Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007 | Several years ago, San Diego city’s elected leaders had a standard answer for questions about things going on in the bowels of City Hall.

It was simple. We’d hear about some interesting plan city management had and we’d ask the mayor or a City Council member about it.

How would the esteemed elected leader respond? “You know, I haven’t had time to really look at what they’re talking about. I look forward to speaking with them and then I’ll vote in the best interests of the San Diegans who’ve come to trust me as a sincere representative of their desires for a strong and vibrant community.”

In other words, they could always act (legitimately) ignorant of what was being cooked up. They could give directions and hope for certain outcomes. They could complain when the meal tasted like garbage or they could even send it back (though they were really much too polite to do this very often).

But for good or bad, the city’s managers could chug along producing simple “proposals.” Think about that word: “proposal.” It’s disarming.

So you’d turn to the managers. Conversations with those cooks in the city’s kitchen would usually go something like this:

“So, I heard you guys want to tax people who own fat spotted cats.”

“No, that’s a proposal.”

“But you did write a report about all the revenue that could be raised from people who own fat spotted cats. You wrote that fat cats are more likely than skinny cats to wear down the city’s sidewalks. And their spots cause them to be camouflaged, which potentially causes more traffic accidents, which is a burden on our police force. You said that the city faces a potential deficit and this would be a way to fill it. You wrote that there is an alternative to the cat tax and that is to do nothing and watch the city’s deficit balloon.”

“Yes, that’s what our research came up with but these decisions are up to the City Council and mayor.”

“So you don’t support taxing fat, spotted cats? That’s strange because I heard you met often with a lobbyist from the La Jollans Against Fat Spotted Cats.”

“No, it’s a proposal, nothing more. We consulted with many stakeholders.”

So you’d be left with a City Council member or mayor who wasn’t ready to take a position on the issue and a manager or bureaucrat who was merely proposing something. Nobody could really criticize the mayor other than to moan and groan about how he wouldn’t take a stand. And complaining about that is as enriching and productive of an exercise as screaming at the television during a football game. All it really does is raise your blood pressure and scare your dog.

This all changed in 2006 when the city switched to the “strong mayor” form of government. The mayor was put in charge of these managers — these cooks trying to come up with palatable entrees are now his employees.

And what a change it has been. After nearly two years, we are now starting to realize what this means for the way things run. What used to be “proposals” from managers without any accountability are now discussions directly attached to the wants and political interests of the most prominent of city leaders.

The mayor, city managers, bureaucrats of all levels can’t talk to anyone, can’t do anything without everyone yelling and screaming about what the mayor is trying to do.

There no longer remains any room for proposals. If anyone on the mayor’s staff (read: a great majority of the employees at City Hall) is proposing something, it’s not unfair to immediately conclude he supports it. That’s why it was a natural reaction for him to immediately, from the beginning, attempt to clamp down on people who spoke in public without his consent.

But it hasn’t completely worked — nor could it. And now the mayor has felt an incredible backlash related to the things he and his staff propose. If someone on his staff comes up with a plan to raise taxes on people who have fat, spotted cats, you can bet that someone who represents people who love fat, spotted cats, is going to jump down his throat.

The mayor fired his top land-use deputy because the deputy went and had a conversation with a city councilwoman. The mayor was excoriated for meeting with the owner of that tower in Kearny Mesa that reached a hazardous height. He was almost embarrassed about it. If he were to be found to be meeting clandestinely with the owners of the San Diego Chargers, he’d be nailed.

But these are all legitimate discussions for a mayor of a big city to at least allow if not foster. Do we really want a city where the mayor is reluctant to talk to people who own buildings deemed to be too high or owners of popular football teams? We elect the mayor precisely to try to handle those types of people.

So, right now, many politicos and city insiders have come to a conclusion. They are complaining that the city has ceased to function. Nobody is producing anything, they say. They blame the city attorney. They blame the mayor. They blame us in the media for trumpeting everything that is happening and therefore making people reluctant then to make anything happen.

It makes you wonder if strong mayor was a bad idea. Should we not let smart diligent managers go back to coming up with proposals? By shining a light on the city have we scared it into paralysis?

But step back for a second.

The problem may not be with the form of government or the public scrutiny. The problem may be a simple weakness. It may just be the result of common anatomical ailment: The lack of a backbone.

Yes, the process has been forced into the open. We are horrified by the way this municipal sausage is made, so the mayor keeps searching for ways to hide it or make the sausage look better.

What we need is for the mayor to just tell us to deal with it. He should be proud of the ideas he has. He should be proud of his decisions to meet with certain people. He should be proud of his decision to change his mind from time to time.

Trumpet it. Scream it. Like a ruthless pack of wolves, political people of all stripes will circle around and injure at a weak, apologetic figure. On the other hand, they respect, at least grudgingly, one that is proud of himself.

Mayor Jerry Sanders has had to adjust not only to being mayor but also to being a new kind of mayor. Unlike past city leaders, he’ll never be allowed to sit back and let proposals come about.

But he’ll have to embrace the efforts that he puts into motion. He’ll have to learn not to try to hide or apologize for what he’s initiated. Otherwise he’ll continue to get eaten alive. And we will all wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to go back to the old system and find some talented secretive managers to quietly come up with proposals like why we should tax fat, spotted cats.

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

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