council has changed from a hapless and desultory group of drunken pistoleros into a little militia. It’s got all these great new weapons. But it’s afraid to shoot.
Peters has set up a system that could drive reform. It could effectively stuff distasteful mayoral measures or guide the mayor. Think about it. The City Council could come up with idea after idea to restructure this city. Now, because of Peters and the new governmental system, it can effectively study the idea and then put on a good show for the public about why the idea has merit.
Not only that, it can implement the idea. If the mayor doesn’t like it, tough, he has virtually no power to stop it.
But, instead, it watches passively as the mayor runs the show.
Ironically, that’s Peters’ fault as well.
Right now, he and the City Council effectively cede power to the city leaders who are confronting or pretending to confront the enormity of the challenges facing San Diego.
The City Council is still crippled, and will remain so, until Peters and his colleagues accept full responsibility in no uncertain terms for what happened to the city’s finances.
Peters took the first step toward this not too long ago when he said he and the others “have to” say they were responsible for having allowed the city to sink into a financial abyss of national notoriety.
If he really accepted responsibility for what happened, he would see it as a moral obligation to fix the city with action of equal significance to the ones that caused the problem.
Peters must acknowledge that this is a problem only ideas can solve. His big brain should be about done reformatting the city’s power structure and it should have room to pump some of these ideas out.
He has so far, however, been very good at criticizing the proposed fixes others have floated – most notably, City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s lawsuit and the ever-present nurturers of the merits of bankruptcy proceedings.
If Peters envisions another route that can raise money or save large amounts of it, he should share it with us using his impressively constructed new communications system. I’ve often criticized the mayor for not yet producing a comprehensive recovery plan – one that would right a ship that is drowning in unpaid debt.
But Peters has staff resources available to him. If he wants to avoid bankruptcy and he thinks Aguirre should abandon his most high-profile efforts, Peters should show us what kind of tax increases or cost-saving measures he thinks we should initiate. Should we raise fees on trash collection? Change the retirement system for future employees? Impose a work furlough?
It’s the City Council that will ultimately make decisions like these, not the mayor. The mayor is meant only to execute them.
If this financial problem is something that will work itself out over time with prudent, and minimal, cuts – as Peters routinely suggests – he should offer up a spending cut. Anything. We’re dying to see it.
As I’ve said, he’s set up a responsive leadership mechanism that could give one of his ideas legs. Let’s see it in action.
But buying the tools needed to fix your toilet is nothing like actually getting on your knees and turning the screws. It is indicative of Peters’ commitment to reform and his lack of concern about the city’s problems that he has yet to propose any major fixes.
Until Peters comes to terms with the impressive problems the city faces, the mayor and city attorney will sway the City Hall in whatever direction they please.
Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.