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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008|Recently there has been a lot of talk about implementing structural changes to the City of San Diego’s government, such as making the strong mayor reforms permanent and adding members to the City Council. These reforms, however, are not the ones that are most needed. Having a strong mayor may or may not be beneficial depending on how good your mayors are; if we elect good mayors, then a strong mayor system works great; if not, it falls flat. New York, which has one of the strongest mayors in the country, highlights this dynamic: in the past good mayors in New York have shone, but poor ones have driven the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

There has not been any research establishing that a strong mayor system is better than other systems, holding the quality of the mayors themselves constant.

For politicians, the distribution of political power among public officials is key, and thus the strong mayor battle (and also the number of Council districts) is of the utmost importance. But this shouldn’t be a major concern for the public. Instead, we should focus on other reforms that have greater potential to improve the quality of governance within the City. Here are three reforms that should be considered:

1.) Instant runoff voting: Instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, is a process where voters rank their top three choices in the polling booth rather than just voting for their first choice. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, then the last place candidate is dropped and his or her supporters’ second place votes are counted and distributed among the remaining candidates. If there is still no candidate who received a majority of votes, another candidate is dropped and the process repeated until a candidate can claim a majority.

Instant runoff voting eliminates the need for a two stage election, such as we have currently for San Diego municipal elections, where a runoff is required if no candidate received a majority of votes in the primary. In addition to saving the city money in administrative costs (they only need to administer one election instead of two), it saves voters time in that they only have to vote once for city offices.

It also leads to fairer outcomes in that it reduces the problem of strategic voting where voters will vote for their second best candidate because their first choice is unlikely to win; they can go ahead and vote for the dark horse candidate because they know that once that candidate is eliminated, their second choice vote will count.

These may be relatively minor benefits, but they accrue with virtually no costs. San Francisco (see their website.) and a few other cities have tried it without problems, and it is worth implementing in San Diego.

2.) Electronic filing of campaign finance disclosure statements: There are a lot of proposals floating around for reforming the city’s campaign finance laws, such as implementing “clean elections” or raising the contribution limit. There are valid arguments for and against these reforms, and whether any of these reforms will do more good than harm is a question beyond the scope of this post.

But there is one reform that may not have the biggest impact, but is relatively non-controversial, has few costs, and will almost certainly have some positive effect. That reform is to require all candidates, organizations, and political parties to file all their campaign documents electronically, allowing the public to easily and quickly view and search them for information. The city has started to require candidates to file electronically, but contributions and expenditures cannot be searched, independent expenditures are not included, and the data is not summarized in an easy-to-read format, making it hard for journalists and voters to get good information.

Finding even simple information, like how much money has been spent on behalf of a candidate to date (including candidate spending, independent expenditures, and party spending) is very difficult and quite time consuming. Having the information readily available online will not fundamentally alter campaign finance patterns in city elections, as candidates will still raise and spend the same amounts, and effective disclosure is not a cure-all for our campaign finance ills. But at least it will be easier to figure out who is funding whom so voters can hold candidates accountable for the campaign finance activity. And there is no downside: they will be a few small start-up costs to implement an electronic filing system, but in the long run it will save the city money since the whole system can be automated. Other cities have effectively implemented mandatory electronic filing. Los Angeles perhaps has the best system — check out their website.

3.) Community Input on the Budget: the city of San Diego provides good information to citizens on the budget, including detailed expenditures and salary schedules. Even if citizens were to review these documents, however, they have no effective mechanism to provide input into the budgeting process beyond the rather useless rituals of attending a council meeting or writing a letter to an elected official. There needs to be more effective channels for citizen input into budgetary decisions, as users of governmental services are the only group in a position to promote more efficient governmental practices. It is very difficult for mayors, Council members, or their staffs to find waste and inefficiencies in government spending; they are too far removed from the front lines to really understand what’s going on. City employees can identify ways to cut out inefficiencies but frequently have incentives not to cooperate in budget cutting exercises (although to their credit sometimes they do).

This leaves citizens — those who use city services — as the group that needs to take the lead on promoting efficient government. The city should create structures that allow for this input to be meaningful. For example, creating deliberative forums of library users to discuss spending priorities within the library department, leading to specific proposals to modify the library budget.

Soliciting community input in a meaningful way is difficult, which is why it so rarely happens (usually “community input” is either too shallow or distorted to have any substantive impact). Despite the difficulties, it is useful to try, since it is the only way that efficiency can be promoted within city government.

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