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Norma Damashek keeps tabs on San Diego city hall

League of Women Voters steps in

Norma Damashek is not a household name. A longtime citizen of La Jolla, graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University, mother of three, and married to a prominent physician, she is largely staying clear of the spectacle going on at San Diego's city hall. She also prefers not to be photographed. But the sixtysomething Damashek, who is well-known within the small inside circles of the city's progressive-leaning grassroots politics and who once worked as a staffer in the city council's tenth-floor offices, is far from being out of the game. As vice president of the League of Women Voters, she has been bird-dogging the city's long march toward a so-called strong-mayor form of government, a version of which was finally adopted by voters last fall after a campaign eclipsed by the hurly-burly three-way race for mayor. After the election -- with the mayor and council distracted by investigations, indictments, and an electoral challenge -- Damashek has remained focused on how the city will go about the tricky business of making the transition. She recently sat down for an interview about her take on what is going on.

How did you get into public duty?

I went back to school as a mature individual and got a master's in city planning at San Diego State.

When was that?

This was in the late '80s, and up until then I was really involved in community-planning issues, environmental issues. But once I got through that program, I got an internship, just quite accidentally, at the city council, in the city council office.

Whose office?

District 1, Abbe Wolfsheimer.

I did land-use issues. That's when I became very interested in city government. I hadn't been all that knowledgeable or interested before. I became very interested in it, especially the interaction of political decisions, planning processes, how decisions get made.

Land use is a major issue that the city council deals with. It's probably one of its most important issues. Land use is really important because it decides who gets rich. It's very political and has everything to do with who makes it.

And so I stayed on for a couple years after that at the planning department, while I was writing my thesis. My thesis was about the decision-making process in land-use planning in the future urbanizing area, power of politics and planning. And I became very involved with the League of Women Voters at that point and have been vice president of the league for years.

When was your thesis published?

That published in '92, maybe?

What specific topics did you address?

I was very interested in the role of lobbyists and the decision-making process, because it was, again, why decisions get made the way they get made. I was interested in the way community groups were used to legitimize and validate the government decisions, the way they're manipulated. And those were my primary interests, why the way things got done wasn't good for planning purposes.

Were there specific parts of town or specific projects that you were working on?

I was working with the future urbanizing area, which is now Carmel Valley, Black Mountain Ranch, everything that is going on that filled out the northern part of the city.

Was a lot of money spent on lobbying in that process?

Well, it was one of the last very big undeveloped areas in the city in the late '80s. And it needed to go back to the voters to decide what kind of development would be there, because we had passed an initiative in the '80s to keep the future urbanizing area open unless there was a vote of the public. So there was a lot of need to sell projects to the voters.

The developers got their way then?

They know what they want to build, and they get to build it that way.

Was that a bad thing?

Is it a bad thing? That's a good question. Is it a bad thing that they build what they know how to build and what they can make the most money from? Yeah, sometimes it's a bad thing. Up there it probably was a poor use of the land; the freeways are absolutely clogged up there. It's a disaster to drive. There are real issues with it, but it's a typical suburban community and very upscale.

The only very good thing about it was that at the very last minute some of the affordable-housing advocates were able to insert a clause into the contracts which said they had to include low-income housing -- 20 percent, which is very high. And that was a very important issue, and the developers at that point just wanted to get it over with, and they agreed.

It just set a good precedent so that we were able, 15 years later, to get inclusionary housing legislation -- it was somewhat unprecedented. It took a while, but it was a good move.

At any rate, since I was involved with the future urbanizing area, I became much more involved in local citywide issues and have been doing the public policy issues for the League of Women Voters in the city.

I worked on setting up the ethics commission. That brought me into this strong-mayor issue around 2000. I began attending the meetings of the committee of 2000, which had been [formed to promote] the [new] baseball stadium.

Who was responsible for that?

Well, there were a lot of people who were in on that. George Mitrovich was a major organizer. He tends to organize for the power elite in the city.

Was he representing the Padres?

No, once the stadium deal got accomplished the same group moved on and took up this strong-mayor issue.

Who were the other members?

Well, Malin Burnham was a major player. Anybody who had had any executive power -- Mayor Golding -- anybody who was serving on any of the commissions downtown, many of the lobbyists who I knew from the days I was at city council were there. It was like a reunion. I hadn't seen some of these people in years, and there we were, all together in one big room.

Where did this group convene?

When I got involved we were meeting at the law school on Ash.

And the topic was whether to have a strong mayor?

The topic was to create a new system for San Diego. People who had been working on that for five or six years are people who are close to [the] mayor right now: Bill Geppert, Cox Communications vice president.

So in other words, people who were involved with downtown. Was Moores there?

John Moores was a financial backer. He tended not to bother with coming to the meetings, with the details. Peter Q. Davis was a big contributor to this as well -- not financially -- but he was at the table many times. And what was very interesting to me in talking to some of the people who were attending these meetings, they really knew what they wanted.

They wanted a strong mayor, but when I'd talk to them about the way the city's run, the way the communities are run, the role of city councilmembers, the role of planning groups, advisory groups, just the way the rest of the city functions, they were amazingly ignorant and amazingly ignorant of the way the rest of the city functioned, or of what needed to be done, or of the moods and interests of any groups that were not involved directly in the business of downtown.

What happened after the future urbanizing area got broken up was that most of the big tracts of land to develop in the suburban style were gone and there was a long recession in the '90s and people tended to regroup.

Suddenly smart growth was a new idea. Everybody was hooking on to smart growth. Suddenly developers who had only built suburban homes were looking at building in the urbanized areas, because that was the only place that was available.

It was pretty clear that the suburbs were finished, and now the money's to be made downtown. You just go where these guys move, and you know where money is to be made.

I don't know who the invisible people were, but I do know that they were about. Maybe 30 people would show up at these meetings and talk about how to set up a strong mayoral form of government. Again, these people generally had no idea how city government was run. That wasn't the point.

I did go to meetings over the course of the year. I spoke up pretty freely. I didn't represent the League of Women Voters; I was going on my own. I was pretty clear about my position. City government needed reform and changes, and there was already a lot of peculiar stuff that had gone on with Mayor Golding and Jack McGrory.

For example?

We were already having trouble. It was clear to everybody who was downtown, I think, in the '90s, with Susan Golding, that the city was in financial trouble, because major projects -- I think the Republican National Convention that Susan brought in was, that was really the straw that broke the camel's back. And we couldn't find out at the time what it was costing the city. But a tremendous amount of money was diverted into all aspects of the Republican National Convention.

Qualcomm Stadium was also a major disaster. It wasn't because of the ticket guarantee only; that was just a stupid way. It was a gamble that they lost, and it could've worked out just fine, but they lost that gamble. It cost the city an enormous amount of money that doesn't get accounted for. The facilities, the training facilities, a lot of infrastructure doesn't get reported as directly related to projects.

