My earlier post chronicles the play by play call of this past week’s needless drama on the 2003 CAFR. It was interesting, but in thinking about how strange that was, and other events of late, there looks to be a trend line on who runs this place, and there is no question it’s the mayor. I don’t know if he’s so good at it or the council is so, well, not good at the business of governing. But it’s certain, the mayor’s running the table and the council is, perhaps unknowingly, about to be asked to leave the realm of relevance (in the words of HGTV’s “Design Star,” “Your show has been canceled”). And, from a strictly political stand point, you have to acknowledge the mayor’s political aptitude in seizing this position and leaving all the other political positions so compromised.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the events creating this ‘trend’ and some of the reasons why it’s going so well for the big guy.
When the last group faced their possible (inevitable) political demise with the seemingly unstoppable lava flow of hot financial news, they tried to blame the “bigger mess” on the fact that the mayor was just one of eight votes on the council and could not be held accountable for the scrams. Actually, nobody was accountable – but that’s another blog. Anyway, the “answer” (ta-da) was to move in the time honored tradition, to blame the “system” and “fix” it by enacting a “strong-mayor form of government” (later known as the “Strong mayor-Strong Council- Strong Everybody” form of government). All of a sudden, the mayor would be “strong” (which is not to say everybody else would not be “strong”). But, just the saying of it would likely solve all our problems.
Well, it needed to get moving in a hurry so the charter amendment was slapped together by some political consultants, and along with some other worthless measures, put on the ballot after all the consideration that could be had in about two cups of coffee. This was not Jefferson, Adams and Franklin type product. It was fast, sloppy, and imprecise. That leaves lots of room for definition, measurement, and standards for execution, none of which was thought of at the time.
And, that brings us to today. The reality of now is that you have two competing elements of government which vie for leadership roles in a vacuum of no precedent. The mayor, and his folks, gets this. (Certainly, the city attorney gets it). But the council and Independent Budget Analyst (“IBA”) clearly do not.
If there were any question about that, check out the whiny almost plaintive cry out for “cooperation,” “collaboration” and “compromise” from council members Peters and Atkins in their recent letter to the editor. The mayor ain’t buying that stuff. This is a different kind of government now. You aren’t “all in it together.” You get cooperation from strength, not by begging for a return to “the good old days” where everybody “covered” for each other. In the next stink, and there will certainly be one, you’ll see just how willing the other branches of government are to take the heat with you – not.
The mayor has problems he has to deal with now and is going to govern by himself because he can, and because the council has done nothing to suggest it has any interest or ability in doing so itself. If he can do it without the council, that’s just a whole lot easier than trying to do it with, or around, them.
Is the mayor being unfair or mean in any of this? Nope. Why? Because he knows where he wants (needs?) to go and the council has no idea what it is, stands for, or wants to accomplish.Maybe that’s because Council President Scott Peters is just not ready to stake out the council’s turf as Scott Lewis suggested, or can’t take on the mayor during SEC negotiations. Maybe it’s something else. Doesn’t matter. As president, he embodies the council, and the council’s not in the game.
Which is just as well, because the mayor really doesn’t have time to accommodate the council.
Let’s look at where we are.
I think the mayor’s team has spent the last year checking out the numbers and has (quietly) concluded the BIG financial deficit numbers we were talking about during the last campaign are actually the ones they have to deal with. Not drinking the pension thugs’ cool-aide. The numbers really are in the multi-billions.
Now the mayor campaigned on no “increased revenues” (sssshhhhh, “taxes”) and he is stuck there, at least until after re-election in 2008. We are already seeing big increases in fees and service charges (municipal pools, golf, water service, sewer, etc) but nothing that goes to the voters. More of those big “fee increases” are coming. And guess what? You’re going to get the chance to vote for those – oh goodie!
Since the debt numbers are giant, the mayor needs to control the use of all revenues to hold the line until after ’08. There is not enough money to go through the normal budget stuff with community services factored in and still have enough left to do the stuff he has to do given the constrictions he’s placed on himself.
The council has let him get the high ground on issues of public perception. His polls are like 90 percent and the council’s like 20 percent. Why? Because no one has challenged his governance for the last year while the council’s governance takes every torpedo below the water line. The council let that happen. When he proposed his budget, he used the Gleason settlement pension numbers, which the council (and he) knows are phony and continue “backloading” debt on the public. The council voted for that (not Donna Frye) – and we know why. His draft 2003 CAFR personally skewers some of the council members for the “backloading” of earlier years, but the council did not cause him to even face that issue himself this year. The deficit is still massive (and now bigger as a result of the last budget cycle) and it’s the council’s fault, not his. I give him credit for getting the council to go along.
The council allowed the mayor to use almost $11 million per year of non-taxpayer city revenue (tobacco settlement revenue), for a pension contribution that did not solve anything, but bought him another year to plan his financial responses. Your districts each lost $11 million during the course of your terms of service. Whad’jour districts get in return? You then got a request to approve the Kroll’s “top 121.” The whole thing. Take it or leave it. Some of that stuff had a little zing in it for you. You almost ate that whole thing – and it solves nothing. You got asked to “vouch” for a 310-page single spaced draft CAFR. More spicy stuff in there than a plate of Buffalo wings. The IBA ate the whole thing and recommended you “vouch” even though the numbers and the other stuff was unreliable. You darn near went for that too. What would you have gotten for that?
Your kids’ swimming plan was gutted and the homeless job thing spiked. The mayor says he can reallocate budgeted funds within “categories” on his own. So, for budgeting purposes, that just leaves you to set the categories, fund them and go home. And, take the IBA with you. If there’s no “budget respect,” she won’t be needed to “analyze” anything anymore. Maybe that’s a great way to go for all of us. It’ll certainly save a lot of time.
The mayor’s doing the Navy Project . I don’t know anything about it – might be great. But, you don’t need to be concerned because he doesn’t care what you think.
So, let’s review. On the combustible stuff (adopting all the Kroll 121, the “vouching” for the draft CAFR, booting the old local golfers out of Torrey Pines, massive service fee increases, etc.) that’s where the council gets to participate – that’s what the council does.
On the settling of the SEC investigation, the spending of the money, the deciding on the real estate projects, the “fixing” of the sewers and water – that would be what the mayor does.
If that’s ok with you, I think the rest of us are ok with that result.
And, the mayor has some pretty effective people advancing his agenda. Sainz works the press successfully, Michell interfaces with you, and Waring works the asset side like no one before him. So, pretty good stuff going on “inside the house.” You see any of them writing public memo’s like the one you got from IBA Tevlin to support the goofy “vouch” thing?
What about the U-T Editorial Board? They call (some of you) the “negligent five” (and with the notable exception of my friend Kevin Faulconer, I’m not sure they like the rest of you any better). Read their stuff on Jerry and, with candles and an inspirational icon, it would be a private worship service.
Since most of us don’t have a dog in this fight, we have to give the mayor some strategic snaps for taking all he can get as fast as he can get it. But, on a more academic plane, the Maienschein question from the CAFR thing is important? What, if anything, are you all about?
I think you’re getting peeled like a clove of garlic, one skin at a time. When the peeling is over, look out for the pan with the hot oil in it.
Fact is, the mayor knows what he’s doing. And, you don’t.
Maybe this is what “strong mayor” government was intended to be.
– PAT SHEA