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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008 | Right now, if you care about San Diego city politics, you are focused on four major races that are heading into their last lap: The anti-climatic contest for city attorney; the “I’m-more-liberal-than-you” battle in District 3; and the classic two-party fights in District 7 and District 1.

But you probably hadn’t been focusing on a derivative conflict taking place at the same time. It’s a secret battle. Specifically, it’s the struggle to be the City Council president.

It’s getting kind of ugly. But today we have a chance to diffuse it, and at the same time open up the City Council in a way that might foster leadership and accountability.

I know, that sounds radical.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye and City “I-Can’t-Wait-to-Be” Councilman Carl DeMaio are releasing a draft set of new rules for the City Council on Monday that, if adopted, would force its members to do their jobs (revolutionary, really). You can read the 18 draft reforms here.

Among the reforms is one that would make groups like the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. show up at City Council to answer tough questions as needed. Another would make the City Council hold meetings when people could actually attend them. Others would clarify some serious ambiguities about procedure.

But most importantly, DeMaio and Frye have drafted a plan that would neuter the council president.

Don’t worry, Scott Peters, that was a figure of speech. Perhaps to quell worries, and be more gender neutral, we should use a different term. But however you describe it, DeMaio and Frye’s plan would take away all of what makes being the council president so great.

So be it.

Frye and DeMaio’s proposals have the potential to change the way the City Council does business. All of them are interesting to people like me for various reasons. But the one that will grab the most has to do with the, um, declawing, of the position of council president before the new one has a chance to scratch anyone.

First, what exactly is so cool about being the president of the City Council? And what are they proposing to take away? After all, a council president is still just another member of the City Council. Fireworks don’t go off when he votes. His vote carries no more weight than others.

Well, what’s great about being City Council president is that you get to do a few great things: You get to run the regular meetings. That’s kind of boring and obnoxious, really. You get to speak for the council. That cuts both ways. You get to decide who of your colleagues leads what committee. That’s getting better. And you decide what will be discussed in those meetings. Bingo.

That’s what it’s all about.

We may all be riveted about what the City Council is discussing at any particular moment. But the most powerful person in any debate is the one who gets to decide what it is, exactly, that we’re debating.

The council president gets to decide this for the city. He or she has the power to decide what issues go on the council’s agenda, or docket. This gives the president enormous power. How? Say you work your butt off to become a City Council member — you walk for miles, beg for money, absorb insults and attacks — and you do all this just because you want to help out and bring reform to the city. Say you have a great idea. It’s the best idea ever. All you want to do is to get the chance to persuade your new colleagues to support the proposal you’ve crafted.

Right now, if you want to get them even to discuss your idea, you have to pay tribute to the council president. You have to play whatever game the president wants you to play. Why? What did this person do to become so powerful? Absolutely nothing except make deals with your colleagues. The citizens didn’t vote to make this person so great. No, their only qualification for this post is that they know how to make four of their colleagues happy.

Admirable, yes. But there’s a better way. And DeMaio and Frye have identified it.

The fact is that City Council members of all stripes occasionally have good ideas that they should be able to bring up. The ideas should live or die on their merits and their ability to persuade the Council.

Frye and DeMaio have proposed that if a member of the City Council has a good idea, he or she can take it right to the city clerk, who will refer it to the appropriate council committee. If the committee passes on it, the politician will have to get one colleague on board with the idea. If they both take it to the full council, it will just have to be heard.

This not only takes artificial power away from the council president but also gives that power to the people. If residents or even lobbyists have an idea or a problem and they take it to one City Council member and they’re able to persuade that person to champion it, the issue deserves a hearing no matter what one particular member of the council thinks of it.

Under Frye and DeMaio’s plan, those hearings might be better attended as well. They propose that Monday City Council meetings be held in the evening. I haven’t been to a full City Council meeting for quite some time. But speaking for journalists, I think I could say we’re fully against this proposal as I can’t imagine making a writer stay there any later than some of ours have had to.

On the other hand, this is probably better for the public.

They also propose a long list of additional reforms — some more impactful than others.

There’s really no way that all of them will go through, but they all deserve discussion. And redefining the role of the council president should be first on the docket.

There’s a problem though. How do we get the City Council to debate this? Ahh, interesting, no? After all, under the current rules, the council president gets to decide whether we even discuss it.

It’s the ultimate irony. These are all meaningful ideas that DeMaio and Frye have worked hard to produce. Yet they are about to be confronted with the exact type of dilemma their main proposal is meant to address: Two City Council members have a set of good ideas. But the ideas could be blocked by a single lame duck before they’re even discussed.

The City Council is trying to decide right now what to do about the new council president. Scott Peters is gone in a couple of months. There are powerful people and interest groups who want City Councilman Ben Hueso, a Democrat, to be council president.

And even though four of them are lame ducks about to be sent to sea, Peters and his colleagues are thinking about naming Hueso to the post now, before the new City Council members take their posts.

If they do that, Hueso certainly won’t be interested in neutering himself — and this idea could die before it even lived.

Knowing this is the situation, one could look at DeMaio and Frye in a more cynical light and wonder whether they both have come to terms with the fact that neither of them has a chance to be council president. And figuring this out, they decided that if they couldn’t have that power, no one should.

As a big fan of cynicism, I’ll admit I wondered that.

But the fact is, Ben Hueso has done nothing to deserve the honor of deciding what ideas this City Council should be debating. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of him, it’s just the truth. What has he done to deserve so much power?

None of the council members, in fact, deserve that power right now. Frye is the only one of the presidential contenders to have a proven track record of considering the city’s problems as a whole beyond her own district. But she hasn’t shown the ability to build a coalition to get major projects done.

Under the new system, they each would be allowed an equal chance to have their ideas heard and show leadership for the city as a whole.

There is nothing bad about this unless you’ve somehow invested in Hueso or someone else. Unless you know he’s going to be squash the things you don’t like and promote the debates you want to have, you have no reason to want him to have that kind of power.

Yet there’s a chance to make sure you get it instead.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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