That was true of the downtown ballpark as well -- the infrastructure decisions to work on certain roads, certain freeways. All the money gets pooled in a place. That means other areas lose that money. It's all related to the project, but it doesn't get included in the cost of the project, so you don't really know how much money has been included.

In the mid-'90s people who were asking questions were not getting answers about what was happening to their money and where it was going.

Why was that?

Partially because of the weaknesses of the city-manager form of government. Obviously there's no perfect or even excellent form of government that works, that does everything for everybody, and city-manager form of government has definite problems associated with it.

Jack McGrory, in fact, was acting for Susan Golding the way the new city manager in our new system will be acting for the mayor, as the personal city manager.

And he played that role for Susan Golding for a while until he understood that he was going to get screwed and that he couldn't really control the process. And so he got out while he could.

Did that result in a lack of access, a lack of information?

To some extent. But again, everything depends on the quality and the will of the elected representatives to make sure they get the information they want. And we don't tend to have that kind of politician in San Diego. Our politicians tend to be passive.

I was interested in improving city government. I went to these meetings. I was very uncomfortable because the only people represented there were downtown business interests, and very uniform in a usual group of complacent -- not complacent -- arrogant white men.

They were very aware of the problem that I was having, and I continued to go because I thought it was important for them to hear another point of view and just to talk about how other groups need to be represented.

What was their motive?

I think their motive is to arrange things so that business can move forward. It's not a bad thing. I think they want to have a system that works, that works for their interests -- but that's certainly what all of us are doing. We're trying to make changes that work for what we think are the highest interests.

Business interests are very important in any city, and they're not bad, they're not suspect; you know exactly what they are. But they were trying to set up a very important government system to serve their interests.

In fact, they had an interest, because communities and community interference really slows down the process for business. So any system that can minimize the intervention of local groups, communities, would be something that they were interested in promoting.

So there I was, saying you can't do that. Communities have a stake in the city as well. Other groups have a stake in the city. There's no environmental groups represented here, no ethnic groups, no labor groups, whatever.

They brought in a couple of what I call academics to look at the way things get done compared to other cities, people who supposedly know the way governments work, so they could put it together in a good form. They were delivering the content, and they wanted these professional academics to deliver the form.

Were they from San Diego State?

One was from San Diego State. One was from UCSD.

Steve [Erie] was UCSD, and Glenn Sparrow was San Diego State. Steve brought in Jim [Ingram], who he knew. Steve was a graduate student up in Los Angeles years before, and he'd worked on one of the charter commissions that Los Angeles had set up when they did their charter change. So he was experienced in working through a process of charter change.

Did they address your concerns?

They did address my concerns occasionally. They understood what my concerns were and probably agreed with my concerns, but the people in the room who were footing the bill for this process and who carried the most weight were the downtown businessmen, who knew what they wanted and weren't too interested in what I had to say. I continued to go; I continued to speak up. I felt that they impatiently listened to what I had to say, patted my head, and went on with their own business. When the time came for Prop. F to be put on the ballot -- well, let me back up a little bit.

They had tried to get Susan Golding to put this on the ballot, and they brought it to her.

I was really surprised that they felt that she carried weight. It was an interesting lesson for me about these downtown groups who are very powerful. Business interests are very powerful, but they're out of touch with a lot of what goes on in the rest of the city.

They depend on people -- lobbyist people -- who used to work in city hall. They draw a lot on those people to give them advice, policy advice, strategy advice, assuming that the people who used to be on the inside would know how things get done.

The advice they got I thought was very poor a lot of the time. I was amazed that they had so little insight into the way the public was feeling about Susan Golding. I said at the time, "They've got to be kidding if they think that this mayor could carry this." They were mistaken. They went out and they tried to do it; it all fell apart.

We like to believe that [people in power] really know what the issues are and really understand the big picture. But they're not working with the big picture at all. They're working with their own, much more focused picture. And sometimes they're really mistaken about the rest of what's going on. It's an interesting thing to observe, and it's important to keep that in mind.

When you say "fell apart," what happened?

We met with the mayor, and we sat around and talked to her one evening. She could not move it forward. She didn't have support any longer, or certainly not from the public -- I think she knew that -- to push, to advance it. I don't remember what was actually attempted, but it went nowhere. So the group may have continued talking a little bit for quite a few years, but they came back again in 2003, I guess, 2004, before the last election, and began again in earnest reviving the document that they had produced in 2000. This time I went back to a few of the meetings.

Did they call you, or how'd you get wind of it?

I was on the e-mail list in the first go-round. I was not an invited guest -- I just kept showing up. I knew about the meetings. They claimed that they were public meetings, anybody could come. And in that sense, they were. Anybody could come if you knew about it.

They didn't go out of their way to make sure you were there?

No. They weren't interested in hearing from any others. They knew what they wanted, and they were pursuing it again. The first time around, John Kern was very opposed to making these changes, and I had gotten an e-mail that he sent around, the Kern newsletters, talking about all of the flaws in pursuing a strong-mayor form of government. How it just would never fly, it wasn't good, and it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

Was he working for the mayor at that time?

At that time, I think no. This was before the mayor was in office. He was a consultant. He was maybe working with Murphy on his campaign. John Kern became a very active player the second time around in this last project.

Was he at the meetings after Murphy took office?

Well, what John Kern did was he came to the meetings, picked up the reports, brought them back to the mayor's office, met with a very small group of people whose names were never revealed except to the people who were there and knew they were there. He made certain changes to the document for strengthening the mayor's role, and so he assumed a very key role in just making last-minute changes. Some of them were modified by people on the committee, like the two professors who understood that it wasn't going to fly to give the mayor very much control at this point; that there was time to change the regulations and come back for another vote, strengthen the vote of the mayor.

There was a certain degree of compromise?

Things like requiring a simple majority vote of city council to overturn a mayor's veto rather than a supermajority. But they overlooked many issues that -- the compromise went both ways. I think compromises were made to insure that the public would not be too alarmed by the change, but there were compromises also that cut out the communities almost entirely from reaping the benefits from the change.

It was being changed up to the very last minute before it had to be submitted to go on the ballot, because the mayor's office, through John Kern and others, was still trying to make changes. The mayor apparently had something to say himself about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to keep control of closed sessions, for example, which was a peculiar one but managed to survive.

And that was all transmitted from Kern to the committee? He would show up and sort of say, "This is what's going on"?

Yeah, um-hum. Yeah.

What was the final proposal?

This proposal transformed San Diego into a city very much like many other large cities, mostly Eastern cities, where the mayor is the chief administrative officer, the executive of the city, and the city council is the legislative body -- two very distinct roles, tending to be adversarial roles.

The other cities that were looked at in trying to develop our own set of rules were places like Oakland and Los Angeles. There were others, but those two cities were very important. It's true that they both gave a lot more power to the mayor, and the public approved that.

They're so different. The process, the reasons, the people involved were so different that it was hard to believe that they could teach us anything.

Oakland had Jerry Brown; it was a one-man show. People put their future lives -- they put everything into his hands and said, "Okay, you do it." And he did it. People up there are very worried that once he leaves there's going to be an office with an incredible amount of power and the next person's not going to be as successful in managing that power.

