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Monday, Oct. 8, 2007 | Voters will get the chance to expand the San Diego City Council from eight seats to 11 if the council decides in the coming weeks to put a new proposal on June’s ballot.
If three new districts are added, San Diego’s political landscape as well as the power dynamic at City Hall could be impacted significantly.
By slicing the city into more sections, council offices would represent smaller geographic areas and an estimated 40,000 fewer residents, refining the focus of council members in terms of both taking care of neighborhood issues and campaigning.
But the proposal, which is one of several City Charter changes being recommended by a citizen panel, will likely be met with some controversy. It’s tethered to another suggested bylaw change that would significantly bolster the mayor’s power over legislation. Additionally, convincing voters to spend city money on new council offices, which each run on annual budgets of slightly less than $1 million, is going to be a tough sell when the city’s bleak financial outlook will be front and center in other 2008 races.
“There will be a big fight of over this because of the new staff costs involved,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “You have a very tax-conscious crowd who’s going to be weary about raising the cost of doing business.”
Speculation over the council’s expansion comes as the city of San Diego contemplates a second chapter in its recent overhaul of the government’s hierarchy. Loose ends remain from the city’s switch in 2006 to a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor was removed from the City Council and installed as the executive of the entire 10,500-employee city bureaucracy.
Without the mayor, the council has operated as an eight-member board for nearly two years. The even number of seats forces proposals to garner support from five council members — a supermajority, in the eyes of critics — for passage.
The group of citizens empanelled by Mayor Jerry Sanders to suggest charter changes considered rectifying the even-numbered situation either by adding one seat or three seats. They even entertained the addition of at-large seats, which would represent the city and not a particular area of the city.
In the end, the committee chose to increase the council by three districts after hearing from residents who preferred to trim the size of the districts to limit the number of communities a council member is responsible for.
“One of the main things we heard is neighborhoods feel unrepresented and feel no influence at City Hall,” said attorney John Davies, who served as chairman of the mayor’s charter committee.
Increasing eights districts, which has been the standard in San Diego since 1963, to 11 would change the way council members govern and campaign. With fewer residents, council members would be able to focus more closely on a smaller number of issues and areas of town, which would benefit the constituents, proponents of the council’s expansion said.
“You’re supposed to represent neighborhoods and be close to them. Right now, they’re pretty big,” Council President Scott Peters said. “When you have 185,000 constituents, it’s tough to know all their birthdays.”
There’s been chatter in the local political scene about how 11 seats would break down in partisan terms, as activists in both political parties say controversy is always present when an independent commission realigns the districts every decade.
Of the current eight districts, Democrats have significant advantages in voter registration in three districts (Districts 3, 4 and 8), Republicans have sizable advantages in two districts (Districts 1 and 5), and three are seen as “swing districts” because the margins are close (Districts 2, 6 and 7). Seats are not always secured along such party lines, as elections are technically nonpartisan and voters often send a candidate from the lesser-represented party to City Hall, but the influence of partisan politics has risen in city races.
The prospect of one new seat drew predictions that the ninth council district would be wedged in the northern end of San Diego, between fast-growing Districts 1 and 5, and would have a conservative bent. But the addition of three has politicos scratching their heads.
“We all agreed we could draw councils districts all day until we were blue in the face, but nobody knows,” said T.J. Zane, executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a pro-business political group.
But it appears that by dicing the council into smaller clusters of the municipality, the districts would become more monotonous politically as enclaves that balanced out the makeup of a swing districts could be potentially trimmed out.
For example, in eastern San Diego’s District 7, neighborhoods to the north and south of Interstate 8 have very different party registration numbers, with more conservative voters residing in the Navajo and Tierrasanta areas of the north and the College Area and City Heights neighborhoods housing more liberal voters. By shaving down the districts, District 7 would likely lose a significant number of voters from either of those blocs.
“You would probably end up with fewer swing districts,” said Lorena Gonzalez, the political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
The proposal — which will be considered by a council committee Oct. 24 — also has a chance to change the power sharing between the City Council and mayor. Augmenting the council means more staff members in the legislative branch would be able to increase the oversight of the city bureaucracy being managed by the mayor.
“Instead of having eight staffs working on it, they’d have 11,” political consultant Larry Remer said. “There will be more council members calling press conferences and demanding studies.”
But the current proposal accompanies another change the Charter Review Committee proposed for the strong-mayor system that, when coupled, would grant significantly more power to the Mayor’s Office. Like most governments with elected executives, a supermajority is required for the legislature to override a veto. Under the current city bylaws, the veto carries less heft because it takes the same five votes that are needed to pass legislation to override the mayor.
The citizen committee has suggested strengthening the veto by requiring a two-thirds vote of the council for an override. With 11 seats, that would require eight votes for an override, two more than is needed for the passage of most legislation. Proportionally, a seven-vote override is closer to the two-thirds threshold, but it does not surpass the requirement.
“It weakens the council’s ability to deal with the mayor,” said Erie, who has been critical of the mayor’s influence over the charter review process. “The key number to this thing isn’t 11, it’s eight.”
Erie predicts the eight-vote override could be marketed as a controversial power grab by the mayor to the detriment of the proposal. But he and others said the overhead costs of adding new council offices will likely become tough arguments for the proposal to overcome.
“The average San Diegan is not going to believe that throwing more politicians to the problem is going to solve our financial situation,” said Tony Krvaric, the Republican Party of San Diego County’s chairman.