San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer didn’t hurt anyone when he vetoed parts of the City Council’s budget and replaced it with funding for the special election of his dreams.

The mayor overtly targeted City Council Democrats who had rejected the push for a special election and its funding before the topic had even come before the Council. If they were afraid of constituents and labor unions, he wanted them afraid of him too.

He had been setting up a special election for months, and felt they owed him the opportunity to consider it.

Not only did they ignore him, they sneered at spending money on an election and offered myriad better ways the money could be used. It became a classic “who started it” exchange on Twitter between Convention Center Corp. Chairman Gil Cabrera and Mark Cafferty, CEO of the Economic Development Corp.

If you really want to understand who started it, you have to go back many years. Because what the mayor did was not just a nasty little shot at the opposition on the City Council. It was an innovation – a power move that will change the politics of city budgets for many years to come.

And it was only the latest of many such moves provoked by novel interpretations of, and actual changes to, the City Charter.

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

It started with Mike Aguirre, when he was elected city attorney in 2004. Nobody needs a reminder of his tenure except to say he based his approach on a new interpretation of the city attorney’s role: He would answer to the people, not the City Council and mayor. Not only would he not defer to them but a mess of scandals had convinced him he must investigate and counter city leadership. Maybe he would actually sue them himself.

When Aguirre was elected, we had a different government at City Hall. The mayor was just a member of the City Council. And the Council chose a city manager. But proponents seized on the same scandals Aguirre had to advocate for a new form of operation: the strong-mayor system.

The mayor became the city’s CEO and separate from the City Council.

Jerry Sanders, the first strong mayor, did not test the system in any extraordinary way. His entire tenure was a test of a new system. It was new.

What Sanders presided over, however, was a new more partisan culture. Organized labor was emerging as more than just a bit player in Republican city politics. Carl DeMaio brought a new, starker Republican fervor to the Council and bit by bit, Republicans stopped courting labor unions. Labor leaders stopped going to Chamber of Commerce meetings.

Party mattered more. Lorena Gonzalez, mentored by labor leader Jerry Butkiewicz, made unions more visible in city politics. They started wanting more. Labor’s interest was no longer limited to the negotiations of city employee unions. Gonzalez and her allies successfully made job quality a consideration on all matters the city considered.

Then they brought in Bob Filner. The new mayor was, like Aguirre, determined to reinterpret the role of mayor. One side effect of his scandalous downfall is that we don’t talk enough about the other things he did.

He realized, for example, building inspectors worked for him. He could tell them what to do. And if he didn’t like a building project, he could stop it. Filner could get that builder to spend money supporting his pet causes.

Every paper that came across his desk for a signature made Filner wonder what he could get out of it.

He was in the process of setting up a new machine at City Hall. Had women working around him not exposed him as a sexual abuser, it’s rather unsettling to think what he might have achieved. Like our new president, Filner might have been good at disrupting but it was unclear if he was up to building what he envisioned.

We didn’t get to see what Filner might do because he resigned. But it was another city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, who stretched the limits of his own office to help make that happen.

See, Goldsmith had not completely reversed Aguirre’s innovative interpretation of the city attorney’s role. He clearly saw benefits in the broader powers. (Mara Elliott, Goldsmith’s successor, has also quickly seen the vast power she has in City Hall.)

Goldsmith told the Los Angeles Times that he recognized Filner early as a unique problem and he plotted to bring him down. Goldsmith saw the Filner resignation as a “de facto impeachment” he led. He clarified it as a “removal” from office produced by an agreement between the mayor and City Council that he brokered.

That provoked yet another change to the charter to make a true recall a clearer and more realistic prospect.

Faulconer has been the anti-Filner. Where Filner was bombastic in his goals, Faulconer has been subdued. Where Filner was impulsive, Faulconer has been obscenely predictable.

That is, until this year. Faulconer is anxious to pass a special tax for a Convention Center expansion and to collect money to spend on homelessness and streets.

In that struggle, Faulconer showed us the search for innovations in City Hall governance is going strong.

Turns out, the mayor can change whatever he wants in the city budget.

Faulconer can not only veto spending proposals, he can add money to other parts of the final budget as he sees fit.

In other words, it’s the mayor’s budget. The City Council has no actual role with it unless they can muster six votes to override him. Who knew?

There’s nothing illegal or even unethical about what the mayor’s done. You could even make the case that he has now shown future mayors – who may very well be Democrats – what kind of power they’ll have.

Former City Council President Scott Peters, a rumored mayoral hopeful, called the move corrosive. That implies that it pushed us down a path of paralyzing partisan divisions marked by power struggles and novel attempts to gain advantage.

We started down it, however, a long time ago.

    This article relates to: City Attorney, City Council, Jan Goldsmith, Kevin Faulconer, Politics

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    I used to be a supporter of VOSD but I stopped because of the kind of journalism I was seeing.I looked at it today to see if there was any news about the City Council vote on the Special Election and I noticed an opinion piece by Mr. Lewis and reading it reaffirmed my decision.I realize this is an opinion piece but Mr. Lewis tosses out comments that I think are inappropriate without additional detail.

    In this one piece, Lewis said:

    Of Mike Aguirre – “Nobody needs a reminder of his tenure.”  What does that mean and was it necessary for this piece?

    Of Filner – “Filner could get that builder to spend money supporting his pet causes.”  What pet causes?  Is this just a reference to the taking of public land by the developer in Kearny Mesa?  I don’t recall any others.

