Legally, an individual judge may have the power to decide the meaning of the existing city charter. And a form of charter amendment — ratified by the general voting public — could enforce a more clear determination of the city attorney’s power. But neither inflexible option is a practical solution for a dynamic and growing city like ours.
The best way to determine the most effective distribution of power between branches of government is to start with a loose-written allocation of authority, like our current charter. Thereafter, political actors working within that document should hash out a functional compromise on how that document should work in practice.
The most familiar example of this process is our own U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is famously vague, leaving “the executive Power” vested in the president and the “legislative Power” to the Congress. It took the president, the Congress and the courts fighting it all out through the political process to arrive at a rough consensus on what those words meant, and how power would be exercised.
We’re still fighting about some of those powers. Congress is currently warring with the White House over whether they are entitled to executive-branch papers regarding the recent firing of U.S. attorneys. Our founders couldn’t predict every challenge our country would face. So they painted in broad strokes and left the political process some room to work out the details on how our government would function.
We should require the same here in San Diego, with our city charter, and our city attorney. A judge’s bench is not the best place to decide what works in local government. Nor should elected officials delegate to some charter committee to dictate the powers of the city attorney. Our elected representatives will find the most effective allocation of the city attorney’s power by coming to a functional political accommodation. That’s their responsibility under our system, and they should not run from it.