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Faulconer Is Just the Latest to Test the Limits of City Powers

The mayor’s use of his veto power to restore special election funding and take a shot at opponents was a power move that could change the politics of city budgets for 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.

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.

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.

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