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Supporters of the Charter Review Committee convened by Mayor Jerry Sanders are trying as hard as they can to defend it against claims of illegitimacy. That challenge is tough, but fortunately there are plenty of lawyers and lobbyists on the committee who sell “spin” for a living and are therefore up to the challenge. Will the public buy it? I hope not.

What’s wrong with the Committee? Let’s go back to Proposition F — the strong mayor form of government (“SMFG”) measure approved by the voters in November 2004 — and see what the voters were promised. With my emphasis, here’s what Section 255 of Proposition F (now Section 255 of Article XV of the Charter) said:

(a) The date for the provisions of this Article to become operative is January 1, 2006.

(b) After January 1, 2006, the provisions of this Article shall remain in effect for a period of five years (until December 31, 2010) at which time this Article shall be automatically repealed and removed from the Charter. However, the Council or the people reserve the right to propose amendments to the Charter at the November 2010 election or sooner [i] to extend, make permanent, shorten or repeal the effective period of this Article and [ii] to consider increasing the number of Council districts to nine at the time of the next City Council district reapportionment which follows the national decennial census in 2010.

Now consider the following problems:

Impetus for Reform

Who initiated charter reform now? Proposition F contemplates that “the Council or the people” will undertake reform (the scope of which I’ll discuss below). Yet it was Mayor Sanders who initiated reform on Jan. 22, 2007. I suppose the “Reform Now!” boosters could argue that “the people” includes the mayor. (I’m actually hoping that the committee will argue that “the Council” includes the mayor — that should be fun reading!)

What is troubling is the imbalance on the committee. The mayor’s Jan. 22 memo said that he’d “make a number of appointments to round out the committee [after council appointments] ensuring a representative balance.” There are eight council appointees—one from each district—and seven mayoral appointees. Notably, there is not a single appointee of the city attorney, even though reform of the city attorney’s office is being considered.

This observation is not meant to be a disguised defense of Mike Aguirre. (Disclosure: I have publicly said many times that, on the whole, I support Aguirre.) It is meant to suggest that political paybacks are at least partly behind the exclusion of a city-attorney appointee on the committee. There is no room for settling political scores through charter reform.

Timing of Reform

Why are we considering charter reform now? The “Reform Now!” boosters’ plan is to put reform recommendations on the ballot for November 2008. The pro-reform spin-doctors, like the committee member who hosted Café San Diego just last week, say that the committee is being “proactive.” In this context, “proactive” is the spin-doctor’s euphemism for “premature.”

Reform is premature for November 2008 because voters do not yet have enough experience with the SMFG to make an informed decision. The voters anticipated a five-year trial period, no doubt built on the assumption that city government would not be as dysfunctional as it is and that the mayor’s administration would not be spending the majority of its time in crisis mode. We are 18 months into what an overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum — even the political out-of-touch folks on the U-T’s editorial board and the deadly scary mayoral wanna-be Steve Francis — agree is an administration that spends most of its time in “cover-your-administration” (C.Y.A.) mode. How can anyone think that we’re in a position to evaluate the SMFG and propose recommendations for its reform at this time? The only evidence we have in support of reforming the SMFG — in particular, to get rid of it—is that the man currently in charge stinks as a leader. (Can you say “Sunroad”? How about “Carl DeMaio and chairman of the Independent Rates Oversight Committee”?)

Now, there is nothing in the language of Proposition F that prohibits the voters from revisiting the SMFG before November 2010, but reform recommendations should be based on evidence of problems developed after a reasonable period of study. You would think that a committee made up of so many lawyers would recognize the need for such supporting evidence.

Scope of Reform

Of all my concerns, this is the one that really exposes the “Reform Now!” boosters to be the political power-grabbers that they are. The voters were told that the only reasons for revisiting the SMFG before November 2010 would pertain to the duration of the trial period and to increase the number of council seats. Why, then, are there so many other topics on the table? On August 9, the committee recommended a “sunset” provision for the SMFG (more on that below), a provision increasing the number of council seats by three, and a provision requiring a two-thirds council vote to override a mayoral veto.

I do not see the veto topic anywhere in Proposition F. But more than that, I do not see implementation of the Kroll recommendations in Proposition F (the mayor’s memo cited this is a reason for reforming the charter). Nor do I see delineating the “the roles and responsibilities of elected officials and the separation of powers under the strong mayor.” And if you look at the agendas for the three subcommittees, you’ll see that they’re talking about a city auditor, the status of the personnel director, outsourcing police and fire, giving council members a raise, and the appointments process. These are certainly important topics, but why are they included in a review that, at this point in time, should be limited to the length of the SMFG trial period and the number of council seats? What’s the rush to deal with such important topics by November 2008? And, by the way, if we’re going to deal with important topics now, why are we not talking about campaign-finance reform? (The last question was rhetorical. I already know the answer: politicians who get fat on campaign contributions don’t like to think about putting themselves on diets.)

Having put forward a recommendation on the duration of the trial period and an increase in the number of council seats, the committee’s work done should be done under Proposition F. With another month to go, however, it seems that the “Reform now!” boosters are just getting warmed up.

(Note: We had eight council seats back in the middle of the last century, when the population was half of what it is today. Why, then, did the committee recommend just three additional seats? We need at least eight seats to maintain the proportionate representation that we had nearly 60 years ago. Adding three seats hardly cuts it.)

The Setting Sun

This is the biggest spin-job of all: the so-called “sunset” provision. The committee approved a revision that extends the SMFG trial period to Dec. 31, 2014, but then makes the SMFG permanent unless repealed or modified by the voters. Proposition F, in contrast, gets rid of the SMFG unless the voters take affirmative steps to keep it. No doubt the “Reform Now!” boosters’ campaign will tell voters that the SMFG’s trial period is being extended, without also telling them that the SMFG becomes permanent rather than non-existent at the end of the trial period. Since when did “sunset” become synonymous with “forever permanent”? That was certainly not the term’s meaning when Proposition F was being sold to the voters.

The solution to all these problems is an elected charter commission (see Government Code Section 34450 et seq.). If the “Reform now!” boosters believe so strongly in putting charter questions to the voters, why not ask the voters right up front whether they want to pick the people who will research and make recommendations for reform? The answer, from what I can tell so far, is that the boosters will have a much harder time getting the political power they want at city hall if they have to go through an elected body that answers to the voters instead of an appointed body that answers to the people who want to control the reform agenda (and hence the outcome). If the voters are smart enough to consider reform recommendations, then they are smart enough to vote on who gets to make the recommendations.

So, when voters are excluded from a process touted for the opportunity it is supposed to provide them, when the burden of proving the SMFG’s merits before making it permanent is reversed, when the initial trial period is cut down by at least 40 percent, when a laundry list of reforms is added to the original two-item list given to the voters, and when each branch of government being considered for reform does not have representation on the body contemplating the reform recommendations, how could the “Reform now!” boosters expect the public not to react by questionning the committee’s legitimacy and motives?

It’s too soon to be proposing any reforms of the SMFG, the reforms go too far, and they involve the voters too little.

— CORY BRIGGS

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