San Diego 'Timing is everything." Richard Nixon said it. Stand-up comics say it. Is Mayor Dick Murphy trying to be a comedian or a dour Dick Nixon? Or both?
It's comical that with Murphy perceived as a weak mayor, and with three council members under criminal fraud indictment, Murphy is promoting a vote for a strong-mayor, strong-council system. What timing!
Ponder. With the San Diego government's penchant for secrecy finally coming under well-justified attack, Murphy met secretly with a group of corporate- welfare pushers and suddenly announced his campaign for strong-mayor, strong-council government. Again, exquisite timing. Then it came out that the average city resident's sewer bill is 23 percent -- $133 a year -- higher than it should be because big companies are paying inordinately low rates. And Murphy had kept that subsidy secret from voters for two years. Solution? Give the mayor more power. As comics say, "Grrreat timing!"
And speaking of timing, folks: Murphy wants voters to okay this massive change of the city charter in a hurry -- in November, with barely any citizen input. Corporate- welfare mendicants have been lobbying for such a system for years, and the reason is obvious. The business community wants centralized power-making because it makes it easy to tell "who is operating the city and who we should turn to," says the chamber of commerce's Mitch Mitchell unabashedly.
When power is centralized, the city manager has less authority, and checks and balances are emasculated. "A lot of mischief can be created," says councilmember Donna Frye, who forced the secrecy reforms and also forced the city to admit its massive sewer subsidy to business. "It's easier for people to focus their energy and dollars on one or two candidates and have the ability to gain control of an issue and keep the public pretty much shut out."
"There is so much money involved in political campaigns in this day and age, and if you have a strong-mayor form of government, it would further politicize the system," says John Lockwood, former city manager. "If you raise a lot of money, you are beholden" to donors, Lockwood points out. "A manager doesn't have to raise a penny."
Frye and Lockwood are stating it gently. For too long, San Diego mayors and councilmembers have been for sale to the highest bidders. The blame for the city's desperate financial condition belongs overwhelmingly with current and former mayors and councilmembers and only partly with corrupt and/or inept city managers.
The city plundered its pension system, sold off assets, and neglected its infrastructure and equipment maintenance so that it could balance its budgets and therefore finance corporate- welfare projects, mostly related to professional sports and real estate. Mayors and councilmembers, whose wallets bulged with funds from downtown nabobs, pushed those projects and pressured city managers and bureaucrats to cook the books.
And the recently revealed sewer-billing scam is just the tip of an iceberg that should be investigated by a grand jury. "I remember from my own experience that big business and certain individuals with a lot of clout enjoyed reduced sewer bills or possibly weren't billed at all," says Abbe Wolfsheimer Stutz, a 1985-1993 councilmember.
"All of our problems since 1995 have been the result of mayors who overwhelmed the professionals, the weak city managers," says Bruce Henderson, former councilmember, citing numerous instances in which the administrative branch buckled when confronting a mayor. "It doesn't make any difference whether you have a strong-mayor system or a strong-manager system; you are going to get good government only if you get good people."
Murphy's proposed strong-mayor, strong-council system could be nothing more than a return to the spoils system: "It's a question of having political stooges or having staffs of professional people whose jobs are not threatened simply because they do not follow the current political whim of the people in power," says Henderson.
To be sure, those in the administrative branch shouldn't have caved in to the pressure -- shouldn't have kept expenses hidden, commingled funds, told lies in bond prospectuses and fudged numbers (such as projections of ballpark tax receipts). But if current federal investigations lead to criminal convictions, administrators shouldn't be the only ones going to prison.
It's much like the big corporate scams these days. To a disgusting degree, financial officers who may have sold $2 million worth of stock in a fraudulent scheme get clamped in handcuffs, while top-level executives and board members who sold $600 million or $1 billion worth of their stock go free. Lower-level company administrators don't take huge personal risks for modest rewards; they are cooking the books at the behest of top-level miscreants. The same is true in governments.
In recent years, charter- change committees have suggested that the mayor be the chief executive officer, head of the executive branch, with the ability to dismiss a chief administrative officer without recourse. The mayor could fire the police chief, fire chief, and planning director subject to city-council review. The mayor would also be responsible for the budget -- a truly frightening idea in light of mayoral machinations of recent years.
Murphy wants line-item veto powers. "Suppose a couple of councilmembers don't support everything the boss mayor wants to do. It wouldn't be that difficult for the mayor to line-item veto projects in those councilmembers' districts," says Frye. "Whole communities could be punished. The mayor could cut basic services and fund pet projects. The pro sports teams would have an even easier time than they have now."
A classic example of mayoral power abuse is going on right now with Frye. She is the only councilmember who has been right on the big issues. Alone, she voted against continued underfunding of the broke pension system. She refuses to give away the store to sports teams. Through her efforts, and against Murphy's wishes, the city is moving away from its secrecy obsession. So Murphy refuses to make her chair of any committee.
The establishment wants councilmembers who are for sale. The purportedly new paradigm is an ugly old one: Tammany Hall or Boss Daley.
In trying to rush a charter change to the ballot, Murphy is repeating the same mistake made in 1929, says city attorney candidate Michael Aguirre, who researched city history on the topic. In 1929, powers-that-be wanted a quick okay of a strong-city-manager form of government. It was defeated overwhelmingly.
Immediately, the city decided it needed citizen input. Leaders called "freeholders" held numerous community meetings and gathered ideas. By 1931, the city was ready to go for the strong-manager system. The press was overwhelmingly for it. In the end, so were the voters.
By contrast, with Murphy, "There was no public input. It was all done behind closed doors at the very time the city council has made a historic decision to open up city-council meetings," says Aguirre.
Aguirre is not necessarily opposed to a strong-mayor system. But today's proponents "will be hard-pressed to convince the public it is a good idea, when the people proposing it don't have a strong record of commitment to the public interest."
In recent years, in fact, "We have had a weak-city-manager form of government," points out Aguirre. "It will be very difficult to convince the public that we don't have a special-interest form of government now."
The timing of the Murphy proposal is so bizarre that it has engendered an intriguing theory: that the big-money power brokers think Murphy is ineffective. They prefer his opponent, Ron Roberts, who has historically manifested obeisance to overlords feeding him money.
So, to let Murphy self-destruct, the big boys convinced him to put the proposal on the November ballot. Voters, seeing how ridiculous it is, will punish Murphy. Then the corporate-welfare leeches will get a version more to their liking from the servile Roberts. This admittedly challengeable theory poses several questions: Does Murphy know he is being Machiavellied? Or, knowing how severe city finances are, will he be happy to let some other mayor deal with them?
Realistically, as Wolfsheimer Stutz says, the financial woes may not be sorted out by a strong mayor, strong council, or strong manager. The job will go to a strong bankruptcy judge.