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Strong Mayor Model

Is shift in structure of power ahead?
Strong mayor model getting another look

By Caitlin Rother

March 21, 2004

In 1973, even San Diego's legendary mayor Pete Wilson could not persuade voters to change the City Charter to give the mayor more power than the city manager.

When Mayors Maureen O'Connor and Susan Golding attempted to launch similar initiatives during their terms in the 1980s and 1990s, the political environment wasn't any more accepting.

Today, as the city struggles with one of its worst fiscal crises ever, supporters of the resurgent movement, including Mayor Dick Murphy, believe voters are ripe for a change.

"The fiscal problems facing the city have put a spotlight on the fragmented authority at City Hall," Murphy said Friday. "I think people are coming around to realizing that if the mayor is going to be responsible for the state of the city, he or she ought to have the authority to control its destiny."

Under San Diego's current government structure, the city manager has the power to hire and fire department heads and prepares the budget for council review. The manager reports to the nine-member City Council and can be hired or fired by a vote of five members.

Reformers say the series of financial problems that has pummeled City Hall in recent months proves the status quo is not only outdated but also ineffective.

"Personally, I think there's a mounting frustration with the structure and the ability to deal with vexing issues," said Bill Geppert, chairman of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. and region manager for Cox Communications.

Geppert was among the civic leaders who were invited to a private meeting at Murphy's office last week to discuss alternatives for restructuring government. Also attending were businessmen Duane and Ted Roth; John Hawkins, chairman of the board of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce; real estate magnate Malin Burnham; banker Doug Sawyer; and George Mitrovich, a civic leader who has been advocating for this change for the past two decades.

San Diego is no longer a town of 150,000 as it was in 1931, when the City Charter was rewritten to put the city manager in charge, a result of the Progressive movement that tried to eliminate corruption from local governments across California and the nation in the early decades of the 20th century.

San Diego has grown into a metropolis of 1.25 million, and it is the nation's second-largest city, after Phoenix, to have a city manager form of government.

"If you don't have an elected chief executive, I think the form of government that San Diego has now is one that really doesn't permit the exercise of leadership in a way that I think the city has come to need," said Wilson, who was mayor from 1971 to 1983. "I thought it had come to need it when I was mayor."

The city's problems, the reformers say, are bigger, too. The October firestorms exposed the severe underfunding of city fire services, the pension fund deficit has ballooned to $1.1 billion, and federal authorities are investigating errors and omissions in disclosure documents used to sell municipal bonds.

The public is "looking for accountable leadership but strong leadership. They want to know who to credit and or who to punish," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego who favors the strong mayor reform.

"This is as good a time as any, particularly if it doesn't cost much money," Erie said. "It's not a big-ticket item."

Murphy, like others before him, has talked about forming a charter review commission. But as former City Manager Jack McGrory points out, most of the reports compiled by such commissions have been filed away without much action.

During Murphy's mayoral campaign in 2000, he also talked about presenting a strong mayor proposal to the City Council if he was elected but said he didn't think he could get a measure on the ballot "any earlier than June 2002."

He did win the election in 2000, but nothing came of the talk. Until now.

Asked why he didn't move on this sooner, Murphy said, "It was not my highest priority."

Calling it a minor issue in the last campaign, he said he isn't sure if it will become a more major one in his November runoff against Supervisor Ron Roberts, who has called Murphy a weak leader and accused him of falling down in his fiscal-monitoring duties.

Roberts has said he supports a change to the charter to make the mayor chief executive of the city.

On Tuesday, Murphy announced that City Manager Michael Uberuaga will retire in April and named Assistant City Manager Lamont Ewell as his choice to replace him. A day later, Murphy was gathering input about restructuring government from community leaders at a private meeting in his office.

"I support a strong mayor form of government," he said after the meeting. "The devil, however, is in the details."

Asked Friday when he thinks he'll be ready to put a measure before the voters, he said, "I'm still evaluating that."

Since an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board in 2002, Murphy said he has changed a couple of his positions. He no longer opposes taking the mayor off the council and making him the city's chief executive, with the city manager as the chief administrator. He still thinks the mayor should be able to fire department heads, but now believes it should be without the council's approval.

He still favors putting the mayor in charge of the budget with a line-item veto power. He also would give the mayor the power to nominate all members of city boards and commissions, subject to council approval. Currently, he said, he has that power over 90 percent of such nominations, but not to the Centre City Development Corp., for example, which is a council responsibility.

Asked if he would agree with a shift to a strong mayor government, Murphy's City Manager-designate Ewell said, "In a democracy everyone should have a right to decide on the government structure. I would support whatever this community decides."

In 1999, the last time this reform movement began gaining momentum, then-City Manager McGrory called it misdirected. On Friday, McGrory said he still believes that any San Diego mayor can effectively use the "bully pulpit" that elected office provides. Mayors dating back to Wilson have proven so, even in spite of the move to district elections for council members in 1988, he said.

"The relationship (with the city manager) can clearly work well," McGrory said. "I just don't think they're exercising the power they have."

If the city is going to evaluate its charter again, he said, the relationship between the mayor, council and city manager "could be tweaked." But such a process should have a much broader focus, he said, to encompass the entire system, including issues such as whether to depoliticize the city attorney's job by making it an appointed, rather than an elected, position. This, like the strong mayor change in the City Charter, would require a simple majority vote by the electorate.

Wilson, who said he is flattered by people who say he was a strong enough political leader to rule effectively in spite of San Diego's "weak mayor" structure, said he still supports a strong mayor reform.

"It is necessary to have political accountability because otherwise a city manager, even a first-rate professional, is in a position of having to play to a shifting coalition, a shifting majority of the City Council," said Wilson, who went on to be U.S. senator and then governor of California. "It seems to me that we have suffered at least as much from having diffuse responsibility."

O'Connor, who was mayor from 1986 to 1992, said she believes the mayor should have veto power over policy issues, but she still thinks the city manager form of government works. The council, she said, can do most anything with five votes, but its current members need to be more on top of things.

"Right now, that mayor and council should get together and do some tough decision-making" to resolve the pension system underfunding, among other things, she said.

"Unfortunately, I think the City Council and the mayor got a little lax and let the city managers tell them this (was) in the best interest of the city, when anybody that could add" could see it wasn't, she said.

Asked if she thought voters were ready to pass a strong mayor ballot initiative, she said, "Wow. With what's going on at City Hall, I don't think they're going to vote for anything."

Last Updated: 11/16/2014
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