I read Council President Peters letter to CityBeat yesterday with grave concern. Councilman Peters accuses me of being “dangerously ignorant” of the form of government voters voted for in approving Proposition F. Councilman Peters further expressed that he was “surprised to see an expert in American politics so soundly reject shared governance, a hallmark of our country’s democracy.”
Oh, such a dart to my poor, professorial heart.
Alas, where did I ere so gravely in my understanding of San Diego and American politics? Have been teaching my students for the last eighteen years falsehoods? Have been writing mistruths in my missives to mislead my maligned readers?
So shaken was I by Councilman Peters rebukes that I found myself forced to call my primary mentor on American Politics, Jimmy “Hey, I only wrote it. What you do with it is your problem!” Madison. (And, given that he has been dead these last 171 years, that is one expensive roaming call on my Verizon cell phone!)
After we went through all the preliminary pleasantries (“How you doing, dude? What’s new?” ”Ah, I’m dead Carl.” “Bummer, dude.”….) I cut to the chase. “Jimmy,” I asked, “I’ve been through the Constitution and all those Federalist Papers and, for the life of me, I can’t find the phrase “shared governance” anywhere. San Diego Councilman Scott Peters says that “shared governance” is the “hallmark of our country’s democracy.” What am I missing?”
“Share governance?” Madison wheezed. (Which I attributed to the slight humidity that comes with existing amongst the celestial clouds…) “Never heard of it.”
“Shared governance, Jim. That’s where all the constituent groups in an organization to reach group agreement on decisions. Everybody tries to work together for the common good.”
“You mean so that if one of the governing groups doesn’t agree with the majority of others, that group ultimately has to compromise or just give in, even if it results in substantial forfeiture of that group’s rights?”
“Well, something like that.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell. What I did write was about dividing the functions of government into different departments, each with powers to constrain the actions of the others so as to protect the separate interests each department of government is designed to represent. To quote myself, ‘To what expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.’ Now that’s not a situation built on cooperation at all costs, Carl. It means you divide power in such a way that ALL groups must compromise and respect each other’s rights.”
“So, I’m confused. Councilman Peters is basically saying that the Mayor of San Diego, the City’s chief executive, elected by all the people of San Diego, must ultimately bend to the will of the City Council, the legislative branch of the city, as the City Council represents the people, too.”
“Huh? Must be a bad connection here, Carl. You’re saying your city councilman thinks I wrote a Constitution in which the executive is to be subordinate to the legislature? Then why did I write ‘In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own.’ That means the Executive must be independent of the Legislative, buckaroo. Moreover, when I wrote ‘But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.’ I mean that, for government to represent all interest in society, it’s various branches must exist in a competition to guarantee that no one interest triumphs. Send your Councilmember a copy of my book. Doesn’t seem he’s read it.”
“So, what you’re basically saying, Jim, is that if San Diego’s Council-Mayor system is supposed to be based on the same principles of democracy as the system you envisioned, our Mayor, as the executive, should not just be a minion of the Legislature – the City Council—but should pursue a will of his own to represent the public interest?”
“Bingo! Speaking of which, I gotta run. Having a poker game with Franklin and the two Roosevelts.”
And with that our conversation ended.
When Councilman Peters says I “soundly reject shared governance, a hallmark of our country’s democracy” he’s incorrect. “Shared governance” is not a hallmark of our democracy. Checks and balances and separations of powers is.
Councilman Peters is correct in saying that Strong Mayor system adopted under Proposition F is is “analogous to the president and Congress, and the governor and state legislature.” The American political system is based on a competition between separate branches of governments representing differing interests. The House, for example, represents local districts. The Senate represents States. The President represents the American people in their totality. The Courts represent the rule of law. Each branch must tenaciously represent its constituency in a competition of power which must, for anything ultimately to be accomplished, result in a consensual compromise, least any branch veto the actions of the other. For Councilman Peters, shared governance consists of the City Council telling the Mayor what to do and the Mayor ultimately doing it. That is not the concept underlying either checks and balances or separations of powers.
