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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007 | City boosters are often reluctant to confront residents with the complete ramifications of their proposals for the city, but Mayor Jerry Sanders’ Charter Review Committee took that tendency to a new level recently.

The committee is anxious to blunt the criticism likely to come over its proposal to make the city’s strong-mayor form of government permanent. It’s not necessarily the form of government that the committee is anxious to defend. It’s the group’s insistence that less than a year from now is the right time to make that the permanent form of government for the city.

After all, in 2004, residents were promised that this was a temporary trial of the “strong-mayor” philosophy. This, following in the tip-toe tradition of bold proposal presentations, was meant to ease the sale of the new form of government. Don’t worry, the boosters told city residents, this is just a test. Like any good salesperson, they calmly assured voters there was no risk. In 2010, the city would revert back to the old system.

This obviously deserves some preparation as many one-time critics of this new form of government have been converted to advocates of its merits, including both the accountability it heaps on the mayor and the new definition it gives the City Council.

There is little political will to revert to the old form of government wherein the city manager acted at the behest of a City Council that never quite understood what its role really was. Voters will have to approve any extension of the arrangement and if they don’t put anything on the ballot in 2008, the city might come too close for comfort to reverting back to the old system should an early 2010 vote fail.

In order to avoid this eventuality, the committee has now officially recommended that the city extend the strong-mayor form of government. But fearful of critics, the group tried to make it somehow more palatable. The official recommendation reads that, if implemented, the “strong-mayor” form of government would still be a temporary experiment until it automatically becomes permanent in 2014.

Don’t worry, it’s just temporary — except when it automatically becomes permanent.

The volunteers serving on this committee deserve the city’s gratitude for their effort and time but this is the exact type of haphazard product one can expect from a commission given such little time to work. The artificial anxiety to produce major changes to the city’s structure has left the committee uncertain even about when it should and should not allow the public to comment on the proposals. CityBeat recently reported that City Hall watchdog Mel Shapiro — a vigilant and valuable observer of the city’s everyday actions — was barred from speaking at a recent meeting. Shapiro told us he may have missed the committee chairman’s random declaration that comments could only be heard at the beginning of the meeting. This is just not the way methodical, public meetings operate.

Unfortunately, what’s under discussion is the very document that governs city management — these are the bones of City Hall. It may be in the mayor’s interest to expedite the surgery and their replacement, but it’s not in the city’s to watch passively as his committee does it so quickly.

The Charter Review Committee has already also produced and forwarded a proposal that would add three new members to the City Council. The new City Council members would represent newly divided neighborhood districts. The idea of adding at-large members to the City Council was roundly rebuffed.

The lack of a broader community discussion of this is disconcerting. One of the most obvious causes of the crises in city government of the past few years is the fact that it simply is not in the individual interests of City Council members to look out for the city as a whole. Many of the council members, when asked about their specific accomplishments, can point to a litany of things they have done for their constituents’ specific neighborhoods. But rarely — with the exception of Councilwoman Donna Frye and now Council President Scott Peters — do they put themselves in the middle of discussions about issues that the city as a whole must confront.

These types of discussions deserve months of contemplation. In Los Angeles, two separate committees — one elected and one appointed like San Diego’s — simultaneously heard testimony and ideas about how to reform that city’s charter.

Yet San Diego’s Charter Review Committee, after just a few months, has now come to the conclusion that three new City Council districts is exactly what the city needs. And because the mayor decided to appoint a Charter Review Committee rather than allow the citizens to elect one, their recommendations are wholly subject to the whims of the City Council. That body is much more likely to simply ignore the committee’s recommendations, as it did after a similar effort in 1989, than it is to come up with any original ones.

In an interview, Adrian Kwaitkowski, a lobbyist and member of the Charter Review Committee, said that he expected the City Council to maintain the integrity of the committee’s proposals.

If that’s true, then the time to influence permanent changes to the structure of local government has come and gone in only a couple summer months.

At least we can be reassured that some of it is only “temporary.”

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