San Diego Republicans want less partisan way to fill council president post

Three weeks after being stripped of key leadership posts, the San Diego City Council’s four Republicans want a less partisan process for choosing who gets the pivotal council president job.

In a memo submitted Wednesday morning, the Republicans say the council president post should rotate among members based on seniority instead of being elected by the council, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-4.

The Republicans say eliminating partisanship from the process would help curb the influence of labor unions and other special interests, while also reducing bitterness and fostering a spirit of cohesion and partnership.

“The nature of the selection process oftentimes results in a divided and bitter council,” the Republicans say in their memo to Council President Myrtle Cole of Southeastern San Diego, a Democrat who last month stripped Republicans of three key council posts and replaced them with Democrats.

“Other consequences of the process can include allegations of Brown Act (open meetings law) violations, horse-trading and politicization of a largely administrative role,” the memo says. “Due to these annual concerns and in the spirit of bipartisanship, we would recommend the council review alternative processes.”

Councilman Scott Sherman of Allied Gardens, whose office drafted the memo, said by telephone on Wednesday that he’s hopeful the council’s Democrats will seriously consider the proposal despite the political power it would cost them.

“I hope they can see this is a common sense approach to taking special interests and partisanship out of the process,” said Sherman, suggesting that increasing partisanship is making politics in San Diego more like Washington, D.C.

Sherman acknowledged that both parties have played politics with the council president post in recent years, with Republicans twice joining up with moderate Democrats to prevent more liberal Democrats from taking the job.

“It’s very fair to say that it’s gone both ways and that’s why we need to make a change,” he said.

The memo was also signed by Councilman Mark Kersey of Black Mountain Ranch, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf of Bay Ho and Councilman Chris Cate of Mira Mesa.

San Diego council seats are officially non-partisan and the party affiliations of candidates don’t appear on elections ballots, but votes on issues and proposals are frequently along party lines.

Beyond making key committee assignments, the council president sets the council’s agenda and determines when – and possibly if -- proposals get voted on.

The memo suggests three possible new approaches: having Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer preside over the council, having an unelected city administrator set the council’s agenda or rotating the council president job based on seniority.

Sherman said he prefers the rotational approach, which is used by other large California cities like Fresno and by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

“It would take away the exterior pressure – it would take all of that out of our hands,” he said.

Sherman said that under the Republicans’ proposal Cole would finish out her year as council president, which ends in December, and then a new council president would be chosen based on seniority.

If Zapf is re-elected in November, she would have the most seniority among council members – eight years. She would be allowed to serve as council president for one year.

She would be replaced after one year by the member serving in the council’s No. 2 post, council president pro tem, which would also be selected based on seniority.

Kersey and Sherman are tied for second with Zapf in seniority, but the Republicans’ proposal would give the job to Kersey because he represented a lower-numbered council district.

Sherman said his approach would still risk some partisanship from the council president on key issues and assignments. He predicted that would be less likely because the council president would be reluctant to set a partisan precedent knowing that someone from the other party would soon be council president.

A spokeswoman for Cole said Wednesday by telephone that she plans to schedule a council discussion of the proposal in the next 30 days.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

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