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Back in 1931, San Diego City Hall’s most vociferous critics accused it of being a cesspool of corruption, graft and incompetence.

“We haven’t a single public official to whom we can point with pride … or an office-seeker that can see farther than the cashier’s window,” cried a small rabble-rousing newspaper. Others were less blunt but still demanded reform.

Their solution: Support accountability, efficiency and “modern government” by dramatically reshaping how the city is run.

Sound vaguely familiar? Nearly eight decades later, the city government’s future is once again at stake in an election.

There’s a big difference, though: The 1931 election created the city manager system that will be permanently extinguished if Proposition D passes tomorrow. Back then, the question was whether the city should emasculate the mayor and pass power to an appointed city manager. Now, the question is the reverse.

Back then, San Diego was actually a bit late to the party when it came to reforming the way government worked. Since the 1900s and 1910s, the reform-minded Progressive Era had led cities across the country to try to find ways to reduce corruption and boost efficiency. They had plenty of reasons to do so: crooks and bosses ruled many of the nation’s biggest cities from New York to San Francisco.

The city manager system was a “quintessentially progressive idea,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UCSD. The mayor lost power and an appointed city manager — hired by the entire council — gained it.

The city manager isn’t elected, and that was exactly the point. “You’re trading off electoral responsiveness for something that’s insulated from political patronage and corruption and potentially more efficient,” Kousser said.

The reforms reflected a belief in scientific management and a faith in extracting politics from city administration because “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage,” said Robert Huckfeldt, a political science professor at UC Davis.

Back in the 1931, San Diego had roughly 149,000 residents, about the population of Escondido today. But it still had rabble-rousers, gadflies and mouthy city critics.

The weekly San Diego Herald helped lead the charge, accusing politicians of wasting money on water deals and overtaxing property owners. “We have been gypped, bamboozled, fooled, cozened, defrauded, cheated, jockeyed, choused, diddled …” (The paper went on, but you get the idea. Somebody clearly had hit his thesaurus hard.)

While the Herald’s coverage seemed to suggest that City Hall grafters would fight the government reforms tooth and nail, that didn’t happen. Opposition, The San Diego Sun reported, was sparse.

It helped that a committee of respected “freeholders” had drafted the required revision to the city charter and enthusiastically supported it. The measure to dump the strong mayor system passed by 22,369 votes to 5,744.

The city also fired the existing mayor by a two-to-one margin. It perhaps didn’t help that he’d pledged to vigorously enforce Prohibition.

Not everybody was happy. “City councilmen, long accustomed to personal powers and the manipulation of the police department, were wary of the city manager system approved by the people,” wrote historian Richard F. Pourade in his multi-volume The History of San Diego.

They were so unhappy, in fact, that four city managers came and went within just two years. A revolving door shuttled police chiefs in and out of office too amid corruption charges and accusations of “political interference,” Pourade wrote.

Over the next 79 years, San Diego would have mixed success with its weakened mayors.

One became senator and governor and ran for president. One was indicted on bribery charges but cleared. Three resigned in disgrace: one after fleeing a hit-and-run accident, one after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge in a campaign financing investigation (his record was later expunged), and the last under the weight of scandal and a disputed election.

City managers also made the news on occasion, including one whose comment to a Los Angeles Times reporter that he got “an orgasm just being a boss of police” helped spell the end of his term in 1986.

The mayoral superpowers that voters abandoned in 1931 were resurrected in 2005 when voters agreed to test the strong mayor system for five years. Now, Prop. D pits a well-financed group of supporters (including several people who are thought to desire the mayoral job in the future) against unorganized foes.

And just as in 1931, both sides say they only have good government at heart.


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