By Miriam Raftery
March 13, 2014 (San Diego) – Mayor Bob Filner was the latest of several San Diego mayors who resigned under public pressure. Filner pled guilty to a felony count and two misdemeanors following a long string of complaints by women alleging sexual harassment. But there was no legal requirement for a disgraced or disabled mayor to leave office, under San Diego’s Charter. In fact, the charter allows removal of a Mayor or other city official only through death, resignation or recall.
Now the San Diego County Grand Jury wants to see that changed. Today, the Grand Jury issued a report recommending that the City Council identify additional reasons for removing a public official and place a proposal to amend the City Charter on the ballot for voters to decide in a future election.
Hearings should be held in each Council district during this process. The Council has 90 days to issue a response to the Grand Jury recommendations. Specifically, the Grand Jury recommends that a super-majority of the Council (six of nine members) be able to remove a Mayor or other elected official for any of the following additional reasons:
- The elected official pleads guilty or no contest to any felony or is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony involving moral turpitude.
- The elected official is adjudged insane.
- The elected official ceases to be a registered voter or resident of the city or district he/she represents.
- The elected official ceases to discharge the duties of the office for 90 consecutive days, unless excused by six out of nine Council members. In the case of illness or other urgent necessity, and upon a proper showing thereof, the time limited for absence from the city shall be extended to another 40 days by the Council by a vote of at least six out of nine Councilmembers.
- The elected official is removed from office by a judicial procedure.
- The official’s election or appointment is declared void by a judicial decision.
Filner was not the first mayor to leave the mayoral office under a cloud, and he likely won't be the last. In modern times, Roger Hedgecock resigned after being ocnvicted of felony conspiracy and perjury charges that were later overturned. Dick Murphy left amid the pension funding crisis and a financial downgrade of the city's credit rating. His successor, Michael Zucchet, resigned as acting Mayor just three weeks later after being convicted of corruption and his charges, too, were later overturned--raising the issue of whether it's appropriate to force removal until all legal appeals have been exhausted.
Going back further in San Diego's history, John F. Forward Jr. resigned after failing to fire a city manager. His successor, Rutherfor B. Irones, resigned after being convicted of drunk driving and a hit and run accident. Several other mayors resigned for reasons ranging from political infighting with councilmembers to frustration over being unable to fire a city manager.
While clearly a public official who has been medically judged insane, is severely brain-damaged or incarcerated would be unfit or unable to conduct public interest while holding public office, opening the door for politicians to remove another elected official could also allow for political maneuvering to oust an opponent or unpopular colleague.
It’s also worth nothing that in some cities, officials convicted of crimes have not only remained in office, but been reelected by voters. So the Grand Jury recommendations raise the question or whether or not voters—not councilmembers--should ultimately retain the right to determine just how grave an offense warrants removal of an official from public office.
While some might argue that San Diego’s system works, since ultimately Filner and other prior mayors embroiled in legal or ethical controversies ultimately did resign, others would point to the political paralysis that can result when an official bogged down in legal or medical issues opts to hold onto power.