Editor: This article – originally published August 11, 2014 – won Norma Damashek an award from the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at their July 2015 event.
By Norma Damashek
A couple of weeks ago I wrote that San Diego’s switch to a strong mayor style of government begat “a fresh load of scandal, farce, confusion, and dysfunction….” But can we lay the blame on the switchover? Does the form of government really control the outcome?
Not necessarily. In fact, a recent report on this very subject suggests there is no direct connection between the form of city government (city manager… strong mayor) and how well local government serves the public.
But we could have told them that, ourselves. Especially now that – after many decades of doing business under a city manager form of government – we made the switch to a strong mayor system. Yet even with the changes (we’ll get to them in a minute) San Diego has remained stubbornly true to its own nature. Our city, it would seem, has a very idiosyncratic genome.
After all, switch or no switch, can anyone dispute that business-as-usual is still king in our city? Or that public tolerance for governmental mismanagement – wrongdoing included – is still a defining feature of our go-along-to-get-along town?
You may recall that the wild excesses of robber barons, labor exploitation, business monopolies, inflated stock markets, and gilded-age privileges of the late 19th century eventually led to Progressive Era reforms focused on driving out government corruption, domination by political machines, and the buddy-buddy spoils system.
The new formula for squeaky-clean city government? insulate municipalities from the political fray by operating them like a business corporation in the hands of efficient, impartial, professional city managers.
The trouble is, managing a city is not like running a shoe factory. Or Qualcomm, for that matter. Running city government – whichever way it’s arranged – involves the art and practice of juggling competing and often contradictory interests. The cloak of reform can’t hide the inherent conjoint relationship between a city’s administrative and policy-making functions.
Think about it: a unique aspect of city business is the disproportionate amount of time spent on zoning and land use matters and on awarding city contracts. In daily practice, elected and non-elected city officials make decisions that directly determine who benefits from government actions – who gets heard, who gets overlooked, who gets first dibs on city services, who is permitted to build, who receives the gift of public subsidies, who profits, who will be winners… who loses.
In other words, the business of city government is as political as it gets – which means that corruption, cronyism, and pay-to-play politics are not likely to go out of style. What’s always in flux is the degree of misconduct we’re willing to tolerate and the public remedies we’re willing to fight for.
Back to the switchover. Here’s how city government looked pre-2006 – before San Diego voters decided to abandon the city manager system and join the big boys club:
The mayor was the city council’s chief honcho. He/she attended all public meetings, heard and responded to public testimony, and voted alongside council members on legislative and policy measures. The mayor did not have the power to veto council actions.
The day-to-day running of the city was in the hands of a city manager, who was appointed by the mayor and council. The manager was responsible for the administration of most city departments (with direct control over department directors) and for the preparation of the city’s annual financial plan/ city budget. He (it’s always been a he) was accountable to the full city council for carrying out city ordinances, programs, and policies but was supposed to be free of political pressure and interference in the daily business of running the city.
It was a big job. But sic transit gloria mundi. Raise your hand if the names of San Diego’s most recent city managers ring a bell: John Lockwood, Jack McGrory, Michael Uberuaga, Lamont Ewell…
How it came about that San Diego switched from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government is a long and interesting story. For now, let’s just say that less than a decade ago San Diego was hitting bottom and the tide turned. Here’s how city government looks today – now that we’ve got a strong mayor system:
On the surface it looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it? San Diego voters still elect the mayor, city council members (recently upped from eight to nine), and city attorney.
But you can see that the mayor has become chief honcho in his own right. He (the past four mayors have been a he) is no longer a legislative official chairing the city council in open public meetings but an official with the power to veto most council actions (he can be overridden by a 2/3 council vote). The mayor is now the city’s CEO, the chief executive officer ultimately responsible for running city departments, directing city workers, and carrying out city ordinances, programs, and policies.
It’s an ironic twist: the Progressive movement of the early 1900s intended to reduce the corrupting effects of politics on city government through a professional city manager. Eight decades later San Diegans amended the city charter to take the job of running the city and managing municipal finances out of the hands of trained and credentialed municipal management experts and put control back into in the hands of politicians. Again in the name of government reform.
Note that the strong mayor amendment gives the mayor authority to appoint a city manager (aka COO, chief operating officer) to manage city business. But notice that it’s fundamentally a politicized position since the COO works for the mayor, is hired and can be fired by the mayor, and reports and answers only to the mayor.
Also appointed to the mayor’s staff is a chief financial officer (CFO), who prepares the city’s annual budget and oversees the city’s financial management. The CFO, too, carries out the mayor’s agenda and answers only to him.
In this setup, you can see how the flow of official information can be manipulated as it travels between the mayor and the COO, to city departments, and back again to the mayor. The city council is outside the loop.
To partially remedy the problem, the city council was given authority to appoint its own financial and policy advisor – the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA). Although the IBA answers directly to city council members and is not under the mayor’s jurisdiction, the brutal fact is that the IBA’s office depends on the goodwill of the mayor and mayor’s staff for dependable and adequate access to city information and data.
Take it from superman: information is power. And when the generation and flow of information is controlled by political players, the opportunities for obstruction, obfuscation, coercion, and the silencing of opposition are intensified.
While withholding of information occasionally raised hackles under the city manager system, under the strong mayor setup it’s a political fact of life for the city council as well as the public.
This bears repeating: it’s not the switchover itself that’s the problem.
Strong mayor charter changes focused on rearranging mayoral power and council power, but the real struggle for a democratic balance of power in our city isn’t between the mayor and council. It’s between city government and the San Diego public.
And the public was shortchanged by the way the switchover came about. The question of public power and public access was sidelined. Checks and balances in the public interest were truncated. (You’ll find some published comments here about the last round of charter change.)
Yes, the city charter created a budget analyst for the stranded city council but the office was never sufficiently empowered to be a true public advocate.
Yes, the charter created a stronger role for the city auditor (a key official charged with keeping the bureaucracy books and conduct clean) but this office was also cut off at the knees by a convoluted system that denies true independence and limits public advocacy.
Yes, there’s an ethics commission, but it has a limited role as a campaign finance watchdog and keeps its distance from the minefield of official breaches, misdeeds, and transgressions.
Lately, we’re hearing that the current city attorney – who has unconscionably politicized his office in the service of influential private groups – has new charter changes up his sleeve. But none of them deal with strengthening the public voice, creating stronger checks and balances, or empowering public advocates.
The people of San Diego need more than politically-motivated charter changes. We need to fix the strong mayor system with reform measures devoted to safeguarding and strengthening the public interest.