Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007 | A City Council committee agreed to slow down revision of the City Charter on Wednesday after several council members, community activists and Mayor Jerry Sanders disagreed with a task force’s suggestion to have voters permanently brand San Diego as a strong-mayor city next year.

There was little consensus among the four council members present at the Rules Committee meeting regarding even the most basic bylaw changes the mayor-appointed charter panel proposed after six months of study.

That dissension hints that the citizen panel’s proposal to revamp San Diego’s city government could be whittled down significantly by the time a proposal reaches voters in June. The committee’s meatier suggestions, including the extension of the strong-mayor form of government, appear to be in jeopardy of being postponed to a later ballot.

With them, the proposition in front of voters is a broad overhaul of the municipal government; without it, it’s a mere cleanup of the city’s constitution.

It’s a possibility council members made clear Wednesday.

“I have a sense there are some who are not in the mood to take big steps,” Council President Scott Peters said.

Instead of moving the Charter Review Committee’s recommendations closer to the ballot, council members decided to take more time in vetting the bylaw changes by allowing other council panels to weigh them before they are heard by the full City Council.

“I’m not in a hurry. I’m not ready to rush this,” Councilman Tony Young said.

The charter review process began in March when Sanders empanelled 15 members of the community to study whether the machinations of the city government should be changed to recalibrate the checks and balances at City Hall. The committee offered several suggestions, such as adding three additional council seats, providing the council more authority in the hiring and oversight of the city auditor, and defining the city attorney’s client to be the city government and not the public, as City Attorney Mike Aguirre contends.

But front and center to the discussion of charter reform is cementing the strong-mayor system, in which the mayor acts as the executive in charge of operating the entire city bureaucracy, beyond its 2010 expiration date.

Voters approved a five-year trial of the strong-mayor form of government, beginning in 2006. But the Charter Review Committee recommended that voters make it permanent this June, just two and a half years into the experiment.

If the effort to extend the strong mayor system is abandoned then many of the other proposals will also become moot. Those suggestions to create a stronger mayoral veto and to give the mayor power to appoint the city’s auditor were dependent on the mayor being the city’s chief executive. Those new measures wouldn’t apply beyond 2010 if voters fend off a permanent strong-mayor system, regardless if they’re asked in June or two years later.

If the permanence of strong-mayor — and the lines of authority that would be drawn along with it — is up for debate in the spring, the charter revisions would amount to a major overhaul. If it’s left off, the remaining reforms would be more likely viewed as some clean-up items along some interim changes that expire with the strong-mayor experiment, pushing the difficult decision over the government’s long-term structure to a future date.

Instead, they would last only as long as the mayor was separated from the council.

Solving the council’s current conundrum of avoiding tie votes by keeping an odd number of seats could also hinge on the strong-mayor question. The mayor’s return to the council would add a vote. If the addition of three council seats, as the charter panel proposed, is approved by voters but not the extension of the strong-mayor arrangement, the council will continue to harbor an even number of seats and the possibility of tie votes.

Opinions vary on the council, which decides what proposals make it onto the ballot, regarding a permanent strong-mayor arrangement.

Council President Scott Peters said he favored the strong-mayor structure. Before the switch, the manager could deflect responsibility for a problem in the city to the council, which was sometimes left in the dark about the issue, he claimed. As an elected executive, the mayor is held accountable by voters, Peters said.

Peters himself has gained more visibility in the public eye as the chairman and de-facto spokesman for the city’s legislative body for the past two years.

However, Councilman Jim Madaffer said he pined for the times before 2006, when the council and mayor “worked in a team-like approach.” Today, Sanders and the council are frequent adversaries battling over information, authority and policy decisions.

Even Sanders, who enjoyed an unprecedented windfall of mayoral power as the first modern-day “strong mayor,” said in a memo this week that he wanted to hold off on permanently transforming his office into the overseer of all city departments. He said San Diegans deserve to witness the five-year experience they approved as part of Proposition F before having to decide on the system’s future.

“I agree with the Committee’s reasoning that Strong Mayor deserves support; however, I disagree that the decision should be taken away from voters,” Sanders stated in the memo.

Sanders is now in the ironic position of disagreeing with the committee he appointed. He defended the legitimacy of the committee despite criticisms that he had too much influence over the panel and that, as a result, he would enjoy increased authority as a result of its recommendations.

Several of the public speakers also weighed in on the new form of government. Jerry Butkiewicz, the outgoing secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, said, “It doesn’t work, I want to go back to when the council and mayor worked in tandem.”

Ashley Aluisi, a staff member at the pro-business Lincoln Club of San Diego County, heralded the public’s ability to select the city’s top administrator. “It means my right and my neighbor’s right to be heard is respected,” she said.

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

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