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The Differences Between an Interim Mayor and a Strong Mayor

If the mayor folds, the interim chief will have limited powers and no title.

By Friday afternoon, Council President Todd Gloria — a 35-year-old native San Diegan — might take over the reins of the city, at least for a few months. But it won’t be as simple as referring to him as hizzoner.

While the job of interim chief is defined, for the most part, his temporary title isn’t. That’s not the only difference between old and new. While the city has a “strong mayor” system, Gloria would be anything but a super-powered top official.

He would actually be more like a “Caretaker Mayor,” said Gil Cabrera, a local attorney and former chairman of the city’s Ethics Commission. That’s all thanks to the wisdom of the City Charter, a kind of municipal constitution that strictly limits the powers of anyone who temporarily takes charge at City Hall without being appointed or elected. (Appointments are only allowed when there’s less than one year left in the term of the mayor who’s left office.)

Here are some questions and answers about the man who may be in charge, sort of, at least through the required one or two special elections to choose a new mayor.

What Powers Would He Have?

Under the City Charter, the Council president may:

• Continue to vote as a member of the Council and perform other Council member duties. “He isn’t really the acting mayor because he maintains his office and assumes such powers as may be necessary to keep the city operating,” Cabrera said.

• Supervise the staff in the mayor’s office. This appears to suggest he can hire people to fill the many vacant positions, although it may be tough to find job-seekers who are willing to take the risk of being sacked when a new mayor is elected.

• According to the charter: “Direct and exercise control over the city manager in managing the affairs of the city under the purview of the mayor and to exercise other power and authority vested in the office of the mayor when the exercise of such power and authority is required by law. This limited authority would include circumstances where the expeditious approval of a legislative action is necessary to meet a legal requirement imposed by a court or another governmental agency.”

The city doesn’t have a city manager, but it does employ a chief operating officer. What would the rest of this section mean to Gloria? “He can only do what is necessary and required by law to do during the period,” Cabrera said.

What Couldn’t Gloria Do?

The interim chief cannot veto legislation. In addition, “it isn’t clear to me that he gets to actually sign legislation that is passed by the council that isn’t necessary or required,” Cabrera said.

He also can’t take advantage of “any other discretionary privilege which is enjoyed by a person appointed or elected to the office of mayor,” the charter says.

What’s a ‘Discretionary Privilege’?

The answer may be up for debate.

This language suggests Gloria couldn’t make major recommendations regarding city policy or issue proclamations, said James Ingram III, a political science lecturer at UCSD and San Diego State who helped draft changes to the city charter.

“It is possible he cannot take any initiative on items he thinks appropriate, but that may be a discussion the city attorney and Council are going to have,” Cabrera said.

The interim chief may also not be able appoint a fire chief or police chief if necessary, Ingram said, although he believes the the city attorney might need to weigh in on that issue.

What Does All This Mean in the Big Picture?

If Filner does agree to a resignation and the City Council approves such a deal, Gloria would have limited powers compared with a bona fide mayor, and that’s all according to plan. Those who drafted changes to the City Charter about a decade ago wanted to separate the executive and legislative branches (the mayor’s office and the council) of the city government, Ingram said, and they didn’t wish to cloud the issue during a vacancy at the top.

“The drafters didn’t want to unfix everything we had fixed,” he said. “There is still this separation between the executive and legislative branches.”

Indeed there is: It’s almost, but not quite, as if the mayor’s office remains vacant during a vacancy because the council president doesn’t fully fill the opening.

What else? If the cat’s away, the mice will play. In this case, Ingram said, the council will have more power than usual because the mayor doesn’t have the trump card of a veto.

What Would We Call the New Boss?

If you call Gloria’s office now, you’ll hear a voice tell you that you’ve reached the office of the council president. We don’t know what that will say after Friday, if he moves up, because the city charter provides no guidance on an official title.

He could be known as the “interim mayor,” “acting mayor,” or just his current title, “council president.”

“The charter doesn’t really answer the question, so it’ll be whatever Todd suggests or folks — likely the media — fix on,” Cabrera said.

The city’s been down this road before. In 2005, under the previous form of city government with a weaker mayor, Dick Murphy resigned as mayor. The City Council gave a promotion to Councilwoman Toni Atkins to the position of “deputy mayor,” and she took over.

The press called her the “acting mayor.” She didn’t “act” for long: A new elected mayor, Jerry Sanders, took over after fewer than five months.

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