By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner
Take a break, friends and fellow voters. We could all use a brief respite from campaign-season frenzy. Soon enough San Diego’s two heavyweight contenders for mayor will be climbing back into the ring for what’s guaranteed to be a nationally publicized, brutal battle for the heart and destiny the 8th largest city in the USA. Our town.
So sniff the flowers while you can and begin preparing yourself for the Filner-DeMaio race for mayor. It’s no ordinary contest. The stakes are at an all-time high, not just for San Diego but for cities across the nation. If this sounds dramatic, you can bet it is.
That’s why we ought to use this short time-out to reflect on how our city got to this political point. To provide some context and fill in some of the blanks about San Diego’s quixotic and freighted mayorship history, here’s a quick and painless civics lesson.
We can start with a few questions: What’s the basic purpose of city government?
The answer is simple: to provide services and protection to city residents. Is there a magic formula, a best way to run a city? The answer is, No. What if our goal is to foster livable communities, good jobs, and a healthy quality of life? Then we should choose politicians who (we hope and pray) place high value on public accountability, openness, and accessibility.
Now for some history: Step back to 1930, when San Diego reformers focused on a very specific objective: to prevent the bossism and corruption plaguing many eastern and midwestern cities from spreading to our western shores. Local voters agreed to create a new city charter and adopt a “progressive” city manager form of government for San Diego.
Over the ensuing 75 years the city was run and managed by an appointed, professionally-trained city manager — think COO (chief operating officer) or CAO (chief administrative officer).
Here’s how I recently described the job of San Diego city manager: he (it has 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 amateurs or the faint of heart.
Under our city manager system, elected council members and the mayor were city legislators, sitting side by side at regularly-scheduled public meetings to establish city policies and laws. Yet despite the numerous benefits of a well-run city under a competent city manager, the lure of a “strong mayor” system proved to be an irresistible siren call to San Diego’s elected officials.
Back in the old days, Mayor Frank Curran (who perspicaciously commented on a proposal to bring the 1972 Republican Party national convention to San Diego, “We need this like a hole in the head”) attempted to increase the clout of the mayor’s position but the public resisted.
Four years later Mayor Pete Wilson attempted a switch to a “strong mayor” government and was also voted down. Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s subsequent attempts to strengthen the mayor’s office were thwarted by the city council.
Then there was a petition drive in the early days of Mayor Susan Golding’s tenure to place a “strong mayor” charter change on the ballot. It fizzled. But come the millennium (2000) a familiar group of heavy-duty development, financial, and lobbying interests (mainly the major promoters of the downtown ballpark project — Malin Burnham, Peter Q. Davis, John Moores, Scott Barnett, Scott Peters, George Mitrovich, Kris Michell, Richard Ledford…you get the picture) rallied once again in the cause of a “strong mayor” government. Still, no one was biting…until… Mayor Dick Murphy bit.
In 2004, public disclosure of gross financial malpractice by the city of San Diego hit the fan. Fingers were pointed at a wide swath of past and present city officials. Around the same time, three city councilmembers were indicted in legal action involving exotic dancers and the city’s “no-touch” laws. The chaotic confluence of humiliating notoriety, public resentment, and citizen consternation were artfully transformed into voter support for a change in San Diego’s form of government to a “strong mayor” system. Mayor Murphy took the lead.
Here’s the funny (as in ironic) part: the switch to a “strong mayor” system was triggered through the actions of a politically strong mayor. Mayor Golding was never hesitant to put her personal ambitions ahead of the public good by depleting public funds on politically-loaded projects (Convention Center expansion, downtown baseball stadium, Republican Party national convention, Naval Training Center giveaway, Charger’s ticket guarantee) and balancing the budget by underfunding the city pension system. The witch’s brew she and subsequent city leaders created by simultaneously hiking pension benefits for union leaders, city employees, and elected officials has brought San Diego to its financial knees. And you oughtn’t let our present lameduck mayor fool you with happy-talk. We are still in the throes of a severe budgetary and ethical crisis.
Here’s another irony: Mayor Dick Murphy, after leading the successful charge for a “strong mayor” government, bit the dust before he could assume the “strong mayor” post.
His replacement as San Diego’s first “strong mayor” was ex-police chief Jerry Sanders, a particularly weak and uninspired leader who spent close to eight years in office withholding vital public information from the city council, the city’s independent budget analyst, and the public at large, sweeping the truth under the rug, and neglecting to install a competent, experienced, well-trained, professional city manager to keep the city running efficiently, effectively, and in the public interest.
Which brings us to the battle for our next mayor. Believe it or not, the story gets much more complex and convoluted. So try to enjoy sniffing the flowers for just a little while longer. While we can.
Norma Damashek is a long-time civic activist and past president of San Diego’s League of Women Voters. She publishes her own blog, NumbersRunner.