It looks like the honeymoon between Gentleman Jerry Sanders and the City Council That Couldn’t (as in, deal with the city’s pension obligation, budgetary blunders and resulting fiscal fiascos) is finally—maybe irreparably—over. Next week’s proposal before the council to require the mayor to get council approval before making any budget cuts is a blatant attack on the new “strong mayor” system of government. Indeed, it ultimately amounts to political emasculation and Sanders doesn’t appear willing to be turned into a gelding.
Of course, saying the gloves are coming off is a bit of a misnomer because, up until now, the gloves have never really been on. For the last 13 months, Sanders has assiduously avoided a direct confrontation with the City Council. Last summer, when the council challenged his decision to kill a kids’ swim program, the mayor folded like a clean sheet. Since then, he’s shown little desire to take on the City Council directly, preferring to triangulate between the council and City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
But now it appears the mayor and council are skipping right over the Marquis de Queensbury rules to bare-knuckle brawling. For the good of the city, I hope Jerry packs a mean sucker-punch and takes the council down a peg—or eight.
This city finds itself in dire fiscal straits precisely because a majority of the current City Council systematically deferred in making the fiscally prudent but politically dangerous decisions to either cut services, raise taxes or cut costs to close the city’s skyrocketing budget gap and meet its astronomical pension obligation. Instead, the City Council has routinely told San Diegans that they could keep their services, pay no new taxes and share not one iota in the inevitable pain created by the council’s fiscal mismanagement. Now this same council wants what amounts to legislative veto authority to nullify any actions taken by the mayor to try to right our listing fiscal ship.
Council President Scott Peters calls the mayor’s angry response to the council’s attempted coup “silly.” What’s silly is Peters’ contention that this city can continue to provide the same level of services and deal with its ongoing budget crisis without raising revenues. That is silliness—and it’s exactly such silliness the mayor seeks to avoid by taking the lead in making necessary and needed reductions to services, distributing the resulting pain as fairly as possible. And it is exactly such a rational approach to the city’s budget woes that the council seeks to subvert.
So here’s what His Honor should do: If the City Council passes this self-serving, ill-conceived proposal, Sanders should veto it promptly. If the council overrides his veto (which seems a given), he should challenge the measure in court. If it were clear under the charter that the council already had the authority to demand that the mayor seek their approval before implementing any cuts to services, then this proposal would not be necessary. This is a gray area (one of many created under the strong-mayor charter amendment). And gray areas in law need to be resolved by the courts.
In the meantime, the mayor should use his bully-pulpit—and his position as the most popular pol in our polis—to publicly browbeat the council into serving the good of the city as a whole. And he should let council members know exactly where his first round of cuts will be focused: precisely in the districts of those council members who have been most obstructionist to his agenda. That’s how a strong mayor plays strong-arm politics.
Indeed, reductions in services should be focused in the more affluent, northern areas of the city, which also happen to be the districts of some of Sanders’ council nemeses. People in Point Loma, La Jolla and Scripps Ranch—where there’s access to private recreation and child-enrichment opportunities—can better endure reductions in basic services like parks, recreation and libraries than those in central and south San Diego.
But the real reason the mayor should focus the civic pain at the higher end of the socio-economic ladder is that residents in those areas will scream the loudest and most effectively. Then the City Council will be stuck making the hard choice: allow cuts to continue, raise revenue to restore services and/or deal effectively with the municipal-employees union to reach a realistic long-term plan to ease the pension debt.
That’s the gamble the mayor must take: mobilize the city as a whole on his side and then take the steps necessary to stop the city’s fiscal hemorrhaging. Take off the gloves and put on the political brass knuckles, Jerry. This is the fight of your political life.