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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007 | The San Diego City Council passed legislation Monday that requires Mayor Jerry Sanders to ask the council before he can trim city programs in the middle of the year if the cuts affect the level of service residents receive.

Claiming cuts to city services needed to be monitored if Sanders made them outside of the usual budget process, council members voted 5-3 to impose the requirement on the mayor. If the levels of service stray from the amount the council approves in the annual budget, the public should have the right to vet the changes and the council the ability to stop them if a majority disapproves, council members said.

“It wasn’t because there was too much public process” that the city got into its current financial problems, Councilwoman Donna Frye said. “It was because there was too little public input.”

The new law, which was proposed by the council’s independent budget analyst, delved into a new layer of intricacies of budget management that had not been sorted out since the strong-mayor form of government took hold in 2006. Council members raised flags last year when Sanders cut a homeless services program and swimming class that were funded in the budget. More recently, the mayor’s proposal to scale back the Environmental Services Department’s workforce left council members scratching their heads about the impacts on the agency’s services, such as trash pickup.

Sanders, who as mayor under the new structure proposes a budget and manages it throughout the year, bitterly opposes the new requirements. He vowed to veto the legislation and ask the city’s voters to repeal the law in an upcoming election if the council overrides his veto.

“I will ask voters a relatively straightforward question: Which do you prefer, a mayor intent on implementing reforms and maximizing tax dollars, or a city government that fights reforms and is controlled by special interests?” Sanders said. The mayor’s prospects of succeeding in his threats are made hazy by questions of the legality of a voter referendum on this budget-related legislation and because the same five votes that passed the law can override a mayoral veto.

Sanders claimed the proposal limits his ability to streamline the government’s departments through employee layoffs and other cuts to levels the cash-strapped city can afford. The mayor wants to subject city departments to such reorganization — through a method he calls “business process reengineering” — before deciding whether the city service is efficient or if private businesses should be allowed to compete for the job. He hopes the strategy will alleviate some of the city’s financial strains, which include a projected $87 million deficit in the city’s general fund for the upcoming fiscal year.

Even further, Sanders argued that the new law reaches too far and will prohibit the everyday functions of city government — from changing the Fire Department’s coverage to respond to a particularly intense fire to rescheduling the Park and Recreation Department’s scrap-booking classes.

“Surely no city can operate in such an inefficient matter,” Sanders said.

Frye and Councilmembers Toni Atkins, Tony Young, Jim Madaffer and Ben Hueso voted for the new requirement; Council President Scott Peters and Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Brian Maienschein voted against it. Peters and Faulconer both said they approved of placing a similar check on the mayor’s power, but wanted more time to study the best way to craft a requirement, a course advised by City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Maienschein did not make a statement during the three-and-a-half-hour hearing.

Monday’s vote exemplified the city’s struggle to grapple with the division of power in the strong-mayor system, which drew vague parameters to separate the mayor’s ability to manage the city’s operations and the council’s authority to oversee them. The city’s budgeting practices have been debated repeatedly since the strong-mayor form of government took effect 13 months ago. The switch detached the mayor from the council so that he could have executive powers that were enjoyed previously by the city manager.

Officials and attendees of the meeting disagreed on the new governing structure’s intention. “I think when voters passed the strong-mayor form of government, we thought those words meant what was needed for this city,” La Jolla banker Murray Galinson said. He continued, “If the mayor is telling you this makes his job impossible … it’s probably for good reason.” San Diego County Taxpayers Association president Lani Lutar, who supports a slightly different check on the mayor, disagreed. “The issue should not be about personalities, this issue is one about good governance,” she said.

Peters, who supported the strong-mayor ballot measure, known as Proposition F, said the budget was supposed to be set up as a contract between the council, which has final say on the spending plan, and the mayor, who is charged with implementing it.

“One of the things Prop. F did create was a strong-mayor form of government, not an ‘only-mayor’ form of government,” Peters said.

The tussle for budget authority has become visibly divisive in the past few weeks since Sanders issued a brusque statement to the press regarding the proposal on Jan. 26. In it, he described the council’s management practices as “dysfunctional” and claimed its members were beholden to special interests.

Peters shot back, striking a tone that was more critical and curt than anything he had ever said publicly about his long-time foe, Aguirre. On Monday, he questioned aloud the mayor’s intentions. “Are we working together here, or is this one of political posturing?” he asked.

Peters also asserted that the mayor’s threat to place the law in front of voters was baseless, saying that the city’s municipal code barred a referendum on this type of law. Aguirre said he would not issue a legal opinion on the matter until a city official asks him, but Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said the Mayor’s Office disagreed with Peters.

Assuming the law survives a veto threat, the requirement would be in place for the remainder of the current budget year, which ends in June. Recognizing the law could be improved, council members said they hoped a better version, such as the one found in Oakland, would be approved for the following year.

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

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