Los Angeles had a very complicated transition. But the purpose of this change in city government was to try to prevent secession -- not just in San Fernando Valley but in a couple of the other towns to the south. So it was an attempt to preserve the city.

And in order to do that, they ended up transferring a lot of power to the mayor and then transferring a lot of balancing power to the communities by setting up neighborhood councils, elected local neighborhood councils, that had an overarching system of meeting and determining the state of communities.

The community voice was built into these charter changes so that in Los Angeles power was redistributed. Some went up to the mayor, and some went down to the communities.

In the hands of the good people who were working up the system of San Diego, power was redistributed, but only up to the mayor.

They like to say that it really is a strong-mayor, strong-council form of government, because the council is given the right, if they choose, to hire a budget analyst for themselves so that they would have a little more information, knowledge, and be able to balance the mayor's new power to create the budget.

And so they were calling this "strong-mayor, strong-council."

That was a sales job. The city council in fact lost out tremendously in this redistribution of power, and they're going to have to work pretty hard to establish a city council that has the sense of its responsibility, its potential power, and its self-reliance.

That this group set up Prop. F and was able to sell it to the public, I'm still surprised. But I think the public tends to like the idea of a strong executive who will take over and take care of things.

What struck me about this Committee 2000 was that they knew what they wanted to get achieved. They didn't really care about the way it got put into place; they didn't care about the details -- in fact, were not even aware of the functions of city government that had to be taken care of when you write a charter, when you write the rules of the game.

Part of what I had been pushing for all the time that I met with them was to get a totally new commission set up in the city of San Diego to deal with all the issues and get public input and work out the details so that it would be a better proposal that we got.

This group is very opposed to a charter-review commission. Over and over, one or another of them would say -- Barry Newman was one who was clear about it -- "We've got to get this done fast. It's gotta get done now; no more public process, it takes too long, it's too confusing, we lose control of it."

And they actually made that statement, which I had written down in my notes: "If we do it that way, we'll lose control of the process. We don't want to do it that way."

Charter-review commissions are complicated. They're not easy. They are political like everything else that has to do with heavy-duty political issues. But they do spend more time on the details. They do solicit more public input in this process.

So the proponents wanted to retain control?

This was an intent of the people who put it into place, because their interests really are very focused and work best with the least amount of public input.

Specifically, are we talking about real estate development?

We're talking about not only real estate development but where the city puts its resources, where the city spends its money, what industries benefit from the city's and public money. Who we sell bonds for, where the public indebtedness goes, where the infrastructure goes, and which parts of our economic sector make money and who gets rich and richer and who pays for it.

Do you think the intention of the proponents was to have downtown benefit, or La Jolla or -- ?

Tourism industry works all over the city, all over the county. Tourism is a major industry, so in that sense, it's not just downtown. It's all over North County.

It's real estate downtown, it's future projects, it's where the next sports arena gets built, who develops Midway when they redevelop Midway. It's port, land. It's all a very lucrative business process.

The fallout is also what happens to labor in the city, what kind of policies get made to protect labor, what kind of jobs are created, what kind of protections there are, what kind of housing gets built, who we're housing.

Right now the city council and mayor have control over who is city manager and who administers the city. They have equal access to a city manager to administer their policies in their own communities or citywide. In the new system, city council will no longer have that same equal access to the administrator. The city manager will be working for the mayor.

So all needs and requests [from the city council] will be filtered through the mayor's office. It's a very powerful tool for the mayor to bargain with if he wants -- "If you want for your community X, Y, or Z, I want from you your support on this big issue that I'm proposing."

The city council for the next probably five years will be an eight-member city council. It's hard to get a majority when you have an even number of councilmembers.

So we can look forward to a certain amount of paralysis in the city council. This was not necessarily the choice of either the working group -- this committee who set Prop. F up -- or the mayor. But from what I understand, it was the will of the city councilmembers, who were unwilling to have another seat added midstream because it would change their boundaries and take away some of their constituents if there was a reapportionment for a ninth seat.

We also have a city council that right now is very dependent on the mayor. He sets the policy, he sets the agenda. Despite not being a strong mayor at this moment, he can exercise a good deal of leadership and control. The city council's new role is going to be quite different.

The mayor, I think, has a lot easier job making the transition. The mayor will gather together a few close associates and business leaders and decide just how to set up his office. He's got new choices to make, but it's pretty straightforward.

The city council has a very difficult task that I think they haven't even begun to recognize. That is to begin to understand themselves as an independent body who will be setting all their own rules and deciding their own committees and deciding on the role of representative officers. They have to choose and elect --

From one of their members?

From one of their members. One of them will be the presiding officer. It can be done in many different ways, different terms, but the presiding officer is the important person, because that person will be setting the agenda for the city council and that will be a person who will fill in if there's a vacancy in the mayor's office. If the mayor had a heart attack, if the mayor got recalled, anything, that presiding officer would be sitting in, so it's an important position. And it could be a powerful position depending on who has it and for how long.

So the city council has to understand that their role...is that they are going to make some joint decisions. They also need to decide about this budget analyst. The city council is notorious for not understanding the budget. The mayor's probably notorious for it as well, I don't know. But the city council certainly is.

There could always have been a committee of city councilmembers learning the budget, understanding the budget. Making it a public process would have been a beautiful system where they could have taken control of their own information and expertise. They never chose to do that.

I don't know if it speaks to the limited ambitions or temporary shortsighted personal goals with the city, or whether we haven't just ever elected good enough people to really have the self-confidence to become experts in this matter. But I know this is one thing that Abbe Wolfsheimer proposed 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and it pretty much went nowhere.

In this new system they have the choice. They don't have to do it, but it's the only way that they would be able to have any authority in budget matters -- to create an office of independent budget analysts and staff for that and assume that that person will act on their behalf to help them control the budget and be able to wheel and deal with the mayor at budget time.

The problem is that nobody expected the disaster that has now become evident. I mean, we've been in a disaster for a long time, but nobody really expected to have all these disasters come together at once in this city.

And the budget -- they're talking about layoffs, they're talking about cutting programs, and this is at the same time that they have to create a new division, a new department for the city council. That would be pretty expensive, I would think. At the same time, the mayor will be expanding his office, because that will have to happen. That's going to be what they call a "challenge" for this year. The city council so far is a pretty divided group and getting more divided as the days go on.

In May, two of our councilmembers will be spending a lot of time down in court. It's hard to know how they're going to give their full attention to the problems of the city and the transition and to their own personal futures. It's hard to know what the outcome will be for those trials.

So the instability this year in the city council is enormous, and it's just a moment when they have to step up to the plate to assert themselves, to start meeting independent of the mayor. I'm really concerned that the mayor will choose to try to control the process by having the transition process get done through the rules committee, which he chairs, and through a committee that he might decide to select.

He would form a separate committee?