And that has been the political problem in San Diego for too long. For the last decade there has been no-one in San Diego City Government to ultimately tell the City Council, no. As in no, you can not increase City liabilities, expand City services and costs and restrain City revenues indefinitely. As a result, for the last decade the City Council has spent and committed this City into fiscal failure. The council conned voters into going along with this strategy by telling voters they could have all the services and benefits they wanted with out paying the true cost. And this charade continued until the bonds markets finally called the council’s bluff.
When voters voted for the Strong Mayor system they did so with the intent of finally installing someone at City Hall with the power to tell the council “no” and instill some fiscal frugality into our municipal mess. The tragedy of Proposition F is that it did not delineate power between the Mayor and council clearly enough, thus the current conflict. Twere that San Diego’s political system truly reflected the principals of American Democracy Peter’s so extols. But that may take a further charter amendment to give the Mayor clear budget executive authority and a real veto power.
As to the issue at hand, Peter’s basically argues that, recently passed resolution limiting the Mayor’s budget authority notwithstanding, final authority over execution of the budget rests with the Council. If, as Peter’s indicates, our national political model is the measure, this is simply not true. Congress, like our council, passes the annual budget. And the President, like the mayor, is bound to execute the budget to the level of specificity contained within that budget. Congress does not pass a budget that details Federal spending down to the last Ticonderoga #2 penciled purchased at the IRS. Instead, Congress appropriates money in larger departmental, agency and programmatic increments. Beneath the level of spending Congress explicitly specifies, it is an established principle of the US government that the President, as Chief Executive, has discretionary powers to allocate resources.
If the San Diego City Council wants to micromanage Mayoral budgetary authority then it needs do the hard work and pass a budget that details to the finest level exactly what must be spent on what, right down to each and every Ticonderoga #2 bought by any City office. Should the Council be willing to do so, then, yes, the Mayor has no discretion over the budget.
But what the Council is doing with its recent resolution is saying, “Hey, Jerry, we’ll approve a budget and let you administer it as you see fit. That is, right up to the point you shift monies around and cut services that cause any of our constituents to kick up a fuss. Then we’re going to shut you down.”
In essence, in my (often dangerous and ignorant view, as Peter’s might characterize it) the Council has fundamentally violated the principle of separation of powers central to American Democracy. The Council is insisting that it has post-facto veto power over the the Mayor should the Mayor seek to use whatever discretion the Council has granted him in passing the budget in a manner the Council latter doesn’t like.
At the national level this is referred to as a “legislative veto”: where the Congress passes a law post facto to effectively veto a previously legal action of the President. The Supreme Court struck down the legislative veto as unconstitutional. So should the Council resolution be treated, either by court action or, if necessary, by Charter Amendment.
As for Councilman Peter’s criticism of my attempts, failed or otherwise, at being humorous in relationship to this matter, let me state that, rhetorical flourishes aside, I am being as serious here as a heart attack. Or municipal bankruptcy which, the City Council and Mayor’s own protestations notwithstanding, is still within the realm of civic reality. Councilman Peter’s litany of the council’s actions to redress our now five year old fiscal crisis details a series of actions that have been years late and hundreds of millions of dollars short. By any objective standards, this City is still in a world of municipal hurt. And more is to come. That’s been Mayor Sander’s message. The council just doesn’t want to hear it.
And, finally, Councilman Peters refers to my characterization of the strong mayor system created by proposition F as “dangerously ignorant.” Now that is hyperbole. How can the musings of one lowly poli sci guy be dangerous? Am I preaching sedition? Am I leading insurrection? My viewpoint is only “dangerous” to the City Council and its contention that, passage of Proposition F notwithstanding, they are the final word on what this City will do. My argument is that Prop F did not simply convert the largely ceremonial mayor into a largely ceremonial mayor/city manager. The intent of Proposition F, at least as it was portrayed to voters, was to create more powerful mayor who could serve as a check and counterbalance to the City Council.
Hey? Maybe that is seditious!