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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007 | The group of citizens tapped by Mayor Jerry Sanders to drum up constitutional changes for San Diego voters to consider next June is set to wrap up its work over the next week. Their suggestions for recalibrating the balance of power at City Hall will be forwarded on to the City Council, who will have final say over what proposals are placed on the ballot.
Among the changes the Charter Review Committee has tentatively endorsed include expanding the number of City Council seats from eight to 11, strengthening the mayor’s veto, granting the mayor permanent executive powers, and insulating the city’s audit function from the influence of the administration on the government’s watchdog agencies.
Schooling the Charter
With months of hearings in its rear-view mirror, the Charter Review Committee will take its final stand this Thursday and next on the issues, while more controversial changes contemplated by the committee could be shelved for years.
But jumping into the middle of the debate has proven to be difficult. The information discussed by the committee is hard to track down and meeting agendas are frequently inaccurate or altered just before a hearing.
“We certainly … could’ve done much better in opening up the process,” said San Diego State University professor emeritus Glenn Sparrow, a member of the committee.
At stake in the process is the first major revision of the City Charter, which divvies authority between elected officials and maps out the machinations of city government, since voters gave it a temporary overhaul in 2004 by approving the strong-mayor form of government.
Under the strong-mayor structure, which took effect in 2006, the mayor was separated from the City Council and handed the authority to administer the city bureaucracy on a day-to-day basis. The council is instead led by a president, who is selected by council colleagues. The arrangement is scheduled to expire in 2010.
The Charter Review Committee is suggesting that voters make the strong-mayor structure permanent when they cast ballots in June 2008. The proposals will be submitted to the City Council, which is scheduled to begin reviewing it at the Rules Committee on Oct. 24.
The Charter Review Committee has already voted to expand the number of council districts in the city from eight to 11. The move would provide more tightly-knit districts, particularly in the fast-growing northern suburbs, by siphoning off an average of 40,000 residents from the purview of each council office.
“One of the main things we heard in the public comments is neighborhoods feel unrepresented and feel they have no influence at City Hall,” said attorney John Davies, the committee’s chairman.
By adding three seats, the council would also be spared of the awkward dynamic of having an even number of districts, which has lent itself to some 4-4 tie votes.
While the five-eighths endorsement is more burdensome for simply passing legislation than a simple majority, it is also all that is needed currently to override the mayor’s veto. The arrangement allows the council to effectively render the mayoral veto a symbolic act.
That’s why the committee is proposing that the council must garner a two-thirds vote to override a mayoral veto. With 11 council seats, that equates to eight votes, which is two more than the six that would be needed to initially pass a proposal.
The change in the veto override would shift power to the mayor. But the council would be dealt more authority over an audit function in which they currently have very little sway.
With past bookkeeping errors attracting federal investigators and causing the city’s exile from Wall Street, oversight of the audit function is a crucial responsibility that council members and the mayor have tugged at evenly.
Currently, the City Charter delegates the power to hire and fire the auditor to the mayor, but the council can override the mayor in firing the auditor if he or she requests an appeal.
The Charter Review Committee has proposed separating the internal auditor, which serves as the city’s in-house financial watchdog, from the Audit & Comptroller’s Office so that the mayor does not supervise both his bookkeepers and those inspecting his administration.
To insulate the auditor from being too controlled by the mayor, the charter panel wants the city auditor to be appointed by the mayor in consultation with an Audit Committee — comprised of two council members and three members of the public — and subject to confirmation by the full City Council. The auditor would be hired to a 10-year term, but the Audit Committee would have the authority to fire with a four-fifths vote. The fired auditor could appeal to the City Council, which would need a two-thirds vote to override the Audit Committee’s decision.
The Charter Review Committee was forced to balance the efforts by both the council and the Mayor’s Office to rein in more authority over the appointment of the Audit Committee members.
One issue the committee has not yet considered — and may not at all — is the authority of the city attorney. Mike Aguirre, who holds the position now, has contended that he can unilaterally sue on the city’s behalf as an independently elected official.
A subcommittee voted to curb the city attorney’s authority by requiring the council’s approval before a lawsuit could be filed in the city’s name, but sources close to the committee, who wished to speak anonymously in order to honor the charter panel’s deliberative process, said they thought the committee would avoid the politically sensitive issue.
The committee’s outside consultant, James Ingram, suggested as much in a memo he sent to the Mayor’s Office last week.
“It seems to me that if the Subcommittee impairs these oversight powers held by the City Attorney’s Office, then the public might regard the change proposed for Section 40 with suspicion,” he wrote, referring to the portion of the charter that deals with the city attorney’s powers.
Suspicion has been a strong theme throughout the committee’s tenure.
Critics have pointed out that because the committee is appointed, it hasn’t had to abide by the state’s public meeting laws. As a result, meeting agendas are posted and updated very close to meetings, if at all. The documents that are discussed at meetings are often unavailable until meeting time. On Thursday, the committee is slated to discuss a final report that Ingram and city staff are preparing, but it will be released for the first time publicly at the meeting.
“It would not be appropriate or good form to give documents to you before the committee,” Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said to a reporter Wednesday. Sainz acknowledged that a draft of the report was ready, but that the document wouldn’t be ready until Thursday’s meeting, which will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Balboa Park Club.
And as deliberative as the process has appeared, with the panel conducting months’ worth of workshops and soliciting input in neighborhoods around the city, the committee’s work has been blemished in the eyes of skeptics who see it as being too closely tied to the mayor.
“We should all recognize this is the mayor’s committee,” Peters remarked at a press briefing in August.
Council members, organized labor and community activists have taken shots at the panel, noting that several business lobbyists were chosen by Sanders to serve on the committee.
The arrangement created a situation in which those appointed lobbyists would have business in front of the mayor’s bureaucracy at the same time he could stand to gain power through the committee’s recommendations.
Donna Jones, a land-use lobbyist who was nominated by Peters, disagreed.
“I never felt any decisions were being dictated by the Mayor’s Office,” she said. “I made my own decisions based on the information I received.”
Past charter committees have been elected by voters, providing them with greater independence from city officials whose authority is at stake in charter reform ballot measures like the one being contemplated for next year. But by appointing a panel, seven of the 15 appointees were handpicked by Sanders. The mayor chose the other eight members by selecting one of three nominees that each council member submitted.
Jones said an elected panel would have separated charter commissioners from the politicians who appointed them, but that their independence hardly meant they were separated from politics.
“They would have their own agendas as well,” she said.
— Andrew Donohue contributed to this report.