The entrance to San Diego City Hall. Photo by Chris Stone

Surveying San Diego’s political landscape — and the string of scandals entangling city hall over the past decade — British politician John Dahlberg-Acton’s observation that power corrupts rings as true today as it did in 1887, but with a home-grown twist:

In the absence of an independent council president, a strong mayor has the power to corrupt — absolutely.

How did this happen? Why have the promises of a strong mayor form of government — transparency, efficiency, and accountability — not been realized?

The answer lies in the powerful political undercurrents the strong mayor leadership model promised to redirect and reform. This persistent undertow sank both the letter and spirit of Proposition D.  When presented to voters in November 2004, Prop. D passed by a razor-thin margin of 51%.

A five-year pilot program gave San Diegans a chance to warm up to the idea of an empowered elected chief executive.  Although the Sunroad scandal warned of its vulnerabilities, the San Diego Strong Mayor Initiative  won over a convincing majority of San Diegans, who turned out for the June 2010 primary. Measure D passed with 60% of the vote.

Replacing an unelected city manager with a strong municipal executive, voted into office by the people, is an appealing trade-off on paper. But reality is captured in President George Washington’s advice to Alexander Hamilton moments into ACT II of the Broadway musical, Hamilton: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.”

The political establishment sold Proposition D as a chance to tame an unwieldy city bureaucracy with a dose of streamlined, top-down corporate culture. The public shrugged, however, when the balance of power spelled out in the initiative began to unravel.

As talk of strong mayor executive leadership dominated the airwaves, San Diegans overlooked an important truth: The promise of a strong mayor-inspired government is measured by the strength of an independent council president. That’s because the primary powers of the council presidency — setting the city council’s legislative agenda and deciding who will lead and serve on the city council’s nine committees — are a counterweight to the authority granted to the city’s elected chief executive.

You see, the role of the council president is to act as a civic gatekeeper: Balancing the strong mayor’s political agenda with the people’s priorities is a council president’s duty.

Last December, as Councilmembers Monica Montgomery Steppe and Jennifer Campbell battled for possession of the council president’s gavel, the unrealized potential of the council presidency was thrown into sharp relief. Amid the darkness and isolation of a global pandemic, San Diegans on the periphery of civic power converged in the glare of an irrefutable truth: Over a slow but steady succession of council presidents, the city council’s legislative agenda became a springboard for passing the strong mayor’s political agenda into law.

But resilience is a hallmark of American Democracy. When San Diegans harness the power of creativity to their collective resolve to address the shortcomings in the strong mayor roll out, they can inspire the transformation of the council presidency.

Here are five ideas to jump start the effort:

Let the Sunshine In: An independent council president, accessible and accountable to San Diego residents, depends on a transparent candidate selection process. Relegating this pivotal leadership position to a game of political horse trading erodes the balance of power embodied in the strong mayor government model. Instead, public engagement should light the way.

A series of candidate forums, hosted by local media outlets in collaboration with community advocacy organizations, would set the stage for the city council’s vote confirming their selection of a new council president. Given the opportunity to meet the candidates and learn about their policy platforms, San Diegans would be invested in the selection process and, by extension, empowered to speak their truth to power at city hall.

Bring in the A-Team: The office of an independent council president requires a full-time professional staff. Since the council president straddles two distinct leadership positions — the city council executive, representing the interests of San Diegans citywide, and a councilmember answerable to the constituents of his or her city council district, a legislative staff assigned to the office of the council president — separate and apart from the team reporting to the councilmember holding the gavel — is essential. Tasked with framing and implementing the vision of the presiding council president, this seasoned policy team would build a culture of consistency and continuity within the office of the council president.

Spark a Battle of Big Ideas: Since the council president is the counterpart to a strong mayor, why is an annual address to the city afforded to one leader and not the other? A remnant of the city manager government model, San Diego’s State of the City address needs a makeover. Instead of hosting one annual city-wide address, why not two?

These dueling visions, delivered by the city’s top elected leaders, would spark a spirited rivalry for the hearts and minds of San Diegans. Isn’t this competition of ideas the essence of representative democracy?

Launch a Website:  A website, aligned with the office of the council president, would make a vital connection between the strong-mayor’s legislative counterpart and a city-wide constituency. The portal would introduce the council president’s vision, values, and policy priorities, chart the course of his/her policy agenda, and promote an ongoing dialogue with community members.

­Spotlight Community Engagement: Maintaining a year-round schedule of constituent listening posts and community forums would build trust and goodwill between the council president and residents across the city’s nine council districts. At the same time, this sustained commitment to constituent engagement would offer the council president the latitude to tune in to issues of concern in his or her council district, while monitoring the pulse of the broader community.

History can’t be undone. But its lessons can inspire us to act. If transparency, efficiency, and accountability are the aspirations of a strong mayor form of government, then the road ahead is clear: It’s time to reset the balance of power at city hall with the energy of an independent council president.

A second-generation San Diegan, Molly Bowman-Styles is the president of Windansea Communications.

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