Measure alters 3 elective posts
Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Posted: 10/16/2010 10:02:41 PM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO – Voters here have a little more than two weeks to decide if they want to restructure their city’s government.

Measure C would amend the City Charter to give the City Council and mayor authority to appoint the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer.

The Nov. 2 election has a crowded ballot that also includes races for governor, legislative offices and nine statewide propositions.

Factions for and against Measure C have placed numerous blue and yellow signs around the city promoting their positions, but the advertisements do not communicate much more than the fact that something called Measure C exists.

Measure C proponents say the referendum will make City Hall a more professional place.

Opponents say it will diminish residents’ representation and concentrate power among the politicians in office.

Measure C is also partially an early vote on whether City Attorney James F. Penman should remain in office. Penman has been city attorney since Ronald Reagan was in the White House and his political style – fiercely independent to some, obstructionist to others – is at the heart of the Measure C debate.

Penman, if he chooses to run for another term, is up for re-election in 2011. If Measure C passes, however, Penman could be out of the job by March, when the council and mayor would have their opportunity to select his successor.

But the passage or rejection of Measure C will shape city politics well beyond Penman’s retirement.

In essence, the question is who do San Bernardino voters trust with the future of their government?

Can voters put their faith in their elected mayor and council members to choose qualified public servants? Or is it instead better for the voters themselves to choose the city’s chief legal, elections and investment officers, and then trust those people to leave politicking behind once the election is over?

Come Nov. 2, the only people who can answer those questions will be the voters of San Bernardino.

“It’s a local choice of course. Cities in California are very diverse,” said JoAnne Spears, executive director of the Institute for Local Government in Sacramento.

Spears expressed no opinion as to whether cities are better off with appointed or elected city attorneys and said she was unaware of any research to compare which style of government is superior.

Background of the city

San Bernardino, unlike many of its Inland Empire neighbors, is a charter city. Unlike general law cities such as Redlands and Highland that have governments designed in a pattern set forth by state law, charter cities have room to determine their forms of government, elections rules and qualifications for holding public office.

San Bernardino’s charter provides for a relatively unusual form of government. The city has both an elected full-time mayor and city manager, the latter of which is responsible for running day-to-day operations.

Most California cities have weak mayor systems in which the mayor serves as a first-among-equals on a part-time city council. San Bernardino is also unique in having an elected city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer. These positions are appointed in the vast majority of the Golden State’s towns and cities.

Residents of only 12 California cities elect their city attorney. The San Diego County city of Chula Vista joined the club in 2008 when voters decided to have an elected city attorney. Their first one, Glen Googins, is set to take office in December.

On the other hand, San Bernardino is not the only city where some are trying this year to eliminate elections for the city attorney’s job.

Voters in the east Bay Area city of Albany also get to decide if they want an appointed city attorney. Albany’s longtime lawyer, Robert Zweben, told the Oakland Tribune in August that the job is so complicated that it would be better for city councils to appoint legal officers than to trust an unproven politician with the task.

“As I’ve done this job over time, if you really want to have a qualified city attorney walking in, I don’t think you can do it any other way than appointing somebody and hiring them,” he said. “If I had chosen not to run in this election, somebody would have taken out papers and walked into the job and whether they were able to do the job would have been shown in the future.”

Argument for Measure C

The word from those favoring Measure C is that whoever serves as San Bernardino’s attorney, clerk and treasurer should go about the job as an administrator, not a politician.

From this point of view, the political strength derived from a popular election makes it too easy for the city’s top attorney to engage in grandstanding and adulterate legal advice with political calculations.

Replace politicians with administrators, and proponents say the posturing and infighting at City Hall will decrease.

“Political chaos dominates San Bernardino City Hall while our economy declines and jobs and businesses disappear. Despite changing elected leaders over the past 50 years, the nasty infighting has continued and is getting worse,” reads the sample ballot argument in favor of Measure C.

Two officials whose jobs would be affected by Measure C, City Clerk Rachel Clark and City Treasurer David C. Kennedy, signed that argument. Another of the five signatories was the Rev. Ray Turner, who led a residents’ drive to put a similar measure on the ballot.

Turner’s group did not collect enough signatures. Measure C made it to the ballot because the City Council voted 4-3 to do so in August.

Another point made in favor of Measure C pertains to the city clerk’s and city treasurer’s positions. The City Charter lays out duties for the clerk and treasurer, but does not establish any professional qualifications for who can hold the job.

Measure C would change the charter to set eligibility requirements. Anyone serving as city clerk would have to hold a certification in accordance with the International Institute of Municipal Clerks. Future city treasurers would have to be a certified public accountant and hold a California license.

Anti-Measure C argument

In the opinion of Penman and other Measure C opponents, an appointed city attorney will not have the independence necessary to be City Hall’s watchdog and prevent corruption from obtaining a foothold.

Unlike an appointed city attorney, Penman has pointed out that elected attorneys in charter cities have authority to enforce the Political Reform Act. He often refers to himself as the city’s prosecutor rather than City Hall’s legal adviser.

Change things around, Penman and other opponents say, and the result will not be enhanced professionalism, but the appointment of puppets.

“We believe an independent and elected city clerk protects the importance of city elections, an independent and elected city treasurer protects our city investment funds from being raided by city politicians, and an independent and elected city attorney acts as a check on government corruption,” reads the sample ballot argument against Measure C.

Former mayors Evlyn Wilcox and Judith Valles were among five people to sign the opposing argument.

Valles and Penman have not always been in accord. While mayor, Valles once demanded Penman’s arrest at a City Council meeting.

Other Measure C objections include the perspective that it would diminish residents’ valuable rights to vote and would eliminate the Charter’s current requirement for city attorneys to live in the city.

As it does not specify whether the city would hire a full-time attorney or contract with a law firm, Measure C does not dictate that anyone holding any of the three jobs that would be altered by its passage would have to live in San Bernardino.
Measure C in brief

Measure C would amend San Bernardino’s City Charter to give the City Council and mayor power to hire and fire the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer.

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