Opposing Perspectives Articulated With Regard To SB Charter Change Initiative

In 1905, the City of San Bernardino put its municipal charter into place. Variously described as an operational blueprint or a constitution, the San Bernardino Charter is a 48-page document which provides the framework for municipal governance, delineating city officials and departments and their respective and articulating lines of authority and responsibility, as well as the limitations and restrictions under which they must function.
In many respects, San Bernardino is similar to other municipalities in that it has a mayor, city council, city clerk, city attorney, city treasurer and a bevy of departments, such as the police department, fire department, water department and city engineer’s office. It is in terms of how the responsibilities and authorities are distributed and shared among the city’s ruling elite that distinguishes San Bernardino from most other cities in California.
For example, in most cities, the mayor and city council wield political power but are insulated from the responsibility of actually managing the city on a day-to-day basis. In most cities, it is the city manager who has the ultimate managerial responsibility and he delegates to a series of department heads – the police chief, the fire chief, the city engineer, the planning director, the finance director, etc. – the authority to run their respective departments. In most cities, the mayor is the most powerful political entity on the city council, presiding over the city council meetings, controlling the ebb and flow of council discussion and debate, sometimes having control or influence over the agenda of what is to be discussed and empowered to vote like all other members of the city council. In most California cities, the city attorney serves at the pleasure of the city council, although in some cities the city attorney is an elected position. Almost universally, the city attorney’s function is to advise the city council on legal matters, counsel them with regard to the legality of their contemplated action and help them frame their action so that what action they take comports with the law. The city attorney is also the city council’s first line of defense and offense in litigation, representing the city and the city council when it or they are sued, and initiating lawsuits when the council deems litigation necessary to achieve the city’s ends or if such action is deemed, in their collective judgment, to be in the city’s best interest.
In San Bernardino, however, the mayor, while charged with the duty of presiding over council meetings, is relatively politically weak. San Bernardino has seven council members other than the mayor. Under normal circumstances, he has no vote in the course of council action. In the event of a council vote when a council member or members are absent or abstaining such that the vote ends in a tie, the mayor is called upon to cast a vote to break that tie. The mayor also has veto power, but only in a case where the vote is close – that is, 4 to 3 or 3 to 2. Despite the mayor’s less than dynamic political reach, however, the position is an uncommonly strong one in terms of managerial authority. In a real sense, the mayor and city manager are co-managerial regents, such that the mayor has the authority to hire and fire, or at least have final sayso in hiring or firing, the city manager and department heads and lower city employees. In San Bernardino the city attorney is an elected post. This puts the city attorney out of reach of the mayor, city manager and city council. Moreover, though the city attorney does not have a vote on the council, the charter gives him the authority to weigh in at will on any issue that comes before the city council for discussion or any other public issue for that matter. This is qualitatively different from the governmental arrangement in nearly every other city in the state, where the city attorney speaks only when he is invited to do so by the mayor or city council.
San Bernardino’s 1905 charter provides the electorate with the authority to amend the charter and in the last 111 years that has occurred several times. The basic parameters of the charter remain unchanged, however.
All of that will change if Measure L, which has been placed on the ballot in November is passed by the voters.
Charter change proponents have suggested that the current charter, created when San Bernardino was a town of little more than 10,000 just after the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century, is antiquated and not in keeping with the modern standards of organization and governance for most cities in California in the Third Millennium. Those proponents’ ideas and lobbying prompted the council to appoint a charter review committee to come up with a new operational blueprint for the county seat, which now boasts a population of just over 214,000. Decrying the current charter as one that leaves the city without a clearly defined demarcation of leadership, as stated in the phrase “Everyone is in charge so no one is in charge,” the committee laid out a new constitution for the city. It would, its drafters maintain, establish clear lines of authority and responsibility by which the city council makes policy and major financial decisions, while the day-to-day operation of the city is delegated to the city manager. Further, the charter proposal as drafted ends the mayor’s authority to appoint department heads, designates the city manager as the city’s chief executive officer, keeps the mayor elected at large and retains the current number of wards in the city at seven. It changes the timing of elections from odd-numbered years to have them correspond with presidential and gubernatorial elections in even-numbered years and dispenses with the elected status of the city clerk, the city attorney and the city treasurer, such that those positions would be hired ones, nominated by the city manager and approved by the city council. The new charter reduces or eliminates the city attorney’s purview in engaging in policy considerations. The mayor would remain ineligible to vote on routine matters but would still have tie-breaking power and veto power, though such vetoes could be overridden with five votes. The city would keep its 30-day residency requirement for running for office, the current requirement and the longest permissible under California law. The new charter keeps in place each individual council member’s ability to appoint committee and commission members.
The new charter provides for a water department and library that are independent from the city council’s direct control and are overseen by library and water boards. The civil service department continues as the appeals forum of disciplinary action.
While the proposed new 14-page charter has its proponents who believe its simpler and more-streamlined approach to governing will prove advantageous, there are many residents who believe the existing 48-page charter is a tried and true instrument of local government that is entirely suitable for San Bernardino. They reject the idea that the existing charter, with its layers of deliberation and checks on governmental action, is needlessly cumbersome. They assert rather that the charter prevents city officials from acting rashly and without regard for the interests of those being governed.
Six of the seven existing council members and the current mayor, Carey Davis, support the adoption of the new charter. Davis has gone on record as favoring it, even though it will lessen his power and authority. They are joined by former Mayor Patrick Morris, who has said he believes the existing charter hamstrings city government into a state of near ineffectiveness and is a model of “convoluted structure” which invites “political chaos.”