    Of Filner – “it’s rather unsettling to think what he might have achieved.”  What does that mean and why is that unsettling?  To many in San Diego, what he might have achieved is a lost dream.  Comparing Filner to Trump?  Was it really necessary to kick a man who is already down with that one?

    Of Faulconer – “has been obscenely predictable.”  I am no fan of Faulconer at all but really, “obscenely?” Aside from this being one of those red flag words journalist’s should avoid, it isn’t even used correctly.

    Of Faulconer – “There’s nothing illegal or even unethical about what the mayor’s done.”  Maybe not illegal but if Mr. Lewis doesn’t think what Faluconer has been doing it punishing council members, who voted for the public, not for their own pet causes, is unethical, I have to wonder what Lewis’s ethics are.

    It’s a shame that writing like this got in the way of a decent point Lewis was trying to make. 

    Joe Armenta
    Joe Armenta

    I enjoyed this article and really like the historical take on the recent events; however, there's one thing that I find unsettling about it. When discussing the Filner debacle, you write, "had women working around him not exposed him as a sexual abuser, it’s rather unsettling to think what he might have achieved." In framing the incident like this, it seems like you see the problem was that women came out and accused Filner of sexual abuse, and not that he sexually assaulted women. This has the effect of excusing his actions and places the blame on the victims of his abuse. Not trying to nitpick, I just think it's a minor fault in what otherwise is great analysis.  

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    I don't read the sexual abuse comment as you do. To me Scott is saying that had the women involved not spoken out Filner would still be Mayor. I don't think Scott was minimizing Filner's behavior or excusing Filner in any way.

    Joe Armenta
    Joe Armenta

    Oohhh, good point. I see the context now, thanks for clarifying!

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Even if the mayor's claimed veto power is upheld at city hall, it will be tested in the courts. The "strong mayor" charter is full of things that need to be tested in the courts. Otherwise it will just become a matter of politicians grabbing as much power as they can.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Even if the council votes to put this on a special election ballot, opponents will sue, forcing a delay that will put it on the November, 2018 ballot, so why waste political capital voting in support of putting it on the ballot in a special election this fall?   

    Jeremy Hansen
    Jeremy Hansen

    @Don Wood Just curious, what would the grounds be for the lawsuit? It can't be Measure L, which specifically stated: "Shall the Charter be amended to require qualified citizens’ initiative and referendum measures to be submitted to voters on the next November general election ballot and not at a June primary election, unless the Council chooses to submit the measure to voters prior to that election?" Genuine question, by the way.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    I veto the mayor's veto.


    Strong Citizen

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    As I read the history of San Diego, it seems to me this started long before the strong-Mayor or Kevin Faulconer. Seeds were planted in the last century and the fruit is dropping from the trees. 

    It doesn't take a wizard to understand that there's much more behind Faulconer's decision with the veto.  It would be refreshing to have Faulconer - or any politician - give a straight answer to a question regarding the public good, something besides "I'm doing this because I can."

    Jeremy Hansen
    Jeremy Hansen

    @Molly Cook It's very possible there are ulterior motives, and there are enough Faulconer detractors that I'm surprised there aren't a bunch of hate comments here already claiming as much. But perhaps he has seen the future projected budgetary shortfalls and is actually trying to do right by the city to get something going ASAP to minimize the pain or completely avoid it. Or maybe it's politically motivated, for his own future aspirations, so he doesn't become that mayor who let his (tourism based economy) city fall behind in revenue by not funding convention center expansion, losing an NFL team, not getting the stadium site out of the liability column and into the revenue column, losing the chance at MLS and international matches on a world-class grass field with perfect weather, and of course not improving the situation with the homeless population or the busted-up streets. Unfortunately as these different groups "flex" their muscle, they seem to be forgetting how much of our local economy is funded by visitors, and if you look closely you'll see all these items are directly related to it in some way (NFL meant free TV advertising and lots of visiting-team tourist money coming to town, for example). In the short-run they might get their special interest desire, but in the long-run everyone loses if the money dries up.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Jeremy Hansen @Molly Cook  --Except we haven't lost the chance of getting an MLS franchise.  You sound like the FSI guys.  2 teams will be awarded later this year, and the other 2 teams awarded next year.  And it is doubtful that we would have any international matches of note, considering that the stadium will only seat 22,000 plus standing room (without SDSU involvement), which wouldn't lead to much in the way of visitors coming to see those matches.

    Regarding the homeless and streets--put those issues on the ballot separately.  If you want to increase TOT to do it--fine, but don't try and bundle things together under one proposal like Faulconer wanted to.  You could still raise TOT, but have separate ballot measures.  A dedicated 2% TOT increase for an expanded convention center, 1/2% for infrastructure, and 1/2% for the homeless.  Give the people a choice, instead of an all-or-nothing proposal.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    @David Crossley @Jeremy Hansen @Molly Cook 

    I understand there is a proposal in the works to do exactly this - put the homeless issue (and possibly infrastructure) on the ballot separately.  Much more effective and responsible way to deal with the need for funding than Faulconer's attempt to "sweeten the pot" and appeal to voters who would otherwise be against Soccer City/Convention Center. 

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    Maybe we should dump the 'strong mayor' form of government and go back to a city council-led government?

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    Be careful what you wish for. The city manager form of government brought us the pension fiasco, the ticket guarantee and pot holes galore.