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Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008 | It is an election short on voters — only eight — but the race for San Diego City Council president is one of the most important of the current election cycle, and has been the subject of some intense politicking in recent weeks.

Although taking place largely behind the scenes, there has been a fair amount of heated rhetoric and bare-knuckled tactics by those with a stake in who will replace Scott Peters at the head of council.

Just this week, Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio has railed on public radio against the possibility of termed-out members of City Council choosing a new president. And the prospect of a Donna Frye presidency has created a sudden rift between District 3 candidate Stephen Whitburn and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

All four sitting council members (Frye, Kevin Faulconer, Ben Hueso and Tony Young) who will remain on council have indicated that they are interested in the post. However, Hueso seems to have the most support on council and in the Sanders administration at the moment.

Frye’s name often comes up as well. But the sense is that she has lost support among her colleagues with some of her votes and her combative demeanor during meetings.

Only the mayor and city attorney have more influence over city affairs under the strong mayor/strong council form of government than the council president, who has powers that are similar in some respects to the Speaker of the House in Congress.

Chosen each year by a vote of the eight members of City Council, the council president controls the council agenda, and, more so than any other council member, dictates the flow of debate at council meetings.

Peters has held the post since its inception in 2005. He is one of four council members who are termed out at the end of this year.

Still up in the air, however, is exactly when the vote for his replacement will take place. This will impact — perhaps greatly — the outcome of the election. Hueso, for example, may see his support fade away if the vote comes under the new council, which will be sworn in on Dec. 8.

Frye, meanwhile, could stand a better chance with a council that includes her new-found ally Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio as well as Whitburn, who she has endorsed in the race for the District 3 seat.

So Peters, who controls the docket until Dec. 8, has the opportunity to influence the outcome of the vote by his choice of a docket date. City ordinance stipulates that the election must take place no later than the first week in January. But it doesn’t say how early the vote can be held.

Peters has yet to announce when he will docket the vote, which has caused consternation in and around the council offices on the 10th floor of City Hall — especially after word spread in the late spring that Peters was leaning toward holding the vote earlier.

Peters has laid out three alternatives for handling the vote: Having the current council vote for a president who would serve a one-year term; having the current council vote for an interim president who would serve until the end of the year; or holding the vote after the new council takes office.

He said each has its consequences. An earlier election will make for a smoother transition for the new council, he said. But Peters acknowledged that an early vote would be controversial.

“You don’t want to pick someone who wouldn’t have support down the line,” he said.

In April, Frye sent a memo to her colleagues in which she voiced her strong preference for holding the vote after the new members take office. Faulconer and DeMaio have joined Frye in opposition to an early vote.

Faulconer said there would be “considerable backlash” if the vote was held before the new council was sworn in. DeMaio characterized an early vote as an affront to democracy.

“It would be unprecedented and defy every concept of democratic principles,” said DeMaio, who has taken himself out of the running for the post.

Hueso would not go so far as to advocate for an early vote, but he is quick to voice concern over the upheaval that could result if a president is not already seated on the first day of the new council.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation, and the sooner we address it the better,” Hueso said. “The public deserves orderly meetings and well-run meetings.”

Frye has alienated labor leaders with some of her votes — most notably her vote last year against a city-wide ban of non-union big box retailers. The prospect of her being council president has come up in union endorsement interviews of council candidates.

The future of the council presidency has played a role in the all-important Labor Council endorsement in the District 3 race between Whitburn and Todd Gloria, both Democrats. The Labor Council endorsed both the primary, but surprised many late last month by supporting only Gloria for the November election.

Whitburn’s campaign indicated this week that his support of Frye cost him the union endorsement in his race again Todd Gloria in District 3.

B.D. Howard, Whitburn’s campaign manager, said that during an interview with the Labor Council’s executive board last month, Whitburn was asked the following: “If Donna Frye was running for council president, but we want you to support the person we pick, who would you vote for?”

After Whitburn said he would not promise a vote against Frye, Howard said the mood among the union heads noticeably soured toward Whitburn.

Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez said the Whitburn campaign’s characterization of the endorsement interview are false, saying it is just “sour grapes.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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