The most celebrated opponents of the new charter are former mayor Judith Valles, former city attorney James Penman and Tim Prince, the son of Ralph Prince, the longest serving city attorney in San Bernardino history.
The ballot measure in support of the Measure L states, “Vote Yes on Measure L.
For many years, San Bernardino has deteriorated, unable to overcome problems that nearby cities fight more effectively. Over the years, we’ve chosen various leaders from different political philosophies and parties. Despite their efforts, the city has continued to decline.
After San Bernardino declared bankruptcy in 2012, a committee of citizen volunteers was formed to study how to fix our city. After two years of study and countless public meetings including the League of Women Voters, civic groups, and Cal State San Bernardino government experts, everyone agreed.
The current city charter (a constitution for local government) was adopted in 1905 when the population was less than 10,000 residents. It needs to be replaced with a new charter that reflects the needs of a modern city of more than 200,000 residents.
The new charter will:
Require a balanced budget, strict financial controls, and an annual independent audit that must be shared publicly.
Save taxpayer dollars that can better be spent on reducing crime, improving parks and libraries by combining city elections with state and federal elections where turnout is higher and more residents have a say in critical, quality of life decisions.
Guarantee that our city-run police department will not be outsourced and our city library will remain under the authority of the library board.
Ensure the water department remains independent of the city council and give the board of water commissioners authority to repair the crumbling sewer system.
The Bankruptcy Court’s recovery plan called for the city to update the charter to operate in a more efficient, accountable, and transparent way. Measure L does that so San Bernardino can get back on the right track and begin to move forward.
Start at the bottom of your ballot. Vote Yes on Measure L to fix our city.”
The ballot argument in favor of Measure L is signed by Jill Vassilakos-Long,the president of the San Bernardino Area League of Women Voters, San Bernardino Area, Dr. Albert Karnig, president emeritus at Cal State San Bernardino, San Bernardino City Unified School District Board Member Margaret Hill, newspaper publisher Gloria Macias Harrison and Chris Mann, the founder of the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association.
Penman and Prince submitted competing arguments against Measure L. Ultimately, San Bernardino City Clerk Georgeann Hanna settled the question of which argument would be accepted as the official ballot statement argument against Measure L by a coin flip, which favored Prince’s submission. Penman insists that there are nuances to his argument that should be considered by San Bernardino’s voters. In order to give San Bernardino’s residents the opportunity to consider the matter from all pertinent perspectives, the Sentinel offers both arguments against Measure L.
Here is Prince’s argument against Measure L:
“Common traditions, culture and history form the fabric of a city. Checks and balances are paramount to American government. Our charter, adopted in 1905, provides the people the right to elect their city attorney, clerk and treasurer. Our city was the All-America City in 1977, attracted a fine State University, kept its water supply independent from Los Angeles and built the SB Symphony, Western Regional Little League, regional soccer and my other achievements, all accomplished with our strong mayor form of government.
All cities have bad times, and San Bernardino has certainly experienced our share recently with bad politicians, economic challenges and crime. Some want to disincorporate or change the name of our city. Others like the proponents and the politicians who appointed them, want to throw out our historic charter. While well intentioned, they have lost their perspective and respect for our historic city which predates Los Angeles, whose historic charter shares may features in common with San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco and many other successful cities.
Let’s take pride in our heritage and bright future. Let’s not accede to the portrayal of San Bernardino by Southern California media, hired consultants and a few non-scientific ‘studies.’ San Bernardino is only temporarily tarnished, just like Orange County was temporarily tarnished by bankruptcy.
We have already taken steps to correct the problems. The people need more accountability and control of City Hall, not less.
This proposal to throw away our historic charter follows outsourcing city departments and giving away our historic fire department, reflecting loss of pride in our history and hope in San Bernardino’s future. We stand apart from cookie cutter cities in Orange Coutny (from which our politicians’ high-priced consultants hail). Orange County suburbs lack San Bernardino’s time-tested charter, heritage and values. Let’s not discard ours.
Penman’s argument, which is co-signed by retired Superior Court judge John P. Wade, former mayor Evlyn Wilcox, current councilman John Valdivia and former mayor Judith Valles, states:
“Vote No on Measure L.
Measure L eliminates your vote
in choosing your City Clerk, City Treasurer and City Attorney.
Less Accountability: Measure L makes city government less accountable to voters. Currently, our elected City Attorney, City Clerk and City Treasurer are directly responsible to the voters. Under Measure L, they would be appointed by and beholden to City Hall politicians; we couldn’t vote such appointed officers, in, out, or recall them. Today, they must live in San Bernardino, if Measure L passes outsiders can hold these offices.
No Independence: We believe an independent, elected City Clerk protects the integrity of city elections;
an independent, elected City Treasurer protects our city’s investment funds; an independent, elected City Attorney acts as a check on government corruption.
Measure L takes power away from your directly elected mayor, and gives it to an appointed city manager. Today, the mayor is the CEO of the city, chosen by you, and responsible to you, the voters. Measure L makes the city manager the CEO and realigns power away from the people, away from their elected mayor, to a politically appointed, non-elected, bureaucrat.
In 2009 the City of Bell was exposed for paying outrageously excessive salaries to their appointed city officials-including $787,000 to the city manager. The cities of Beaumont and Moreno Valley have since joined Bell in being exposed for corruption – each of these cities appoint their city attorneys who work for those who hire them, politicians, not the people. The appointed city attorney in Bell allegedly signed off on $900,000 in loans to city officials.
We believe that taking away voter choice reduces accountability to the people and increases exposure to mismanagement and corruption similar to that alleged in Bell, Beaumont and Moreno Valley.
Please join us and Vote No on Measure L.”

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