Yeah, an ad hoc committee on transition, because I think it's time for the city council and the mayor to begin to wean themselves from one another. The mayor probably has no right controlling the way the city council will be setting up their own rules or even controlling the setting in which they will be setting up their own rules.

Doing it through the rules committee means that certain city councilmembers are not on that committee and will not be directly participating and will have to come as speakers of subcommittees. I think that the big hurdle is going to be for city council to somehow understand that they need to see themselves as an eight-member group and set up their own subcommittees and begin to think and act like a separate legislative body and be developing their own bonds and alliances within city council.

I think some of the city councilmembers who were interested in the charter change are not that interested in city council legislative integrity because they see themselves as the next mayor.

That's also a major problem in setting up a strong city council, and again, the reason that I am so interested in this aspect of it is because it has everything to do with public input, where the public gets heard. The mayor will no longer be sitting in on any public meetings, city council meetings. The public will not have access to the mayor. He won't have to hear them anymore.

He won't even show up at the meetings?

He doesn't need to show up at any city council meetings. He still wants to chair the closed-session meetings, but that has nothing to do with the public input. These are the broad kinds of issues, or some of the broad issues, that need to get faced.

Then there is a whole enormous set of the nitty-gritty -- the city attorney has a huge role to play in this, and it's going to be interesting this year because the city attorney is a good deal more active in understanding what his role is.

There are lots of conflicts that need to get worked out; they're legal, but they're also policy conflicts. The city attorney won't deal with policy -- he has to deal with the legal issues -- but they overlap in ways that are very hard to extricate. The city has, for example, dozens and dozens of committees, agencies, commissions. Some are heavily political.

A major one of those very political commissions is, for example, the redevelopment agency -- it's not a commission, it's an agency -- it's a city redevelopment agency. Is that a very peculiar status? It's part of city, but it's also independent, and it controls all the redevelopment in San Diego.

So the mayor and the city council both sit on this agency. It's not clear from Prop. F [how power over the redevelopment agency will be allotted to the mayor or the council], because Prop. F just didn't cover these kinds of important details -- things that a charter-review commission would have had to iron out beforehand.

We'll be faced with it after the fact. The mayor's role is very unclear, but this is a very important function for a strong mayor to decide -- where the redevelopment goes. That has to get worked out. So far it's very vague.

There are several other committees like that, where the mayor and city council have both participated and that they both sit in on and make decisions about. It's no longer clear who [will make those decisions], but these are too important for the powerful interests in town to let go of. It's where the mayor gets his strength, to be able to control certain kinds of major development in town.

In response to all of the unresolved issues and major problems that will face the city council and the mayor this coming year, I, as a League of Women Voters person who's been involved in government for so long, became pretty concerned that the same group of individuals who put Prop. F on the ballot were meeting again and had a direct line to the mayor's office to set the agenda for the transition process.

Was this after the election in the fall?

After the election I became interested in how Prop. F was going to get implemented. It's important to do it right. The city is in enough chaos and is so unstable in so many ways that if Prop. F implementation doesn't go smoothly we're going to have even more chaos when this new form of government is in, and that doesn't serve anybody's interests.

It's certainly, I'm sure, a motivating factor for this business group who put Prop. F on the ballot. They don't want to see chaos in a year. It does not serve the community. It doesn't serve the business interests. It doesn't serve the community at all to not see that Prop. F is implemented as well as possible.

I decided to contact many of the groups and people who had been left out of the process of setting up Prop. F -- some of the groups and people who might have been involved had there been a charter-review commission, a much broader group of constituents who have other interests in this city aside from the business interests.

We were invited to use the conference room in the city attorney's office to have our meetings so that we could get the information from the city attorney, from his staff. We also invited the city-manager staff person who has been assigned the task of this transition process for the city manager's office so that she could come, she could tell us what was going on at the city, and she could hear what our concerns are.

Who attended the meeting, and who did they represent?

The people that did show up were basically people that had been working with community-development issues in the city for a long time.

A city council meeting to begin dealing with these cleanup issues is coming up soon. What do you think will happen at that meeting?

I'm not sure what's going to happen at that meeting. It's a public meeting. The public doesn't really understand the process that is involved in making this transition. They voted for Prop. F and just expect it to happen. This year's process of making it happen is not something that they either know about or would be very interested in the detail of.

What we need to hear from is the city manager and the city attorney with timelines about what has to get done when. Many things have to be put into place immediately so that other things can follow.

There was talk about trying to get a study done by either the Rand Corporation, which would be a privately funded study, or by the city to try to look at the process and try to set up the marching orders for city council and mayor.

We don't have enough time to set up a committee in the usual way. If there's a privately financed study by an independent agency like the Rand Corporation, it might be of some use, it might not be. I'm sure that there will be useful points, and I'm sure there will be a lot of stuff that will just sit on the shelf.

I think what we need are a few decisions about getting a timeline set up by a city manager who will be leaving in six months, trying to squeeze out as much as we can from this guy before he goes, and setting up some budget, aiming for some instructions to the city manager about budgeting for a new staff for the city council. The city attorney, which is an independent elected agency with a very separate legal role, has already begun its work, not having to wait for the mayor to get around to giving them instructions.

So I think we'll see some timelines from the city attorney's office and some questions about policy issues that need to get resolved during the year.

We do need a structure, we do need a joint working group, and I've been told that there might be a working group set up from the representatives from the mayor's office, city council, city attorney, and city manager, and the public to begin to lay out the next few months and make sure that everything is on track and keep an eye on it.

I would like to see a working committee like that. And I'd like to talk about setting up a charter-review commission now, putting it into place so that in a year or so we can have a commission working alongside the city, monitoring the progress, looking at changes that are going to have to be made and getting ready for the vote that will have to come back to the voters within five years to see if we want to keep this form of government or if we want to make modifications or go back to -- well, you never can go back. So I think we need to do what should've gotten done years ago.

City council is so far not coming together. I see the League of Women Voters playing a strong role, if it's acceptable to the players, to help structure some of the public hearings and the details of what needs to be done in transition.

In terms of all these private meetings that you so described leading up to the measure, and now in the postelection period, again more private meetings being held, is that something that should continue or should it be more open?

I think the private meetings are just fine. But when private meetings result in controlling influence among all of the higher-up politicians and policy makers, then you've got a problem. If it gets done strictly in this type of way, I think it's a really ominous predictor of what might happen with a strong mayor, where only private groups will get heard and the perspective of the other interests of the city will be ignored.

When is the switch?

January 1 of 2006.

Less than a year now.

Yes. n

Editor's note:

This interview was conducted before Monday's city council meeting during which the council voted 7-2, with Donna Frye and Jim Madaffer in the minority, to solicit bids for a consultant to provide advice about the strong mayor transition. The estimated cost was said to be in the neighborhood of $150,000. The council put off taking other action.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Padres owner John Moores and Malin Burnham, his partner in the giant East Village redevelopment project, were spending $125,000 on their own transition study commissioned from Santa Monica-based RAND Corp.

