More than a decade since San Diego switched to a new form of government with the mayor as City Hall’s chief executive, we’re still learning how it works.

Monday, members of the City Council found out that to change the city budget the mayor proposes each year, they ultimately need a supermajority of six votes, not just a simple majority.

The mayor announced plans late Monday to not only veto part of the City Council’s budget but also add to it funding he wants to fund a contentious special election so San Diegans can vote later this year – instead of during the 2018 general election – on a proposal to expand the convention center, and a plan to redevelop the Qualcomm Stadium site.

Vetoes of budget items have happened twice since the switch to a strong mayor system — former Mayor Bob Filner and former Mayor Jerry Sanders both issued veto statements. Both of those, however, simply rejected spending proposals. Neither wanted to add money elsewhere, unilaterally.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer must take several steps to get what he wants – including modifying a line item to add money and then making cuts in perhaps several other areas.

Faulconer’s power move reveals how little control over the budget the City Council actually has. Yes, a Council majority can set the city’s budget, but the mayor has wide authority to disregard and modify those changes.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The revelation that the mayor can not only veto spending plans but modify others as he wishes came during the climax of Monday’s tense City Council meeting.

City Councilman Mark Kersey had earlier hinted that the mayor may veto the Council’s decision not to set aside money for a special election in November.

This was the mayor’s proposed budget for that.


The City Council was about to cut that line item for elections from $6.5 million to $1.5 million. The mayor estimates the special election will cost $5 million.

But then Councilman David Alvarez asked for clarification from City Attorney Mara Elliott.

“I’d like the city attorney’s office to clarify that the mayor’s veto authority is only to eliminate what is being funded in this budget not to add anything that’s not in this budget, is that correct?” Alvarez said.

Elliott then pulled up the City Charter and began reading from it. “Could you just give us about one minute here?” she said.

Finally, her deputy whispered to her.

“So Deputy City Attorney Brant Will just said the mayor can change whatever he wants. That’s the easiest summation of Charter Section 69,” she said.

The mayor can change whatever he wants, and he plans to.

He has five days once the budget has been sent to him to return his changes. And they could be rough for the City Council. The mayor could cut district priorities some of them are concerned about, and they would have no recourse unless they can find a sixth vote to override him. The Council is made up of five Democrats and four Republicans.

“If the City Council makes radical changes to the budget with effects on San Diego’s future, they should expect to need a supermajority to do that,” said Matt Awbrey, the mayor’s director of communication.

Alvarez said he needed more detail on this newly discovered aspect of city budgeting.

“I look forward to the city attorney’s clarification of the mayor’s powers under Charter Section 69,” he said in a statement. “I do not believe the mayor ‘can do whatever he wants.’”

Councilman Chris Cate voted for the budget but supports modifying it to include money for the special election. He said this issue hasn’t come up in the past because there has not been a budget issue quite this controversial since the strong-mayor form of government was put in place in 2006.

“I think the mayor is in a position to exert his authority, and the Council is going to have to deal with it,” Cate said.

I asked Cate what the mayor would cut to make room for the $5 million he wants to add back in to the budget.

“That is a good question,” Cate said. He mentioned money that was set aside to help pay down the debt remaining on Qualcomm Stadium as a possible place to find money.

The city attorney’s statement that the mayor could change whatever he wanted in the budget surprised many watching the meeting. City staff circulated the language in the City Charter giving him power over the budge to “either approve, veto, or modify any line item approved by the Council.”

“That’ll be a fun city attorney opinion to read,” wrote Gil Cabrera, chairman of the Convention Center Corp. and a lawyer who ran against Elliott for city attorney.

“What is the point of [City Council] review and vote if ‘the mayor can do whatever he wants?’” asked Carol Kim, political director of the San Diego Building Trades Council.

The city attorney’s office would not comment on the issue. Spokesman Gerry Braun said the office was preparing a memo to answer questions from the City Council.

    This article relates to: City Council, Government, Kevin Faulconer, Must Reads, San Diego City Finances

    Written by Scott Lewis and Andrew Keatts

    Sean Bishop
    Sean Bishop

    It seems like an effective system of checks and balances when the major can so easily override the will of the Council. Perhaps the switch to a strong-major system was a poor decision? 

    Agreed w/ Molly Crook that $5m can go towards many things needed in this city. Why not just tack the issue on to the general election? More people vote in those and our decision, whether for or against, would stand upon a better democratic foundation as a result. 

    bgetzel subscriber

    This is reprehensible! The mayor should not have the power to legislate, just manager the city and propose new legislation, including the budget. The new interpretation should be litigated. That said, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. While the city manager form of government may work with small to medium size cities, it cannot meet the needs of a city the size of San Diego. If we had a strong Mayor from the 1960's through 80's we may have located a bigger airport; developed a sinking fund for repairing infrastructure; built more affordable housing, etc. The city manager form of government resulted in spineless city managers that were always counting council votes to make sure that he would not propose something that would result in his termination. 

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    Someone in these comment pages suggest that I - trying to understand SD politics - read a book "Under the Perfect Sun" which I've just started.  I already know more than I ever wanted to know about SD politics, but it's fascinating and I'll keep reading.  This move by Faulconer, while a surprise, is certainly not out of character with our City by the Sea.  Money and power - Period.

    San Diego could do a lot of good with that $5 million, but holding an election to aid those with money and power is not one of those things.

    Michael Rohde
    Michael Rohde subscriber

    I'm not sure, but it seems like the chief executive is pretty much a dictator if he can change an act of the council at will. Why have a council at all? I took civics in a different state so California's Constitution is a document I never studied. Does our state Constitution allow a city government to be formed where there is no legislative authority? 

