More than a year has passed since Mayor Jerry Sanders last used his power to veto city legislation, clout that the mayor has used sparingly while in office.

If the strong mayor ballot proposition passes next week, Sanders’ successor would wield greater authority, making the strong mayor even stronger.

Strong mayor’s passage would add a ninth City Council seat in 2012 and change the mayor’s veto procedure. Right now, it takes the same five votes to pass legislation as it does to override a mayoral veto. Proposition D would force the council to muster up six votes to override the veto.

Two strong mayor backers argued that’s the way it should be.

“Currently, the veto power is insufficient for a normal executive,” said Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who signed the ballot argument in favor of strong mayor.

“With respect to the legislative process, the scales are heavily tilted toward the council,” said Tom Shepard, the political consultant working for the strong mayor campaign who has also run Sanders’ two campaigns.

Sanders has used his veto pen only 10 times while in office, and two of them were for procedural reasons. Of the eight other vetoes, Sanders won outright three times:

  • In June 2007, Sanders vetoed funding for a winter homeless shelter near Petco Park. Council upheld the veto, but Sanders was forced to find money for the shelter other than from the day-to-day operating budget.
  • In July 2007, Sanders vetoed an ordinance that would have banned big-box retailers like Wal-Mart. Councilwoman Donna Frye changed her vote and the veto was upheld.
  • In April 2008, Sanders vetoed City Council raises. Then-Council President Scott Peters and Councilman Ben Hueso rescinded their votes and the salary increases didn’t happen.

Sanders’ last veto came in December 2008 after the council added community service centers back into a mid-year budget proposal. The council overrode the veto, but agreed to close the centers.

Strong mayor critics, like Frye, say the new veto rules would wrest too much power from the council. For instance, she said, a council majority would no longer be enough to pass the city budget.

Strong mayor backers always had envisioned a larger role for the veto. John Kern, who as former chief of staff to then-Mayor Dick Murphy helped write the original strong mayor ballot proposition in 2004, said initial proposals centered on six votes for overriding a veto. But backers compromised to ensure City Council approval for putting strong mayor on the ballot.

Kern didn’t believe changes to the veto rules would make a significant difference. Veto politics, he said, already raise the stakes on an issue.

“Is loyalty to the mayor a factor?” Kern said. “Does the mayor have public opinion behind him and is that a factor? It changes the politics.”

But Sparrow believed increasing the veto override ratchets up the tension between the mayor and council. An adversarial relationship, he said, was healthy in a strong mayor system, which treats the mayor like an executive branch and the council like a legislature.

“In my view, it will bring more transparency to controversial issues,” Sparrow said.

Our media partners at NBC 7/39 did a good summation of strong mayor earlier in the week. In it, I laid out the veto calculus.

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