Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More bare facts about San Diego government: how we got from there to here

Around this time last year San Diego’s former mayor Bob Filner was forced out of office.  As it happens, he was the first bona fide “strong mayor” our city has yet seen.

We voters had no choice but to wield our black markers once again and fill in the ballot bubble to select a new mayor.  The winner this time around was Mr. White Bread personified, Kevin Faulconer.  San Diego’s lead newspaper, the U-T,  summed up the occasion in a neat sentence: “At least the day brought us one step further from Our Time Of Scandal And Farce.”

The UT likes to play coy.  They know perfectly well that scandal and farce are what make our city tick.  San Diego is bright and sunny but the truth is, it’s a very shady place.

Last week we followed the bouncing ball and tracked the historical progression that led to the moment when a small village called San Diego became an incorporated city, defined by its own City Charter and governed by a “common council.”  The year was 1850.

Two years later the fledgling city of San Diego went bankrupt. 

A board of trustees took over city management and for the next four decades  administered the city’s operations and finances.  The city grew in fits and starts, cycling through mini-booms and busts.  By the late 1880s San Diego’s attempts at becoming an active player in regional commerce fizzled.  And after years of wild land speculation the city’s bloated real estate market crashed, throwing major investors and developers into bankruptcy and ruin.  

In this depressed economic setting the movers and shakers of the time created a new City Charter, this time with a “strong mayor” system of governance.  

The city eventually emerged from its deep slump, but for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th growth was slow, handicapped by a scarcity of resources – like water, cheap fuel, and/or multiple investors willing to spend big capital.   San Diego was branded a one-horse town, dominated for many years by the bigger-than-life banker/ property owner/ developer/ tourism promoter John D. Spreckels.   A backdrop of power struggles, con games, and political corruption went hand in hand with this company-town reality.  

San Diego got on the municipal reform bandwagon at the tail end of the Progressive Era – a period of sweeping political and social reform that spanned the presidential terms of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  

In 1931, following the trend set by other Southwestern cities, San Diego voters threw out their “strong mayor” system and installed a nonpartisan city manager form of government.  Goodbye to political vices.  Hello, responsible management.   The city maintained this council/manager form of government for close to 75 years.
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Now we all know that corruption and mismanagement are outgrowths of greed and other human frailties and are not necessarily the consequences of a particular method of running a government.  But blaming a system rather than acknowledging the human factor is often an effective ruse to confuse and mislead the voting public.

In 2004, after several years of pension shenanigans, political unaccountability, and teetering fiscal insolvency, San Diego voters were shanghaied by the downtown elite with claims that our city manager system of governance was the devil and exorcism was the city's salvation.  Voters swallowed the bait and approved a major Charter amendment to resurrect a “strong mayor” form of government.  

And thus did it happen that a fresh load of scandal, farce, confusion, and dysfunction in present-day city government was begotten.

Next time we’ll look at how city government is structured and why a “strong mayor” seems like such a big deal.


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