Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008 | Four new City Council members were sworn in Monday, ushering in a new leadership group for City Hall in the midst of financial troubles that severely worsened under the stewardship of its predecessors.

The new City Council’s first major decision — the selection of a new council president — was postponed for a day so all members could vote on the move.

Just after being sworn in, new Councilwoman Sherri Lightner rushed off to her district to survey the damage wrought by a military jet that crashed into homes in University City. She missed the afternoon meeting, and Councilman Tony Young said Lightner asked that the vote be put off until Tuesday.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald also arrived late to her first meeting because she took off to the crash site as well.

Councilman Ben Hueso, the leading contender for council president, garnered support from several audience members during Monday’s meeting. Mickey Kasparian, head of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said Hueso is “one of the most incredible people I’ve gotten a chance to meet and certainly a person who’s been straightforward and honest.”

Other audience members voiced support for Councilwoman Donna Frye. University of California, San Diego economics professor Ross Starr, who has served as a financial adviser to Frye, called her “industrious, fearless and incisively intelligent.”

During the same Tuesday meeting when the council is expected to pick a new president, members are scheduled to discuss changes that could decrease the president’s power. The president position, created with the 2006 switch to a strong-mayor form of government, sets the City Council’s meeting agenda, oversees its meetings, makes committee assignments and serves as an unofficial council spokesperson.

Frye and new Councilman Carl DeMaio have proposed reforms that would allow council members more ability to docket items, and transfer the responsibility of setting the docket from the council president to the city clerk.

On Monday morning, the four new council members — DeMaio, Lightner, Emerald and Todd Gloria — were sworn in at Golden Hall, along with Mayor Jerry Sanders, who is starting his second term, and new City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

The new council members took the baton from Scott Peters, Jim Madaffer, Toni Atkins and Brian Maienschein, who’d constituted half of the City Council since 2000. They oversaw the city at a time of great financial turmoil and approved decisions that have led to criminal charges and securities fraud cases against top former city staffers.

The unrest hit a crescendo in 2006 with the release of a $20.3 million investigative report by outside consultants that singled out the four outgoing members for their roles in the city’s troubles.

While the fallout from those decisions had subsided in recent years, the city’s precarious financial positions have returned squarely into public view in the last two months as the mayor and City Council have grappled with how to close a $43 million midyear budget gap.

The new council will waste little time getting into budget issues, as it is scheduled to vote on a compromise plan between Frye and Sanders on Tuesday.

Outgoing City Attorney Mike Aguirre was the only departing elected official absent from Monday’s ceremony, but his four-year reign didn’t go unmentioned.

When Peters, now the former council president, announced Aguirre’s absence, saying he was traveling out of town, some in the audience cheered. And the controversial aspects of Aguirre’s tenure were brought up by some departing council members and by Goldsmith.

Goldsmith drew cheers when he said the day “marked the founding of a new City Attorney’s Office.”

He said the past four years had been difficult, singling out the story of Deputy City Attorney Andrea Dixon. Goldsmith told the audience that Dixon was transferred from her job advising the Planning Commission for refusing to follow an order that “violated her ethical obligations.”

“You’re a good and ethical lawyer,” Goldsmith said. “You’re a credit to our profession. And by the way, you are hereby reassigned to the Planning Commission.”

After the speech, Goldsmith said he would not discuss any details of the incident involving Dixon.

“We’re not going to get into the specifics,” he said. “That wasn’t the purpose of raising it. It’s more about her and her qualities than anything.”

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@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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