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Henry Silva’s golden years

“Would you buy a used car from this son-of-a-gun?”

Norma Damashek is not a household name. A longtime citizen of La Jolla, graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University, mother of three, and married to a prominent physician, she is largely staying clear of the spectacle going on at San Diego's city hall. She also prefers not to be photographed. But the sixtysomething Damashek, who is well-known within the small inside circles of the city's progressive-leaning grassroots politics and who once worked as a staffer in the city council's tenth-floor offices, is far from being out of the game. As vice president of the League of Women Voters, she has been bird-dogging the city's long march toward a so-called strong-mayor form of government, a version of which was finally adopted by voters last fall after a campaign eclipsed by the hurly-burly three-way race for mayor. After the election -- with the mayor and council distracted by investigations, indictments, and an electoral challenge -- Damashek has remained focused on how the city will go about the tricky business of making the transition. She recently sat down for an interview about her take on what is going on.

How did you get into public duty?

I went back to school as a mature individual and got a master's in city planning at San Diego State.

When was that?

This was in the late '80s, and up until then I was really involved in community-planning issues, environmental issues. But once I got through that program, I got an internship, just quite accidentally, at the city council, in the city council office.

Whose office?

District 1, Abbe Wolfsheimer.

I did land-use issues. That's when I became very interested in city government. I hadn't been all that knowledgeable or interested before. I became very interested in it, especially the interaction of political decisions, planning processes, how decisions get made.

Land use is a major issue that the city council deals with. It's probably one of its most important issues. Land use is really important because it decides who gets rich. It's very political and has everything to do with who makes it.

And so I stayed on for a couple years after that at the planning department, while I was writing my thesis. My thesis was about the decision-making process in land-use planning in the future urbanizing area, power of politics and planning. And I became very involved with the League of Women Voters at that point and have been vice president of the league for years.

When was your thesis published?

That published in '92, maybe?

What specific topics did you address?

I was very interested in the role of lobbyists and the decision-making process, because it was, again, why decisions get made the way they get made. I was interested in the way community groups were used to legitimize and validate the government decisions, the way they're manipulated. And those were my primary interests, why the way things got done wasn't good for planning purposes.

Were there specific parts of town or specific projects that you were working on?

I was working with the future urbanizing area, which is now Carmel Valley, Black Mountain Ranch, everything that is going on that filled out the northern part of the city.

Was a lot of money spent on lobbying in that process?

Well, it was one of the last very big undeveloped areas in the city in the late '80s. And it needed to go back to the voters to decide what kind of development would be there, because we had passed an initiative in the '80s to keep the future urbanizing area open unless there was a vote of the public. So there was a lot of need to sell projects to the voters.

The developers got their way then?

They know what they want to build, and they get to build it that way.

Was that a bad thing?

Is it a bad thing? That's a good question. Is it a bad thing that they build what they know how to build and what they can make the most money from? Yeah, sometimes it's a bad thing. Up there it probably was a poor use of the land; the freeways are absolutely clogged up there. It's a disaster to drive. There are real issues with it, but it's a typical suburban community and very upscale.

The only very good thing about it was that at the very last minute some of the affordable-housing advocates were able to insert a clause into the contracts which said they had to include low-income housing -- 20 percent, which is very high. And that was a very important issue, and the developers at that point just wanted to get it over with, and they agreed.

It just set a good precedent so that we were able, 15 years later, to get inclusionary housing legislation -- it was somewhat unprecedented. It took a while, but it was a good move.

At any rate, since I was involved with the future urbanizing area, I became much more involved in local citywide issues and have been doing the public policy issues for the League of Women Voters in the city.

I worked on setting up the ethics commission. That brought me into this strong-mayor issue around 2000. I began attending the meetings of the committee of 2000, which had been [formed to promote] the [new] baseball stadium.

Who was responsible for that?

Well, there were a lot of people who were in on that. George Mitrovich was a major organizer. He tends to organize for the power elite in the city.

Was he representing the Padres?

No, once the stadium deal got accomplished the same group moved on and took up this strong-mayor issue.

Who were the other members?

Well, Malin Burnham was a major player. Anybody who had had any executive power -- Mayor Golding -- anybody who was serving on any of the commissions downtown, many of the lobbyists who I knew from the days I was at city council were there. It was like a reunion. I hadn't seen some of these people in years, and there we were, all together in one big room.

Where did this group convene?

When I got involved we were meeting at the law school on Ash.

And the topic was whether to have a strong mayor?

The topic was to create a new system for San Diego. People who had been working on that for five or six years are people who are close to [the] mayor right now: Bill Geppert, Cox Communications vice president.

So in other words, people who were involved with downtown. Was Moores there?

John Moores was a financial backer. He tended not to bother with coming to the meetings, with the details. Peter Q. Davis was a big contributor to this as well -- not financially -- but he was at the table many times. And what was very interesting to me in talking to some of the people who were attending these meetings, they really knew what they wanted.

They wanted a strong mayor, but when I'd talk to them about the way the city's run, the way the communities are run, the role of city councilmembers, the role of planning groups, advisory groups, just the way the rest of the city functions, they were amazingly ignorant and amazingly ignorant of the way the rest of the city functioned, or of what needed to be done, or of the moods and interests of any groups that were not involved directly in the business of downtown.

What happened after the future urbanizing area got broken up was that most of the big tracts of land to develop in the suburban style were gone and there was a long recession in the '90s and people tended to regroup.

Suddenly smart growth was a new idea. Everybody was hooking on to smart growth. Suddenly developers who had only built suburban homes were looking at building in the urbanized areas, because that was the only place that was available.

It was pretty clear that the suburbs were finished, and now the money's to be made downtown. You just go where these guys move, and you know where money is to be made.

I don't know who the invisible people were, but I do know that they were about. Maybe 30 people would show up at these meetings and talk about how to set up a strong mayoral form of government. Again, these people generally had no idea how city government was run. That wasn't the point.

I did go to meetings over the course of the year. I spoke up pretty freely. I didn't represent the League of Women Voters; I was going on my own. I was pretty clear about my position. City government needed reform and changes, and there was already a lot of peculiar stuff that had gone on with Mayor Golding and Jack McGrory.

For example?

We were already having trouble. It was clear to everybody who was downtown, I think, in the '90s, with Susan Golding, that the city was in financial trouble, because major projects -- I think the Republican National Convention that Susan brought in was, that was really the straw that broke the camel's back. And we couldn't find out at the time what it was costing the city. But a tremendous amount of money was diverted into all aspects of the Republican National Convention.

Qualcomm Stadium was also a major disaster. It wasn't because of the ticket guarantee only; that was just a stupid way. It was a gamble that they lost, and it could've worked out just fine, but they lost that gamble. It cost the city an enormous amount of money that doesn't get accounted for. The facilities, the training facilities, a lot of infrastructure doesn't get reported as directly related to projects.

