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Over the years, we have examined every possible angle of the effects of the switch of the city of San Diego to a strong mayor form of government.
That’s what I thought, at least.
Last week, Mayor Bob Filner taught us a few new lessons — like that he can veto the two new commissioners the City Council appointed to the Unified Port of San Diego.
The Port Act says it’s the council’s job to decide who sits on the port commission. But the city attorney decided the mayor gets to veto most everything the council does.
The mayor has also underscored another change that came in 2006.
You see, when the strong mayor form of government went into effect, the word “mayor” replaced the words “city manager” in most city laws.
But the mayor did not physically replace the city manager in a seat on the dais in council chambers.
Here’s how the higher part of the dais looks now:
Since 2006, when the mayor speaks to the council in public, he does it from a diminutive position on the floor. He has no permanent desk, no name plate, no identifying markers of any kind. He looks just like any guy talking to the council.
In Chicago, for instance, the City Council chambers is built around the mayor as the centerpiece. At the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the mayor presents his budget from the lofty seat of the Board’s presidential podium.
In San Diego, the mayor and the city manager both used to sit on the dais during public discussions, along with the city clerk and the city attorney.
The city clerk and city attorney still have their positions on the dais. But the city manager’s spot was taken by the city’s Independent Budget Analyst, or IBA. The IBA serves the council and has no connection or accountability to the mayor.
When the city attorney, or a member of his staff, wants to inform the council’s work, he does it from a seat of equal importance as the council president.
Were you to turn on the TV in the middle of Filner’s heated argument with the council recently, you wouldn’t know who the mayor was, save for the distinctive smile and verbal references to “Mr. Mayor” from the council president.
Unlike last year, we now have a mayor who likes to argue in public. I don’t mind this at all. What’s awkward is that he has to do it from the podium set for public comment.
This may behoove his man-of-the-people image. But his staff’s contribution to any discussion is as important as — or more important — than the city attorney’s. And if he’s going to argue with the council, he should do it on equal footing.
What’s worse, though, is there’s no way for the public to address the mayor in an official setting. Yes, Filner has pledged to be open and accessible, and he’s following through on that. But informal opportunities to bend the mayor’s ear are different than him and his staff being forced to listen to you during public debate about a specific proposal and general public comment.
Having the mayor stand up on the floor podium makes him look like a petitioner, as if he’s giving testimony for the consideration of the council. It doesn’t make him look like a representative of the city’s executive branch.
So why is it like this? In 2006, when the change happened, Mayor Jerry Sanders and his team were trying to decide where the mayor’s seat would be on the dais. They decided, instead, that too much staff time was eaten up in meetings and that the mayor could say anything he wanted at any time.
In a sense, the mayor did not want to sit through public comments.
This is brought into further relief by the fact that the mayor retained the power, in the new form of government, to preside over closed-session meetings of the council. So he has a big presence in the council’s most sensitive and confidential business moves.
But not in open sessions.
The city’s executive branch should have a symbolic and physical presence at official open sessions too.
The public should be able to address him on these issues. He or his representative should be there to respond to questions, even when a specialist or department head is already there.
And when he argues with council, in public, it should be obvious that he’s more than just a guy from the peanut gallery.
He’s the mayor.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.