Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007 | The political struggle over the future structure of San Diego’s city government sprouted in earnest Monday, two days after a group of academics, politicos and City Council representatives met in private to lay the groundwork for a potential 2008 ballot push.

With the experiment with the strong-mayor form of government set to expire in 2010, those involved in City Hall politics have begun gearing up for a 2008 measure to make permanent the structure originally approved by voters in 2004. On top of that, a number of other alterations to the city’s constitution have been floated, such as the addition of more council members, the establishment of an elected auditor and hotly contested decisions on budgeting authority.

A group led by the original authors of the strong-mayor initiative met at the California Western School of Law downtown Saturday to begin plotting out what role, if any, it will have this time around. Also in attendance were City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, representatives from three council offices and a representative of the council’s independent budget analyst.

“The problem now is the constitution of the city is going to have to be amended one way or another because the clock is running. Every faction that has its own stake is going to get into the fray,” said John Kaheny, a former assistant city attorney who is advising the group on legal issues. “And there will be trade-offs and there will be negotiating.”

He added: “All the players are going to start chewing on this really fast.”

The Mayor’s Office, which has announced its intention to form and select its own charter review committee, didn’t receive an invitation to Saturday’s function. It attacked the meeting as secretive.

“It’s regretful that we haven’t learned our lesson from having done these things in private before because we have the problems we have today as a result of the process not being held in public,” said Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz.

The Saturday meeting was called by civic booster George Mitrovich and real estate magnate Malin Burnham and also included University of California, San Diego professor Steve Erie, San Diego State University professor emeritus Glenn Sparrow, Cal Western Dean Steve Smith and Norma Damashek of the League of Woman Voters.

In addition to Faulconer, representatives from the offices of City Councilmembers Donna Frye, Scott Peters and Brian Maienschein attended as well.

Attendees said the meeting was called to decide if the group should pick up the charter-reform charge again. “The decision was unanimous to do something — we don’t know yet exactly what,” Mitrovich said.

It will meet again Feb. 17. Mitrovich said he didn’t invite the mayor because the point of the meeting was to decide whether the group would even do anything, although he said he did personally invite Peters and Councilman Jim Madaffer.

A charter reform measure could make it to the ballot in a number of different ways. City voters could elect an independent commission to review the charter; its recommendations would automatically be placed on a future ballot. The second would be through an appointed commission, whose membership would include a representative picked by each elected official in the city, including the mayor and city attorney. In that case the City Council could alter the commission’s recommendations before they hit the ballot.

A private group could also organize and finance a push to alter the charter. All charter amendments must ultimately be approved by voters.

Erie said he was concerned that the mayor’s committee — which Erie described as more of a task force — gave the mayor too great of power over the agenda and appointments. An appointed commission would give broader representation and an elected commission would ensure true independence, he said.

“The mayor’s task force doesn’t do it,” Erie said. “The mayor’s proposal is as tarnished as we supposedly are.”

Just what the mayor’s proposal looks like remains to be seen. The mayor is contemplating asking each council member to offer three nominees; the Mayor’s Office would then choose the nominee of its liking from each list in addition to its own unspecified numbers of appointees.

No specific proposal exits, but Sainz said the meetings would be subject to the state’s open meeting laws.

The early tussle foreshows what’s likely to be a continuance of the power struggle that developed during the city’s first year of the strong-mayor form of government. Sanders and the City Council have clashed nearly exclusively over the mayor’s authority to manage the budget without council approval and how the city adopts governance reforms in the wake of its accounting scandal.

“The council at the moment is frustrated, just judging from the comments Saturday,” Mitrovich said.

The mayor has waged a battle to consolidate a considerable amount of power beneath him as the dust has settled in the strong-mayor transition. On Monday, he threatened to take the budget battle to the ballot box, saying he would ask voters to give him the authority to make mid-year budget alterations before the City Council voted to give itself such authority.

Additionally, Sanders has tried to hold control over nominations to the new Audit Committee and over the appointment of a new auditor general, two measures meant to prevent the accounting scandals that have drawn in investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some, such as Erie, have pushed for the creation of an independent, elected auditor.

Other kinks in the strong-mayor system remain to be worked out. The mayor’s veto power is simply ceremonial as it stands — the council can overturn it with the same 5-3 vote it takes to pass legislation to begin with.

The removal of the mayor as a sitting member of the City Council has left the council with eight members; the city has the same number of districts it has had since 1963. The presence of an even number of council votes also leaves open the possibility of a tie, although that appears to have been avoided to date on a council that features five Democrats and three Republicans.

The host of contemplated amendments could leave voters in 2008 with a bundle of constitutional changes before them.

Kaheny suggested keeping the 2008 vote simple so that it would just ask to extend strong-mayor and, perhaps, sets up the creation of a charter review committee appointed either by council or by a vote of the people. And Erie said any changes to council seats should wait until after the 2010 census.

The strong-mayor experiment ends Dec. 31, 2010 unless it is extended. Kaheny has pushed for the issue to be dealt with in 2008 so that supporters would have a second chance in 2010 should the first attempt to extend the strong-mayor system fail. If supporters wait until the November 2010 ballot, Kaheny warned, the lag time in how charter changes are recorded in Sacramento could force San Diego to revert back to its old system of government for between two and four months.

Both Frye and Damashek opposed the 2004 strong-mayor initiative. Frye said she sent a representative after “a little bird” informed her of the gathering.

There have also been some concerns expressed whether Saturday’s meeting or any future meetings would violate the state’s open meeting laws. Three of the five council seats that sit on the Rules Committee were present at the meeting, which could have represented a quorum. Four of the eight council seats were represented altogether.

“That probably shouldn’t have happened,” Peters said, adding that a staff member attended the meeting without his knowledge.

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