That was true of the downtown ballpark as well -- the infrastructure decisions to work on certain roads, certain freeways. All the money gets pooled in a place. That means other areas lose that money. It's all related to the project, but it doesn't get included in the cost of the project, so you don't really know how much money has been included.

In the mid-'90s people who were asking questions were not getting answers about what was happening to their money and where it was going.

Why was that?

Partially because of the weaknesses of the city-manager form of government. Obviously there's no perfect or even excellent form of government that works, that does everything for everybody, and city-manager form of government has definite problems associated with it.

Jack McGrory, in fact, was acting for Susan Golding the way the new city manager in our new system will be acting for the mayor, as the personal city manager.

And he played that role for Susan Golding for a while until he understood that he was going to get screwed and that he couldn't really control the process. And so he got out while he could.

Did that result in a lack of access, a lack of information?

To some extent. But again, everything depends on the quality and the will of the elected representatives to make sure they get the information they want. And we don't tend to have that kind of politician in San Diego. Our politicians tend to be passive.

I was interested in improving city government. I went to these meetings. I was very uncomfortable because the only people represented there were downtown business interests, and very uniform in a usual group of complacent -- not complacent -- arrogant white men.

They were very aware of the problem that I was having, and I continued to go because I thought it was important for them to hear another point of view and just to talk about how other groups need to be represented.

What was their motive?

I think their motive is to arrange things so that business can move forward. It's not a bad thing. I think they want to have a system that works, that works for their interests -- but that's certainly what all of us are doing. We're trying to make changes that work for what we think are the highest interests.

Business interests are very important in any city, and they're not bad, they're not suspect; you know exactly what they are. But they were trying to set up a very important government system to serve their interests.

In fact, they had an interest, because communities and community interference really slows down the process for business. So any system that can minimize the intervention of local groups, communities, would be something that they were interested in promoting.

So there I was, saying you can't do that. Communities have a stake in the city as well. Other groups have a stake in the city. There's no environmental groups represented here, no ethnic groups, no labor groups, whatever.

They brought in a couple of what I call academics to look at the way things get done compared to other cities, people who supposedly know the way governments work, so they could put it together in a good form. They were delivering the content, and they wanted these professional academics to deliver the form.

Were they from San Diego State?

One was from San Diego State. One was from UCSD.

Steve [Erie] was UCSD, and Glenn Sparrow was San Diego State. Steve brought in Jim [Ingram], who he knew. Steve was a graduate student up in Los Angeles years before, and he'd worked on one of the charter commissions that Los Angeles had set up when they did their charter change. So he was experienced in working through a process of charter change.

Did they address your concerns?

They did address my concerns occasionally. They understood what my concerns were and probably agreed with my concerns, but the people in the room who were footing the bill for this process and who carried the most weight were the downtown businessmen, who knew what they wanted and weren't too interested in what I had to say. I continued to go; I continued to speak up. I felt that they impatiently listened to what I had to say, patted my head, and went on with their own business. When the time came for Prop. F to be put on the ballot -- well, let me back up a little bit.

They had tried to get Susan Golding to put this on the ballot, and they brought it to her.

I was really surprised that they felt that she carried weight. It was an interesting lesson for me about these downtown groups who are very powerful. Business interests are very powerful, but they're out of touch with a lot of what goes on in the rest of the city.

They depend on people -- lobbyist people -- who used to work in city hall. They draw a lot on those people to give them advice, policy advice, strategy advice, assuming that the people who used to be on the inside would know how things get done.

The advice they got I thought was very poor a lot of the time. I was amazed that they had so little insight into the way the public was feeling about Susan Golding. I said at the time, "They've got to be kidding if they think that this mayor could carry this." They were mistaken. They went out and they tried to do it; it all fell apart.

We like to believe that [people in power] really know what the issues are and really understand the big picture. But they're not working with the big picture at all. They're working with their own, much more focused picture. And sometimes they're really mistaken about the rest of what's going on. It's an interesting thing to observe, and it's important to keep that in mind.

When you say "fell apart," what happened?

We met with the mayor, and we sat around and talked to her one evening. She could not move it forward. She didn't have support any longer, or certainly not from the public -- I think she knew that -- to push, to advance it. I don't remember what was actually attempted, but it went nowhere. So the group may have continued talking a little bit for quite a few years, but they came back again in 2003, I guess, 2004, before the last election, and began again in earnest reviving the document that they had produced in 2000. This time I went back to a few of the meetings.

Did they call you, or how'd you get wind of it?

I was on the e-mail list in the first go-round. I was not an invited guest -- I just kept showing up. I knew about the meetings. They claimed that they were public meetings, anybody could come. And in that sense, they were. Anybody could come if you knew about it.

They didn't go out of their way to make sure you were there?

No. They weren't interested in hearing from any others. They knew what they wanted, and they were pursuing it again. The first time around, John Kern was very opposed to making these changes, and I had gotten an e-mail that he sent around, the Kern newsletters, talking about all of the flaws in pursuing a strong-mayor form of government. How it just would never fly, it wasn't good, and it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

Was he working for the mayor at that time?

At that time, I think no. This was before the mayor was in office. He was a consultant. He was maybe working with Murphy on his campaign. John Kern became a very active player the second time around in this last project.

Was he at the meetings after Murphy took office?

Well, what John Kern did was he came to the meetings, picked up the reports, brought them back to the mayor's office, met with a very small group of people whose names were never revealed except to the people who were there and knew they were there. He made certain changes to the document for strengthening the mayor's role, and so he assumed a very key role in just making last-minute changes. Some of them were modified by people on the committee, like the two professors who understood that it wasn't going to fly to give the mayor very much control at this point; that there was time to change the regulations and come back for another vote, strengthen the vote of the mayor.

There was a certain degree of compromise?

Things like requiring a simple majority vote of city council to overturn a mayor's veto rather than a supermajority. But they overlooked many issues that -- the compromise went both ways. I think compromises were made to insure that the public would not be too alarmed by the change, but there were compromises also that cut out the communities almost entirely from reaping the benefits from the change.

It was being changed up to the very last minute before it had to be submitted to go on the ballot, because the mayor's office, through John Kern and others, was still trying to make changes. The mayor apparently had something to say himself about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to keep control of closed sessions, for example, which was a peculiar one but managed to survive.

And that was all transmitted from Kern to the committee? He would show up and sort of say, "This is what's going on"?

Yeah, um-hum. Yeah.

What was the final proposal?

This proposal transformed San Diego into a city very much like many other large cities, mostly Eastern cities, where the mayor is the chief administrative officer, the executive of the city, and the city council is the legislative body -- two very distinct roles, tending to be adversarial roles.

The other cities that were looked at in trying to develop our own set of rules were places like Oakland and Los Angeles. There were others, but those two cities were very important. It's true that they both gave a lot more power to the mayor, and the public approved that.

They're so different. The process, the reasons, the people involved were so different that it was hard to believe that they could teach us anything.

Oakland had Jerry Brown; it was a one-man show. People put their future lives -- they put everything into his hands and said, "Okay, you do it." And he did it. People up there are very worried that once he leaves there's going to be an office with an incredible amount of power and the next person's not going to be as successful in managing that power.

