Position of president is new under strong-mayor format

By Jennifer Vigil
Staff Writer

November 21, 2005

San Diego Councilman Scott Peters, a cautious politician, seems to be assured of becoming the City Council's first president, but he's not declaring victory until the votes are counted.

"I've given it a lot of thought," Peters said. "I believe it will happen. I don't want to be too presumptuous, but I've been thinking a lot about how to move forward for our city and our council on that assumption."

The City Council will choose a president tomorrow, though the decision is subject to confirmation after two vacant seats are filled in a Jan. 10 election.

Voters created the need for a presiding council officer a year ago when they approved a strong-mayor form of government, which establishes separate executive and legislative branches. The change takes effect Jan. 1.

That's when the mayor will take over most of the city manager's duties, including preparing the budget and hiring and firing city staff members. The mayor no longer will lead meetings or be a voting member of the council, which will be reduced to eight members.

The council president will adopt the leadership role, overseeing weekly meetings and scheduling business to be considered while appointing council members to five legislative committees.

The president serves a one-year term and can be removed at any time by a majority vote of the council, according to guidelines set by the City Council Transition Committee. Members can serve consecutive terms as president.

Peters represents District 1, a politically charged area where foes often do battle over growth, transportation and the environment. The district includes La Jolla, Carmel Valley, Rancho Peñasquitos and University City.

The second-term councilman was part of San Diego's closest district race last year when challenger Phil Thalheimer forced him into a runoff, while three other incumbents cruised to victories.

After the election, Peters and the council headed into a stormy year, dominated by ongoing federal investigations into San Diego's finances, including a pension deficit of at least $1.4 billion.

Mayor Dick Murphy, who resigned, and Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet, convicted of federal corruption charges, also left, creating more turmoil. (Seven of Zucchet's convictions were reversed this month, though the judge ordered that he be retried on two remaining charges.)

Peters is a Democrat like his colleagues Toni Atkins, Donna Frye and Tony Young. He has shown a willingness to vote with the council's Republicans, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer, on certain issues, including an unsuccessful attempt to kill a proposal to increase wages for low-income workers employed by city contractors.

Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders, also a Republican, will take office Dec. 5.

Over the summer, when the city was at the height of a battle with its employee retirement board, Peters joined with Madaffer to persuade the pension trustees to give up documents sought by investigators. The board did so in August.

"I try to listen to all sides and come up with a solution," Peters said. "Solutions are usually somewhere in the middle. I expect to continue to have that posture."

He also is known for having had the lowest budget among the council offices, until the city began allocating the same amount, $850,000, to each district this year.

His office employs eight, and the group will not grow if he becomes council president, said Betsy Kinsley, his chief of staff. The position will require a scheduler to place city business on the council agenda, but Kinsley said someone would be reassigned the task.

Atkins, though she has been deputy mayor for four months, said she is not interested in becoming council president. She believes that the slot will become pivotal and that Peters, who led the council committee guiding the strong-mayor transition, has the broad perspective needed to fill the role.

"I think you're going to see people focus on the mayor and the presiding officer and how that relationship is going to unfold," Atkins said. "In other cities, I see the presiding officer being quite a powerful position."

Yet other council members do not appear to be jockeying for the slot.

Maienschein and Madaffer, like Atkins, said they don't want to be president. Atkins and Madaffer said only Peters has sought their support. Maienschein said flatly, "I'm assuming it's going to be Scott Peters."

Frye, who lost to Sanders in the race for mayor two weeks ago, declined to comment. Young did not return calls.

Norma Damashek, who chaired the citizens committee advising the city on the transition, said she believes Peters "has been positioning himself as council president from the beginning."

Damashek said Peters "will probably get the job mostly by default, probably not because people have huge confidence in his ability to lead the City Council and develop council priorities, but more because it's a job that will be anticlimactic in the beginning."

Damashek doesn't expect any other candidates to step up at the last minute.

"The council has not been playing that kind of politics up until now," she said, and is generally a cautious group because of the continuing financial and legal chaos.

Peters said his immediate priorities are to move the city out of its financial bind and to improve employee morale, which has plummeted because of ongoing threats to pension benefits and the potential for layoffs.

Under the new form of government, Sanders must secure the support of one council member to have his proposals enter the city's legislative pipeline. If elected council president, Peters said his first priority would be to establish a spirit of "communication and facilitation" with the mayor's office.

Peters said he also foresees "a leadership role" for Frye, but he predicts there will be more friction with City Attorney Michael Aguirre, with whom Atkins and Murphy clashed when they presided over the council.

Peters has had his own issues with Aguirre, saying that the city attorney's internal pension investigations have delayed another inquiry being performed by a private firm. They also squabbled over Peters' status as a nonpracticing lawyer.

When Peters told Aguirre in June that he shouldn't have forced council members to seek private legal representation regarding aspects of the investigations, the city attorney told him that he had "no authority to provide legal advice."

Council members also have repeatedly accused Aguirre of bypassing them or setting aside their orders while making legal decisions for the city. Aguirre did not return calls seeking comment.

"I don't see that we'll resolve that issue between him and me, but at some point we'll have to figure that out," Peters said.

Term limits will force Peters from the council in 2008, and he said he does not know what his next political move might be. He added that council members, whether he presides over them or not, will be judged on how they handled the city's troubles.

"If we didn't solve the problems, who deserves to be elected to anything anyway?"