Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007 | Not much about the long-term future of local politics is certain. But San Diegans can count on one thing: In four years, the city’s experiment with a strong-mayor form of government will come to an end unless city voters decide to extend it.

Ordinarily, four years would seem like plenty of time to allow us to dawdle in the business of today and leave the problems of tomorrow to the leaders of tomorrow — especially as the city tries to handle seemingly intractable daily crises.

But Mayor Jerry Sanders and others have sensed that there really is no time to waste in planning for the future of the strong-mayor system. Sanders rightly discerned, in fact, that the time is now to prepare for a comprehensive reform of the city’s governing blueprint.

We wholeheartedly agree, but we think the city can go further. State law allows San Diego residents to elect representatives who can dedicate a significant amount of time to the challenge of reviewing the city’s charter. The recommendations that group produces, then, automatically become ballot measures that voters can reject or approve. The City Council should soon call for an election of a charter review commission, which — unlike an appointed one — would be able to avoid the politics of expediency that have doomed similar past efforts.

Change in San Diego is much past due. Since 1963, the city has been carved into eight districts, even as its population has grown and needs have evolved. In 1970, each member of the City Council represented fewer than 90,000 residents; today, each represents nearly twice as many.

Yet time and time again, a culture of stagnation at City Hall has thwarted change. There’s much reason to believe that this same culture will hamstring any effort toward meaningful reform that would come from an appointed, rather than an elected, commission.

Take, for example, 1988. That year, the City Council drafted some of San Diego’s most distinguished leaders for a blue-ribbon commission to propose changes to the city charter, the blueprint for the city’s government. In its resolution creating the commission, the council offered it broad powers, and promised that all recommendations made by the commission would “be placed directly on the ballot without further Council directive.”

By all accounts, the commission did a good job — perhaps too good a job. In its final report, the commission offered 13 sensible recommendations, including increasing the number of City Council districts from eight to 10 and creating a veto-wielding mayor, whose new power could be overridden only with a two-thirds vote of the council.

Scared to see their safe districts carved up to make room for more members, and unwilling to cede power to a strong executive, the City Council balked, and almost none of the recommendations ever made it to a city ballot.

The same happened in 2004, when a group of city insiders were so insistent on getting the strong mayor form of government on the ballot that they found themselves forced to concede crucial points to City Council members whose support was needed to get the measure on the ballot. The initiative made it to the ballot, and its approval by voters did, in turn, make the mayor the city’s chief executive. But by pulling the mayor out of the City Council, it awkwardly left only eight voting members on that body.

Furthermore, the supporters pushing the strong-mayor ballot measure through the expedited process were forced to compromise and allow a simple majority of City Council members to override the mayor’s veto. That means the same number of votes needed to pass a measure can override a mayoral veto. This was absurd: If the city is to grant the mayor the power to veto, it should be much more than symbolic. If the city doesn’t want to grant such a power, it should simply decide not to.

In 2004, as in 1988, careful judgment gave way to political expediency, and there’s little reason to believe that another board of appointees would have better luck.

There are many in San Diego who recognize right now the need to extend and tweak the strong-mayor system, perhaps add more members to the City Council and do many other adjustments to the City Charter. If we delay any longer in addressing these issues as a community, ambitious private citizens will fill the gap with a ballot initiative of their own.

Yet ballot-box reform through those kinds of personally sponsored initiatives more often than not produces poorly studied ideas and partial solutions that may create more problems than they solve. Only those who can afford to pay signature collectors and wage the requisite media campaign will have input in such massive government reforms.

We remain hopeful that by electing a charter commission in the coming year and implementing its recommendations in the years following, 2010 will be the year the city sees true reform. Two important events make it a time rife with opportunity: On one hand, the trial period of the strong-mayor government expires, and on the other, a mandatory redistricting means that members of the City Council will likely see their bailiwicks tweaked anyway.

Any review will have to clean up the details the 2004 strong-mayor measure left untouched. For one thing, a strong mayor needs a strong veto, to assure a truly co-equal branch to balance of government to balance the city’s legislative body. For another, having an even number of council members allows for the ludicrous possibility of tie votes; adding three more, elected at-large to represent the city as a whole, would be a good start for any conversation about charter changes.

When asked about their accomplishments in office, many members of the City Council dutifully recite a number of deeds they have performed for the neighborhoods in their district. But most do not consider it their duty to represent the city as a whole and to tackle issues that the entire city faces. Adding at-large members to the council would help resolve that while allowing district-focused council representatives to continue to work for their neighborhoods.

It’s likely that all changes will have their drawbacks. Adding at-large representatives, for example, with their staffs, will cost money, and they will require expensive elections. Yet this is reason to be thoughtful and deliberate about change, not to be afraid of it.

A charter commission, empowered with legitimacy by the voters, is the forum that can give these problems the thorough uncompromising attention they deserve along with a guarantee that voters will get to consider the results.

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