Los Angeles had a very complicated transition. But the purpose of this change in city government was to try to prevent secession -- not just in San Fernando Valley but in a couple of the other towns to the south. So it was an attempt to preserve the city.

And in order to do that, they ended up transferring a lot of power to the mayor and then transferring a lot of balancing power to the communities by setting up neighborhood councils, elected local neighborhood councils, that had an overarching system of meeting and determining the state of communities.

The community voice was built into these charter changes so that in Los Angeles power was redistributed. Some went up to the mayor, and some went down to the communities.

In the hands of the good people who were working up the system of San Diego, power was redistributed, but only up to the mayor.

They like to say that it really is a strong-mayor, strong-council form of government, because the council is given the right, if they choose, to hire a budget analyst for themselves so that they would have a little more information, knowledge, and be able to balance the mayor's new power to create the budget.

And so they were calling this "strong-mayor, strong-council."

That was a sales job. The city council in fact lost out tremendously in this redistribution of power, and they're going to have to work pretty hard to establish a city council that has the sense of its responsibility, its potential power, and its self-reliance.

That this group set up Prop. F and was able to sell it to the public, I'm still surprised. But I think the public tends to like the idea of a strong executive who will take over and take care of things.

What struck me about this Committee 2000 was that they knew what they wanted to get achieved. They didn't really care about the way it got put into place; they didn't care about the details -- in fact, were not even aware of the functions of city government that had to be taken care of when you write a charter, when you write the rules of the game.

Part of what I had been pushing for all the time that I met with them was to get a totally new commission set up in the city of San Diego to deal with all the issues and get public input and work out the details so that it would be a better proposal that we got.

This group is very opposed to a charter-review commission. Over and over, one or another of them would say -- Barry Newman was one who was clear about it -- "We've got to get this done fast. It's gotta get done now; no more public process, it takes too long, it's too confusing, we lose control of it."

And they actually made that statement, which I had written down in my notes: "If we do it that way, we'll lose control of the process. We don't want to do it that way."

Charter-review commissions are complicated. They're not easy. They are political like everything else that has to do with heavy-duty political issues. But they do spend more time on the details. They do solicit more public input in this process.

So the proponents wanted to retain control?

This was an intent of the people who put it into place, because their interests really are very focused and work best with the least amount of public input.

Specifically, are we talking about real estate development?

We're talking about not only real estate development but where the city puts its resources, where the city spends its money, what industries benefit from the city's and public money. Who we sell bonds for, where the public indebtedness goes, where the infrastructure goes, and which parts of our economic sector make money and who gets rich and richer and who pays for it.

Do you think the intention of the proponents was to have downtown benefit, or La Jolla or -- ?

Tourism industry works all over the city, all over the county. Tourism is a major industry, so in that sense, it's not just downtown. It's all over North County.

It's real estate downtown, it's future projects, it's where the next sports arena gets built, who develops Midway when they redevelop Midway. It's port, land. It's all a very lucrative business process.

The fallout is also what happens to labor in the city, what kind of policies get made to protect labor, what kind of jobs are created, what kind of protections there are, what kind of housing gets built, who we're housing.

Right now the city council and mayor have control over who is city manager and who administers the city. They have equal access to a city manager to administer their policies in their own communities or citywide. In the new system, city council will no longer have that same equal access to the administrator. The city manager will be working for the mayor.

So all needs and requests [from the city council] will be filtered through the mayor's office. It's a very powerful tool for the mayor to bargain with if he wants -- "If you want for your community X, Y, or Z, I want from you your support on this big issue that I'm proposing."

The city council for the next probably five years will be an eight-member city council. It's hard to get a majority when you have an even number of councilmembers.

So we can look forward to a certain amount of paralysis in the city council. This was not necessarily the choice of either the working group -- this committee who set Prop. F up -- or the mayor. But from what I understand, it was the will of the city councilmembers, who were unwilling to have another seat added midstream because it would change their boundaries and take away some of their constituents if there was a reapportionment for a ninth seat.

We also have a city council that right now is very dependent on the mayor. He sets the policy, he sets the agenda. Despite not being a strong mayor at this moment, he can exercise a good deal of leadership and control. The city council's new role is going to be quite different.

The mayor, I think, has a lot easier job making the transition. The mayor will gather together a few close associates and business leaders and decide just how to set up his office. He's got new choices to make, but it's pretty straightforward.

The city council has a very difficult task that I think they haven't even begun to recognize. That is to begin to understand themselves as an independent body who will be setting all their own rules and deciding their own committees and deciding on the role of representative officers. They have to choose and elect --

From one of their members?

From one of their members. One of them will be the presiding officer. It can be done in many different ways, different terms, but the presiding officer is the important person, because that person will be setting the agenda for the city council and that will be a person who will fill in if there's a vacancy in the mayor's office. If the mayor had a heart attack, if the mayor got recalled, anything, that presiding officer would be sitting in, so it's an important position. And it could be a powerful position depending on who has it and for how long.

So the city council has to understand that their role...is that they are going to make some joint decisions. They also need to decide about this budget analyst. The city council is notorious for not understanding the budget. The mayor's probably notorious for it as well, I don't know. But the city council certainly is.

There could always have been a committee of city councilmembers learning the budget, understanding the budget. Making it a public process would have been a beautiful system where they could have taken control of their own information and expertise. They never chose to do that.

I don't know if it speaks to the limited ambitions or temporary shortsighted personal goals with the city, or whether we haven't just ever elected good enough people to really have the self-confidence to become experts in this matter. But I know this is one thing that Abbe Wolfsheimer proposed 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and it pretty much went nowhere.

In this new system they have the choice. They don't have to do it, but it's the only way that they would be able to have any authority in budget matters -- to create an office of independent budget analysts and staff for that and assume that that person will act on their behalf to help them control the budget and be able to wheel and deal with the mayor at budget time.

The problem is that nobody expected the disaster that has now become evident. I mean, we've been in a disaster for a long time, but nobody really expected to have all these disasters come together at once in this city.

And the budget -- they're talking about layoffs, they're talking about cutting programs, and this is at the same time that they have to create a new division, a new department for the city council. That would be pretty expensive, I would think. At the same time, the mayor will be expanding his office, because that will have to happen. That's going to be what they call a "challenge" for this year. The city council so far is a pretty divided group and getting more divided as the days go on.

In May, two of our councilmembers will be spending a lot of time down in court. It's hard to know how they're going to give their full attention to the problems of the city and the transition and to their own personal futures. It's hard to know what the outcome will be for those trials.

So the instability this year in the city council is enormous, and it's just a moment when they have to step up to the plate to assert themselves, to start meeting independent of the mayor. I'm really concerned that the mayor will choose to try to control the process by having the transition process get done through the rules committee, which he chairs, and through a committee that he might decide to select.

He would form a separate committee?

