Friday, March 2, 2007 | After a pointed and public budget battle hit new heights in recent weeks, Mayor Jerry Sanders and several City Council members Thursday reached a tentative compromise on the council’s oversight of the mayor’s budget management.

The compromise, slated for a council vote March 19, could quell a simmering debate over the balance of power at City Hall under the strong-mayor form of government. The dispute hung on the fine line between the City Council’s duty to approve the annual budget and the mayor’s duty to carry it out, with both sides seeking to gain more control over mid-year changes.

“Sometimes you’re going to have friction, and sometimes friction is a positive thing,” said Councilman Tony Young, who along with Sanders and Council President Scott Peters brokered the compromise. “Things aren’t always going to be nice and neat and smooth, but if we come to this with the right perspective, we can work together.”

If approved, the pact would require the council to approve all mid-year cuts that exceed 10 percent of a department’s budget or $4 million. All other spending reductions will have to be publicized. Additionally, any spending in a city department over the amount the council allocated for the annual budget — or any transfer of funds between different departments — would require approval.

The mid-year changes have taken on heightened status as Sanders has stressed the importance of an ongoing streamlining effort to his overall financial recovery plan. The centerpiece of the plan: myriad of layoffs and service cuts to offset an $87 million in next year’s budget.

The proposal announced Thursday imposes fewer restrictions on Sanders than a Feb. 5 council ordinance that called for the mayor to seek approval for any alterations that “materially and substantially” impacted the levels of city services.

Young and Council members Toni Atkins, Donna Frye, Jim Madaffer and Ben Hueso voted for the Feb. 5 proposal, while Peters and Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Brian Maienschein opposed it. Atkins said she is hopeful about the compromise, but added that she won’t make up her mind until she hears the public’s thoughts on it. All other council members did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Leading up to the Feb. 5 vote on the original ordinance, the battle hit a fevered pitch. Both the mayor and Council President Scott Peters raised their rhetoric to its sharpest points since Sanders took office in late 2005. The mayor continues plans to take the issue to the voters, but the tentative compromise offered signs that the two branches of government could resolve the lingering disputes caused by the switch to the strong-mayor government without going to the ballot box.

Sanders lambasted the council’s Feb. 5 proposal, accusing the council of impeding his ability to carry out the cornerstone of his tenure as mayor: downsizing government to fund billion-dollar deficits in infrastructure and retirement costs. He wanted the ability to make cuts unfettered of the council.

“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 told the council before their vote last month.

Sanders had vowed to veto that law and to stage a referendum to overturn it if it survived his veto.

On Thursday, a conciliatory Sanders said he welcomed some council oversight and downplayed its impacts on his ability to manage the approximately 11,000-employee city bureaucracy.

“I think all of us have the same goal in mind, and that’s reform,” the mayor said, standing alongside Peters and Young at the noon press conference.

When the strong-mayor structure took effect in 2006, the mayor was removed from his chairmanship of the City Council to take over the city’s day-to-day administrative duties that were previously assigned to the city manager. The mayor is allowed to propose a budget, but the council has the ultimate say. The mayor can veto the council’s decisions, but the same five council votes that pass a budget can also override a mayoral veto.

Vagueness over the budget oversight issue is one of several nuances of the strong-mayor structure that officials want to change or clarify.

For example, the city auditor’s placement under the mayor has caused widespread concern because of the lack of independence the structure provides for the auditor. The governing structure is set to expire Dec. 31, 2010, and several parties are working on plans to make it permanent.

While the compromise may quell the dispute for the time being if the council approves it, Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said the mayor will still seek voters’ approval in 2008 of giving the mayor authority to make mid-year cuts.

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

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