Charting a City’s Post Municipal Bankruptcy Future Governance

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the key actions taken yesterday by the Mayor and Council in San Bernardino to put a new charter before the city’s voters—a critical step towards a post municipal bankruptcy future.  

Charting a New Governance for a Post Municipal Bankruptcy Future. In our report on the critical factors and the fiscal challenges for local governments in the wake of the Great Recession, we noted that while considerable effort had been devoted to understanding macroeconomic trends, far less attention had been giving to understanding the recession’s impact at the municipal level. Thus, in our study of one of those six municipalities, San Bernardino, we noted: “In the estimation of most individuals, a key challenge for the city is in its charter. Decision-making authority over budgets, personnel, development, and other matters is fragmented between and among the mayor, city manager, city council and city attorney—as well as several boards and commissions. Elected officials do not have the power to alter the salary calculations resulting from these provisions (except through voluntary negotiations with the representatives of that set of employees). These provisions greatly reduce the ability and flexibility of the city to adapt to economic and fiscal conditions as they change over time.” Now, more than half a decade later, the San Bernardino City Council is poised to vote on a new governing document for the city. Yesterday, the Council, after adopting some amendments, agreed to vote early next month on a motion to set a date for the city’s voters to vote in November on the proposed new charter: one which includes major changes in which officials are elected and how they are authorized to govern the city. The amendments adopted yesterday will keep the election policy closer to the city’s current practice: first a primary election; subsequently, unless one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election between the top two vote recipients—instead of, as the committee had proposed, just one election in which the leading vote recipient was automatically elected. Councilman Fred Shorett, at the session, noted: “If we had (had) that in effect in 2013, we’d have a mayor who received only 20 percent of the vote — and it wouldn’t be the person sitting to my left (Mayor Carey Davis),” referring to an election in which (Mayor) Davis finished behind Wendy McCammack, but prevailed in the subsequent February runoff, adding: “When Mayor Davis ran, there were 11 candidates. You run the risk of a very, very low number of people (choosing the winner).” But, as part of the newly proposed charter, if approved by the city’s voters, the timing of San Bernardino’s elections will change: instead of primaries in November of odd-numbered years and runoffs the following February, the primary will match the state of California’s, presently in June, with any runoff in November of even-numbered years. That recommendation, from the city’s committee, appeared to stem from reviews of practices of other municipalities who had realized both lower costs and better voter turnouts. Indeed, the election change, proposed by Councilman Henry Nickel, was adopted unanimously; the Council also changed the proposed charter from saying certain officials would be “appointed” to “hired,” based on advice from the League of Women Voters. Another change would eliminate elections for city attorney, city clerk, and city treasurer; under the proposed new charter, the mayor and council would vote for the city attorney and city clerk. Nevertheless, this adopted change, proposed early in the charter review process, shows the difficulty of change: it is a proposal rejected by the city’s voters previously by opponents who claimed they wanted leaders directly accountable to the people. During consideration and markup, Councilmember Nickel also proposed an amendment to modify the proposed new charter to make the Mayor’s term two years instead of four, a change, he stated, that would mean that mayoral elections would be on the same day as elections for half of the council members, meaning those council members — but not others — must choose between seeking re-election or the citywide office, but his motion failed on a 3-3 tie, with Mayor Davis abstaining.

San Bernardino’s budget includes up to $150,000 to “educate” the public on the proposed changes to the charter; the next step is for the Council now to separately approve the details of that education — including the scope of the education, which, by law, cannot be advocacy, and the cost — in order for it to occur.

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