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Monday, Nov. 6, 2006 | San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders likes to make public appearances to announce things. He enjoys it and does it often. So it surprised me Thursday when he did something no other mayor had done in San Diego for several decades and, yet, he hardly uttered a peep about it.

This is the guy who occasionally announces things like the Stay Safe Campaign that went like this: “San Diego’s leaders remind you not to stuff burning coals into your mouth while you enjoy the Fourth of July holiday.”

Then there was the announcement not too long ago that the Convention Center had reached a milestone selling 1 million hotel room nights for the year. Wow.

Hey, as I’ve noted before, his aides think it’s important for the mayor to control the news cycle – to do everything he can to get the press and the people talking about what he wants them to talk about.

Yet last Thursday he did something unprecedented – something that, before then, was only a theoretical possibility. His move may even have been historical for city politics dorks like me.

He vetoed an action by the City Council.

He’s the first mayor to have the power to do that since before the Spanish Civil War (I was a Hemingway fan). Before Sanders, all these post-Spanish Civil War city mayors were merely members of the City Council. Sure they had a bit bigger soapbox and “mayor” is a way more impressive title than “member of the City Council.” Previous to this year, mayors of San Diego were supposed to represent the wishes of the entire city rather than particular neighborhoods, but, at the end of the day, they did only have one vote out of nine.

But now, at the same time we got Sanders, we also got the “strong mayor” form of government. And the new mayor has finally used one of the tools we handed him with that new government: veto power.

On Thursday, Sanders used it for the first time.

By now, if you follow city politics, you must have heard of the dilemma. A few weeks ago, the council learned that the Park and Recreation Department, overseen by the mayor, had cut a $115,000 Blue Level Competitive Swim Club for kids in south San Diego.

This upset them as the news of the cut supposedly came at the same time that news emerged that the mayor had decided not to give a $300,000 contract to the nonprofit Alpha Project. The money for that program was to be used to hire homeless people to clean up the streets and “remove blight” from the city.

The council got all fired up. See, even though the mayor has all these new powers not seen since the Spanish Civil War, he ostensibly doesn’t have the power to set the city’s budget – to make cuts to services or take money from one department and give it to another. Like the federal government, he is the executive and empowered only to manage the money he is allocated.

So the City Council was furious. How could the possibly cut a program like this swim club?

The mayor’s argument was simple: The City Council merely set a budget for the Park and Recreation. What happens with the money in that department is up to the mayor unless the council goes further to define, in law, what specific allocations should be made. The U.S. Congress can pass budgets down to the specifics – so specific, in fact, an agile congressman can shovel pork to the guys who buy his commodes. If the City Council wants money to be spent on something, it should say so in writing?

The swim program was costing too much and something had to give in the department’s budget.

The City Council’s concern was a good one: They are held accountable for what is done in their neighborhoods. If they are going to be held accountable for what is spent and not spent on improving their constituents’ areas, they should be the ones in control of the budget. That way they can explain why something was cut if it needs to be cut. But if the mayor or someone else just starts cutting things without the City Council’s approval, that means the City Council will likely be held accountable for the mayor’s decisions.

Plus, it’s worth it to note, the mayor had stated he didn’t anticipate any service cuts over the year.

Infuriated, the City Council voted on and approved a resolution Oct. 17 that demanded that the mayor reinstitute funding for the swim program.

An opinion from the city attorney was requested asking to know if the mayor had overstepped his legal bounds by making the cut.

Although City Attorney Mike Aguirre had approved the council’s resolution, he later came back and said that, no, the council should have actually amended its budget if it wanted to reinstate the swim club.

And now we get to the historical event of last week: The mayor vetoed the council’s resolution reinstating the swim club.

But then he reinstated funding for the swim club.

Ahh, City Hall maneuvering, isn’t it enchanting?

The mayor said he would keep the funding for the swim club until January, by which time the City Council will have to explicitly amend its appropriations ordinance (read: budget) and define from where the money for the program is going to come. So he was vetoing the resolution but compromising as well.

He could have just compromised. But he did a full veto for a reason. He’s not backing down.

This is obviously a much bigger deal than just a swim program.

In post Spanish Civil War San Diego, the city manager was the city’s executive. City managers were more obedient to the City Council than the mayor is being now because their jobs depended on maintaining a majority of supporters on the City Council.

The mayor, however, has a different boss. And he is going to be held accountable by voters as well so he wants as much authority as possible to do what he thinks is right.

What needs to happen is simple: Someone, presumably the city attorney, needs to draw up a definitive guide delineating exactly what the City Council’s budget – its appropriations ordinance – means, legally. If it means that the mayor can make changes within it, the mayor should be allowed to.

And if that’s true, the City Council should work fast and furious to define each and every program it thought it had approved in principle.

That, I think, would be a good thing. They must start to see the budget for what it is: not a collection of wishes, and “principles” but a collection of expenditures put up against revenues.

If they want to fund a swim program, and they don’t want to let the mayor figure it out, they better break out the calculator and figure it out themselves.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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