At least we have political consensus on one thing: The city’s rulebooks need work.
A recent effort to oust Mayor Bob Filner put the spotlight on the confusing and arduous processes necessary to remove a mayor, and on Wednesday, the City Council unanimously voted to begin the process to overhaul those provisions.
But it’s just one of many confounding passages in the city’s regulatory documents.
Several sections conflict with state law; others refer to procedures the city abandoned decades ago. In other cases, the city patched over antiquated rules with amendments but failed to make other updates to clarify the new guidelines.
The documents are so problematic that at least two San Diego-based charter experts suggest the only complete solution is to throw out the current versions and draft new ones.
The city has two guiding documents.
The city’s charter is comparable to the U.S. Constitution. It lays out the basic rules and any changes must be approved by city voters.
The city’s municipal code details the policy set in the charter, so the documents are largely connected. If you rework the charter, you’ll likely need to change city codes too. Doing the latter only requires a City Council vote.
Much of the city’s charter was drafted in 1931 but it’s been updated dozens of times since.
Voters approved the last substantive update to the city charter in 2010 when they agreed to make the strong mayor form of government permanent. The change garnered less support when it initially went to voters in 2004. (The new structure went into effect in January 2006.)
The problems with that change were almost immediately apparent to the city’s first strong mayor.
A year into the new system, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders put together a 15-member committee to review the charter and recommend necessary changes. The group ultimately suggested financial reforms, tweaks to the City Council’s ability to override a mayoral veto and making the strong mayor form of government become permanent. Their proposals were later approved by voters.
But in its final report, the group said the city should review other provisions in the city charter in the future.
They said the city should consider a regular process to review the charter and that it examine its policy for vacant city offices and the process to replace elected officials who have resigned or are no longer able to serve.
San Diego-based political science professor James Ingram III, who was hired to help with the review process, said he brought up another concern.
He said he suggested the city consider adding ways to remove a person from office, given the limited existing options.
It didn’t end up in the group’s final list of proposals.
“Since it wasn’t a problem that had ever come up in San Diego, there wasn’t any interest in opening up that can of worms,” he said.
Nor was there interest in a complete review of the city’s charter and municipal code. Instead, residents and elected leaders focused on the city’s pension woes and significant financial cutbacks.
That came back to haunt city leaders six years later, when policy wonks and residents learned recall organizers would need to gather more than 100,000 signatures in as few as 39 days to let voters decide Filner’s fate – and that they had few other options.
Filner ultimately resigned but the conversation about the city’s rules continues.
City Council members have repeatedly fielded questions about the need to change the rules, including on national television, since the Filner scandal broke.
But that conversation had quietly begun long before Filner’s refusal to resign launched San Diego into the national spotlight.
Early last month, the City Council’s rules committee recommended that the city attorney’s office review two key areas of the city charter that conflict with state law and prepare language for potential ballot items in June 2014.
Both concerns relate to elections. In one case, the charter requires city leaders to be sworn in before the registrar is required to certify the votes that put them in office. The other involves special election and City Council vacancy rules that can leave a district without a representative for months.
The committee is now slated to consider the city’s recall rules too.
A spokeswoman for Council President Pro Tem Sherri Lightner, who leads the rules committee, said Lightner is also open to taking up other problematic charter provisions.
Policy experts involved in past reviews of the city charter now say they believe the city needs to do more than just fix some portions of the charter.
Political consultant Adrian Kwiatkowski is convinced individual changes won’t cut it.
“Ultimately, what is really necessary is a brand new, clean city charter,” said Kwiatkowski, who said he’s talking to other San Diegans about the idea of charter reform.
Ingram, who has helped review charters in multiple California cities, suggested San Diego should follow Los Angeles’ lead and create a commission to review the entire charter. He said other cities also assess their charters every 10 years, a practice that could be helpful in San Diego.
“We’ve only just been patching it here and there when problems arise,” Ingram said.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, whose office would be a crucial player in any review of the city charter, said he’d support a review.
“There’s a lack of clarity in our city charter that needs to be cleaned up,” Goldsmith said. “The city charter provisions need to be much clearer.”
But Goldsmith also cautioned that such a review would come at a cost.
Goldsmith said his office didn’t push for a detailed overhaul in the past because of price tag that would come along with it.
“During the Jerry Sanders years, we had budget deficits that were huge,” Goldsmith said. “People wouldn’t want to spend a million dollars on more lawyers to go through the charter and clean up things, and then it’s another million dollars to put it on the ballot.”