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A reader said:

I would be very interested in your discussion of power relationships that are evolving regarding the strong mayor government.

A few years ago, a small group was asked by the city to review the City Charter. From what I’ve read, the group was dominated by local real estate developers, downtown attorneys and other local powerbrokers. As typically happens, much of the debate that took place at committee meetings took place under the local media radar, since few things can be as boring as pouring over City Charter sections. Out of this effort was born a ballot initiative calling for the city of San Diego to shift from its traditional strong City Council/city manager form of government to a new “strong mayor” form of government.

The new government format would separate the mayor from the City Council, and put the mayor in charge off all city staff, making him more accountable for the success or failure of city operations, with the city council focusing on a more legislative role.

Checks and balances were built in to keep the mayor from becoming a local dictator, including the ability of the City Council to veto any action of the mayor with a majority vote.

With the government meltdown as the pension scandal came to light, the initiative passed, and the Mayor’s Office, the City Council and the city attorney have been trying to figure out how the new city government will work. The city manager left, along with the city auditor, under a cloud of suspicion over accounting problems. The Mayor’s Office has filled the void left by the elimination of the city manager’s role, and is still testing the extent of the powers conferred on it by the change in government structure.

The City Council, shell-shocked by the unwinding pension problems and the SEC investigation of city bond issuance practices, has been rocked back on its heels, and has become more passive than previous councils were, when the mayor was just one voting member of the council. It remains to be seen whether the City Council will eventually become a co-equal branch of city government, or just the peanut gallery to the Jerry Sanders Show. This evolving power relationship has also provided additional opportunities for special interest lobbyists to influence government policy, by playing the mayor off the City Council and the city attorney’s office.

The shift to the new form of city government was not fully thought through before it was implemented. Now we need to start filling in all the blanks and making sure that each branch of city government knows what its roles and responsibilities are, and are held accountable for doing their jobs, especially in the areas of land use planning and zoning. That will probably take a few more years.


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