When San Diego’s five-year experiment with a strong mayor form of government kicks in next January, San Diego businesses are going to need to know where the power lies.
“The functioning of the city, with so many departments, rules and regulations, council policies, code sections, it’s quite an extensive undertaking,” said John Kaheny, a former Chula Vista city attorney and former San Diego assistant city attorney.
Kaheny, who’s retired but remains active in civic issues, also is one of those in the inner circle of San Diego’s movers and shakers who have championed the switch from the current council-manager form of government to a mayor-council.
“The business community must know who is going to be approving their projects, and how decisions of the bureaucracy get appealed, who’s going to do what to whom and when,” he said.
Under the new form, which was approved by voters Nov. 2, the mayor would serve as the chief executive officer, with hiring and firing power, and greater authority over city officers and employees. Among other things, it would remove the mayor from the City Council, which would provide checks and balances.
On Jan. 24, the City Council voted to seek proposals for a consultant to ease the historic transition. Meanwhile, members of that inner circle are moving ahead to hire their own consultant , the Rand Corp., a national nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica.
“Rand’s reputation is bulletproof,” said George Mitrovich, the president of the City Club of San Diego, a hub of prominent San Diegans. “It is the most highly regarded think tank in America.”
An early proponent of the strong mayor system, Mitrovich pushed the transition, even tapping into his friendship with former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who has advised the group.
“I’ve borne the major burden, and I’ve happily done so,” said Mitrovich of his involvement with the strong mayor form. “I believe in it. We have invested so much time and energy, getting people to vote it in, we need to be certain the transition is carried out effectively and in the best interest of the city.”
Mitrovich added “There is a culture of fear at City Hall. People are traumatized, and their ability to think about the future is severely limited. This isn’t being adequately addressed.”
San Diego Padres owner John Moores and local real estate mogul Malin Burnham have offered to put up $125,000 jointly to hire Rand. They hope other businesses and residents will chip in.
“We do not want to dominate, run or own, or be in charge of anything,” said Burnham, chairman of the Burnham Cos. “With the Rand Corporation, they have a timeline, and we want to get the process started. We’re asking for contributions.”
Said Mitrovich of Moores and Burnham’s gesture: “We feel an obligation to raise money to pay them back. We’re doing this for the city, and they shouldn’t be doing this alone. We’ll be asking individuals and companies to be a part of this. If other individuals and companies don’t participate in this, that’s a scandal. Either you care about what’s happening in the city or you don’t. You need to be part of this process.”
Timing is an issue, because the city’s budget process will kick into high gear in the coming months, and whatever funding is required for the transition needs to be put into place, say supporters. And, said Burnham, Rand has only a narrow window in which to do the work.
“If we don’t do this within the next 10 days, the window closes for several weeks,” he said. “The city normally can’t act that fast. We don’t want to interfere, but we want to get the job done.”
Mitrovich added: “If anyone thinks this is going to get done by the city anytime soon, they are disconnected from reality. This is a major, major task. Which is why we decided, our little group, for whatever value it has, to help the process, not control it. You can’t do that with Rand, but help get it done by using the best minds available, as represented by Rand.
“In my limited experience with City Hall, few people there have a sense of urgency. Trust me, they need a sense of urgency.”
San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye and City Councilman Jim Madaffer were the lone votes against hiring a consultant. Frye said that she’s not happy about the possibility of “dueling consultants,” or any consultants for that matter who don’t include a board coalition of San Diego residents.
“I did not support this governance change, but I am committed to making sure the transition works,” she said. “But there seems to be little support for establishing a citizens committee. That should have happened at the front end of this. It’s a citizens government. It’s really, really important to bring in citizens, set up a charter transition committee, that would become a charter review committee.”
Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring said a consultant probably could be hired for $100,000 to $150,000.
“One of the purposes of (seeking bids for consultants) is to test the market and let them tell us,” he said. “Primarily, it’s to determine if there are any qualified consultants in the marketplace, but you also discuss the scope of the work and how much it would cost.”
Herring said a consultant could be hired within 30 to 45 days, adding, “It’s an expedited (plan).”
Frye said she’d rather see the money used to support a citizens’ advisory committee.
“I don’t discount the need for having smart people,” she said, “but I think the citizens, the League of Women Voters, other groups, have the ability to provide expertise. It’s frustrating that we don’t include our citizens and empower them. Instead, we go out for a consultant. For me, my best consultants have always been members of the public. The more voices, the better.”
Mitrovich agrees with more public involvement.
“It only makes sense if the public component is included in the working committees of the city , the mayor, council, the manager’s office,” he said, but added, “What exactly would a stand-alone public group do? Would they be provided a staff? How would they be chosen? What would the qualifications for being selected be?”
Motives And Money
Speculating on the motivations of the business leaders who are behind the strong mayor form, Frye said: “I see them as people who have driven a process, and certainly it’s their right to participate in government and be a part of it. What concerns me is that you have a small group of people.
“This was not an initiative that was publicly driven. It was brought forward by a group of individuals with a great deal of money. That’s not inherently bad, but it’s not something the public was crying out for. They weren’t asking for a change of governance, but making government more efficient and responsive to them.”
Some are questioning how much control Mitrovich’s group would have over the process.
“If we hire Rand, once the contract is signed, we have lost all control of it,” Mitrovich said. “When it’s issued, we announce it publicly and turn it over to the mayor, the City Council, the city manager, the city attorney, and what they do with it is totally their decision. It irks me that people dare criticize Burnham and Moores for doing a good deed for San Diego.”
Burnham said Rand will have carte blanche to research the issue, without any interference from the locals.
“They are a bulletproof organization,” he said, echoing Mitrovich. “Nobody is going to influence them about what the final product is. We believe that if you’re making a major move, such as going to a new charter, it’s best to reach out for help and professional consultants who have the experience. That’s why we got into this. It’s not a good time, with things happening at City Hall, with all the investigations and financial problems. This is a way of helping the city at a time that is sorely needed.”
Said Mitrovich, “This is the worst crisis in our history, and the city needs as much help as it can get.”