By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner / May 10, 2012
Suppose a pollster called you on the phone and asked your opinion about whether a “strong mayor” form of government is a better deal for San Diego than a “city manager” system? Would your answer be: uh…well…hmmm…??
Okay, let’s admit it — most of us don’t pay that much attention to City Hall. And for sure, most of us don’t have a clue about how the switch to a “strong mayor” government (which we voters agreed to seven years ago) has affected daily life in San Diego.
Given that our first strong mayor will soon be replaced by our city’s second strong mayor (Bob Filner? Bonnie Dumanis? Nathan Fletcher? Carl DeMaio?) a few clues about how city government has been faring these last few years might prove helpful when choosing our next mayor. A quick reminder of how we got here might also come in handy. So read on.
How We Got Here
Under our old “city manager” system San Diego’s mayor and council members — a total of nine — sat together, side by side, at open public hearings, at weekly council sessions, and at committee meetings, listening and responding to public testimony and then casting their votes…one vote each…majority ruled.
The mayor was always a key political player but the mayor didn’t run the city. That was the job of the appointed city manager. He (it’s always been a ‘he’) was responsible for organizing, coordinating, and overseeing city affairs. Also for executing the policies, legislation, regulations, and directives of the mayor and council members. Also for hiring and firing department directors. Also for creating and managing the city budget. Not a job description for the faint of heart. Not a job for amateurs!
Curious to know how the switch to “strong mayor” came about? It was the longed-for baby of San Diego bankers, developers, real estate establishment, lobbyists, hoteliers, and other old-guard wheelers and dealers intent on gaining easier access to city officials. A switchover would increase their clout and undercut the sometimes-recalcitrant city council.
There were other supporters who felt the time had come for San Diego to slough off its image as a ‘well-managed town’ and take it’s place among big-league cities.
When the news hit the fan about ethical and financial malfeasance by city officials, municipal union chiefs, and retirement board members (remember Enron-by-the-Sea?) San Diego voters became easy prey to the pitch that a switch to a strong mayor form of government would usher in public accountability, greater efficiency, and open government. The buck stops here sort of thing. So we switched.
So How’s the City Been Faring?
The picture is murky…very murky. So far our “strong mayor” system has resulted in:
- less professional management of city departments and city services
- less community/neighborhood access to city officials, notably the mayor
- less independent action and advocacy by city councilmembers
- less access to city information
- less responsiveness to public inquiries, complaints, and problems
- less oversight of city departments and city contracts
- more political manipulation of city data and financial accounting
- more control by private interests
- more back-room political maneuvering
- more passing the buck by all elected officials
Is the strong mayor system at fault for the bad news? Or could much of the backsliding be attributed to the person occupying the “strong mayor” seat?
Perhaps I should tread lightly here because Mayor Jerry Sanders may well go down in history as the most genial, endearing, charming, and upstanding leader the city has seen in…I don’t know how long (ex-mayor Murphy, move over). The sweetheart of Sigma Chi.
Our termed-out mayor is not merely nice but also very magnanimous. Get this — he’s making a jaw-dropping parting gift to our financially bankrupt city of a generous budget SURPLUS! The audacity of this legacy-polishing duplicity kind of takes my breath away.
But wait — maybe this is really good news in disguise. If the system isn’t entirely at fault we’ve got a fighting chance that a competent and trustworthy person sitting in the mayor’s seat — beholden to the San Diego public and not to ideology, upward mobility, or the status quo — might turn things around.
Which brings us back to the June 5 primary and our choice for mayor. Bob Filner? Bonnie Dumanis? Nathan Fletcher? Carl DeMaio?
Here’s where things get personal: I’ve been around city government for a long time. I have high standards for our city. I know and love San Diego politics. I’m a realist. I’ve done serious homework on all four candidates. I’m no dope. I know ’em when I seem ’em.
I’m choosing Bob Filner for mayor. He’s competent, trustworthy, consistent, and public-spirited. He’s not buddy-buddy with San Diego’s old-boys club. He’ll never be the sweetheart of Sigma Chi. To me, that’s a really good thing.
Norma Damashek is a long-time civic activist, publisher of the local San Diego blog NumbersRunner, and past president of San Diego’s League of Women Voters