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City Council should let strong mayor flex

Here we are, more than six weeks into 2007, and we’re still waiting for our City Council to realize it’s not 2005 any more.

The council last week approved a proposal requiring the mayor to seek council approval for any and all budget changes during the course of the fiscal year. The move was the council’s latest yank on the rope in the power tug-of-war it has been in with Mayor Jerry Sanders lately, and looks like an effort to pull the city back to the days before the switch to a strong mayor form of government was made on New Year’s Day 2006.

Part of the reason the switch was made was because San Diegans were tired of being led into financial oblivion by a City Council that for years has been seemingly ignorant to the fundamental truth that the city’s finances can only improve by cutting spending on services, or increasing revenue through raised fees and taxes. The council has long shied away from those tough choices, and when Sanders finally made one - cutting a swimming program for kids in some of San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods - the council reacted with horror, leading to a struggle for budget control that finally resulted in last week’s vote.

We’re not saying the swim program, which cost $115,000 and was the only publicly financed competitive club in the city, was the right target for the mayor, but the switch to the strong-mayor format put the budget in his hands. Whether Sanders has the power to tweak his budget throughout the year without the council’s approval is unclear and may eventually have to be decided in court. But we think that requiring Sanders to come before council every time he wants to make even small changes to the budget would take us too far back into the old days of indecision.

We think the council’s proposal to require Sanders to give quarterly reports on proposed budget changes is a good idea. If Sanders has his budget knife in hand and his eyes on a particular program or service, the public should know. If his ideas are unpopular, we’ll see for real if the mayor is willing to make choices that better the city at his own political cost.

But we think that asking the council for approval on every budget change would bring us to a form of government too similar to the one the voters decided wasn’t working. The city would be better served by letting our “strong mayor” show just how strong he is.