Yeah, an ad hoc committee on transition, because I think it's time for the city council and the mayor to begin to wean themselves from one another. The mayor probably has no right controlling the way the city council will be setting up their own rules or even controlling the setting in which they will be setting up their own rules.

Doing it through the rules committee means that certain city councilmembers are not on that committee and will not be directly participating and will have to come as speakers of subcommittees. I think that the big hurdle is going to be for city council to somehow understand that they need to see themselves as an eight-member group and set up their own subcommittees and begin to think and act like a separate legislative body and be developing their own bonds and alliances within city council.

I think some of the city councilmembers who were interested in the charter change are not that interested in city council legislative integrity because they see themselves as the next mayor.

That's also a major problem in setting up a strong city council, and again, the reason that I am so interested in this aspect of it is because it has everything to do with public input, where the public gets heard. The mayor will no longer be sitting in on any public meetings, city council meetings. The public will not have access to the mayor. He won't have to hear them anymore.

He won't even show up at the meetings?

He doesn't need to show up at any city council meetings. He still wants to chair the closed-session meetings, but that has nothing to do with the public input. These are the broad kinds of issues, or some of the broad issues, that need to get faced.

Then there is a whole enormous set of the nitty-gritty -- the city attorney has a huge role to play in this, and it's going to be interesting this year because the city attorney is a good deal more active in understanding what his role is.

There are lots of conflicts that need to get worked out; they're legal, but they're also policy conflicts. The city attorney won't deal with policy -- he has to deal with the legal issues -- but they overlap in ways that are very hard to extricate. The city has, for example, dozens and dozens of committees, agencies, commissions. Some are heavily political.

A major one of those very political commissions is, for example, the redevelopment agency -- it's not a commission, it's an agency -- it's a city redevelopment agency. Is that a very peculiar status? It's part of city, but it's also independent, and it controls all the redevelopment in San Diego.

So the mayor and the city council both sit on this agency. It's not clear from Prop. F [how power over the redevelopment agency will be allotted to the mayor or the council], because Prop. F just didn't cover these kinds of important details -- things that a charter-review commission would have had to iron out beforehand.

We'll be faced with it after the fact. The mayor's role is very unclear, but this is a very important function for a strong mayor to decide -- where the redevelopment goes. That has to get worked out. So far it's very vague.

There are several other committees like that, where the mayor and city council have both participated and that they both sit in on and make decisions about. It's no longer clear who [will make those decisions], but these are too important for the powerful interests in town to let go of. It's where the mayor gets his strength, to be able to control certain kinds of major development in town.

In response to all of the unresolved issues and major problems that will face the city council and the mayor this coming year, I, as a League of Women Voters person who's been involved in government for so long, became pretty concerned that the same group of individuals who put Prop. F on the ballot were meeting again and had a direct line to the mayor's office to set the agenda for the transition process.

Was this after the election in the fall?

After the election I became interested in how Prop. F was going to get implemented. It's important to do it right. The city is in enough chaos and is so unstable in so many ways that if Prop. F implementation doesn't go smoothly we're going to have even more chaos when this new form of government is in, and that doesn't serve anybody's interests.

It's certainly, I'm sure, a motivating factor for this business group who put Prop. F on the ballot. They don't want to see chaos in a year. It does not serve the community. It doesn't serve the business interests. It doesn't serve the community at all to not see that Prop. F is implemented as well as possible.

I decided to contact many of the groups and people who had been left out of the process of setting up Prop. F -- some of the groups and people who might have been involved had there been a charter-review commission, a much broader group of constituents who have other interests in this city aside from the business interests.

We were invited to use the conference room in the city attorney's office to have our meetings so that we could get the information from the city attorney, from his staff. We also invited the city-manager staff person who has been assigned the task of this transition process for the city manager's office so that she could come, she could tell us what was going on at the city, and she could hear what our concerns are.

Who attended the meeting, and who did they represent?

The people that did show up were basically people that had been working with community-development issues in the city for a long time.

A city council meeting to begin dealing with these cleanup issues is coming up soon. What do you think will happen at that meeting?

I'm not sure what's going to happen at that meeting. It's a public meeting. The public doesn't really understand the process that is involved in making this transition. They voted for Prop. F and just expect it to happen. This year's process of making it happen is not something that they either know about or would be very interested in the detail of.

What we need to hear from is the city manager and the city attorney with timelines about what has to get done when. Many things have to be put into place immediately so that other things can follow.

There was talk about trying to get a study done by either the Rand Corporation, which would be a privately funded study, or by the city to try to look at the process and try to set up the marching orders for city council and mayor.

We don't have enough time to set up a committee in the usual way. If there's a privately financed study by an independent agency like the Rand Corporation, it might be of some use, it might not be. I'm sure that there will be useful points, and I'm sure there will be a lot of stuff that will just sit on the shelf.

I think what we need are a few decisions about getting a timeline set up by a city manager who will be leaving in six months, trying to squeeze out as much as we can from this guy before he goes, and setting up some budget, aiming for some instructions to the city manager about budgeting for a new staff for the city council. The city attorney, which is an independent elected agency with a very separate legal role, has already begun its work, not having to wait for the mayor to get around to giving them instructions.

So I think we'll see some timelines from the city attorney's office and some questions about policy issues that need to get resolved during the year.

We do need a structure, we do need a joint working group, and I've been told that there might be a working group set up from the representatives from the mayor's office, city council, city attorney, and city manager, and the public to begin to lay out the next few months and make sure that everything is on track and keep an eye on it.

I would like to see a working committee like that. And I'd like to talk about setting up a charter-review commission now, putting it into place so that in a year or so we can have a commission working alongside the city, monitoring the progress, looking at changes that are going to have to be made and getting ready for the vote that will have to come back to the voters within five years to see if we want to keep this form of government or if we want to make modifications or go back to -- well, you never can go back. So I think we need to do what should've gotten done years ago.

City council is so far not coming together. I see the League of Women Voters playing a strong role, if it's acceptable to the players, to help structure some of the public hearings and the details of what needs to be done in transition.

In terms of all these private meetings that you so described leading up to the measure, and now in the postelection period, again more private meetings being held, is that something that should continue or should it be more open?

I think the private meetings are just fine. But when private meetings result in controlling influence among all of the higher-up politicians and policy makers, then you've got a problem. If it gets done strictly in this type of way, I think it's a really ominous predictor of what might happen with a strong mayor, where only private groups will get heard and the perspective of the other interests of the city will be ignored.

When is the switch?

January 1 of 2006.

Less than a year now.

Yes. n

Editor's note:

This interview was conducted before Monday's city council meeting during which the council voted 7-2, with Donna Frye and Jim Madaffer in the minority, to solicit bids for a consultant to provide advice about the strong mayor transition. The estimated cost was said to be in the neighborhood of $150,000. The council put off taking other action.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Padres owner John Moores and Malin Burnham, his partner in the giant East Village redevelopment project, were spending $125,000 on their own transition study commissioned from Santa Monica-based RAND Corp.

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