    I get the veto power but this is way beyond that. He's not only saying I veto this legislation, I'm legislating my own budget without a legislature. Does this bother anyone, especially those constitutional scholars out there? I've never seen something like this and I've lived across the country in 5 different states, never saw a mayor or a governor that could create his or her own laws. This is the opposite of rule of law if you don't get it. 

    The Mayor is the law under this system and I don't think San Diego voters were ever presented with a chief executive with unlimited power to vote on. This is not a democratic system in operation. This is how Hitler took over Germany. It's like Trump saying OK, I'm the President and the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader all at once. Oh ya, i"m vice-president too because he gets a vote when the Senate ties. How in the hell do you get a legal opinion to say this is the law? How is that legal anywhere in the U.S.? Did we lose our protections under the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment while I wasn't watching? 

    I'm going to say it. Where are the lawyers? I've drank with lawyers at happy hour and I know if a group of them got to talking about something like this it would be an animated discussion to say the least. The men and women attorneys I worked for and with most of my adult life would get all lathered up about something this despotic. Of course these were the litigators of the legal world, the trial lawyers. An energetic bunch to say the least. 

    It was trial lawyers that wrote our Constitution along with James Madison. It was trial lawyers that desegregated our schools. It was trial lawyers that got us the right to counsel if we were poor. Where are those men and women now? Believe it or not people, we need today's trial lawyers to put down their briefs for a moment and look at our city government and make things right. I don't want to live under a political system that takes away my vote for city council because if our City Charter says our mayor can do that, it needs to be changed and litigation is the great changer because we can't count on legislators to be courageous. If we did we'd still have segregation and Jim Crow guys. 

    Somebody please step up and make this right. 

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    The knock on Faulconer has always been that he’s too cautious.  His move here is certainly a break from that.  Can you imagine what happens if his veto and placing money back in the budget for two special elections holds up?  It certainly might.

    Then picture this fall, if both measures fail at the ballot box, and they certainly might, who is the goat for the “wasted” 5 mil and all the unproductive campaign effort?  Faulconer’s political capital will be about used up and he’s got a long time left on his current term.  Talk about a lame duck!  Kevin appears to really be rolling the dice at this point.  You’ve gotta give him credit for chutzpah, if nothing else.     

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Under the former system, the city was run day to day by a professional city manager hired by the City Council at-will. City councilmembers were prevented by the city charter from directing anyone reporting to the city manager to do anything. That required approval of a majority of councilmembers. 

    The theory of the strong mayor form of government (what it was sold on) was that the mayor would be more accountable than a city manager. That is, the mayor would essentially be a city manager you could vote out of office if you didn’t like how things were run. Part and parcel of this involved giving the mayor quite a bit of latitude in day to day business and that is indeed how things are structured. 

    Whether this system has worked out better is an arguable point. My view is that the prior system was much less vulnerable to political ups and downs and it was clear that a council majority was needed to make any major changes. What is interesting here is how strong the strong mayor is under the strong mayor form of government approved by the voters. That is, stronger than the city manager who was replaced by the mayor. It certainly makes the council appear somewhat toothless and seems inconsistent with the federal system in which Congress has the power of the purse.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster  Do you suppose that’s why the council titled it’s person in charge (of meetings, at least), “Council President”?

    The thing that prompted me to vote for this new system was the hope that the mayor would really put the pressure on the managers that reported to him to shape things up or get fired. If there’s been any of this I’ve missed it.  It seems like same old lack of accountability, same languid pace, no sweaty palms in evidence.  If you look at things like code compliance, street repairs, police and fire, Park and Rec, I really don’t see any significant change.  No new excuses, even.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: Under the old system, the mayor chaired the meetings and had an equal vote on the Council. When they moved to the new system, they added a councilmember (so that it was an odd numbered nine as before). Someone had to chair the meetings, so this council president is what they came up with. Like the last system (with respect to the council), the main power of the council chairperson is to control the agenda. 

    Having worked in the old system, one could argue (as you suggest) that giving the mayor greater powers would cause a greater likelihood that underperformers would be sacked expeditiously and replaced with better options. Thus, less career bureaucrats. The problem is that while career bureaucrats can obstruct political desires, they also know how the system works and can manage complex municipal systems pretty effectively (in most cases). Conversely, political appointees may have few of these skills and little knowledge of complex city systems. There is another issue, which is evident with the police chief, but also others. Once the mayor picks someone, there is great reluctance to sack them, as it implies that the pick was bad (i.e. an acknowledgement of failure).

    Finally, and you won't want to hear this, but it's a reality, Proposition B has had a meaningful impact. If you are a highly competent manager working for the County of San Diego (for example), you have the security of a pension (same for all the other cities and counties in California). If you move to the City of San Diego, you may be able to bank your pension from your former employer, but you can't add to it. You stop accruing pension benefits. Conversely, if you leave the City of San Diego for another California government employer, you gain pension benefits (or if you have them with the City of San Diego, you can transfer them). It's a competitive disadvantage for the City of San Diego in attracting highly skilled people. So there may be a reluctance by the mayor to fire people knowing he may not be able to hire people who are equal or better. Consider the nationwide search for a police chief that will apparently take place. It may be hampered by the reality that ours is one of the few cities nationally that offers no pension benefits. 

    Daniel Smiechowski
    Daniel Smiechowski subscriber

    Classic Keystone Cops !!!  I agree to some extent with Mr. John H. Borja in that Council Members ought to be on their game in knowing or at minimum taking initiative to know the rules/City Charter.....Danny for City Council D2!!!  I can't believe this is true if it is true!  

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    What did they think a "strong" mayor was?  When you get paid to represent a City in the City Council you had better know your stuff!