Ryan Hagen, Staff Writer
Posted: 08/05/2012 07:55:32 PM PDT
Special Section: San Bernardino
That would make San Bernardino a general law city like the majority of California cities and nearly all of its neighbors, without special provisions like an elected city attorney and a requirement that police and fire salaries be set as the average of 10 like-sized cities.
Proponents of the change say the city’s bankruptcy filing highlighted problems with the charter, a 46-page document that can only be changed by a citywide vote.
“Our residents have been discussing whether we should change our form of government, and now it’s time for us to discuss it,” said Councilwoman Virgina Marquez. “They’ve identified a lot of problems with the charter. I think people for the most part want change, and I’m hopeful that my colleagues (on the council) will listen and consider.”
Changes to the charter were discussed at the last council meeting, and three citywide elections have been held since 2000 to change parts of it. Voters rejected two, both of which would have made the city attorney post appointed rather than elected.
“This is primarily an attack on the elected city attorney, clerk and treasurer, and on Section 186,” said City Attorney James F. Penman, referring to three positions that are elected in San Bernardino but council-appointed in a number of general law cities and to the charter’s section setting public safety salaries.
“It’s an attempt to thwart the checks and balances that are in our charter,” Penman said. “We’ve already spent $400,000 (on failed attempts to change the charter) trying to shove something down the voters’ throats they don’t want, and now is not the time to do it again.”
Putting a charter change on November’s ballot would cost between $90,000 and $120,000, according to City Clerk Gigi Hanna.
Conversations about the charter do always turn into discussions about the city attorney, said Councilman Rikke Van Johnson.
He attributed that to Penman’s personality and a voter-approved section saying the city attorney must approve any decision by the council to get legal advice to interpret the charter.
“This charter, because it’s evolved into the city attorney charter, makes it personal for him,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t want to see things go away because then you’re attacking his position. Because of the way it’s structured now, it points, unfortunately, at his position all the time.”
Johnson said other benefits to repealing the charter include saving money by restructuring City Hall – which in some cases has multiple departments doing the same work because of the charter – and increasing turnout and decreasing cost by having elections in even-numbered years like most other cities.
Penman and Mayor Pat Morris, who have butted heads on many issues, including previous changes to the charter, publicly agree that now isn’t the time for elected officials to push for those changes.
“We have serious problems top to bottom in this city,” Morris said. “It does start with the charter and the way it’s been interpreted.”
Morris, pointing to previous academic analysis of the charter, said it leads to divided centers of power that make cooperation difficult.
But he wouldn’t come out in support of repeal.
“I’m focused right now on the issues of our financial challenges that are directly in front of us,” he said. “It’s a conversation that obviously is going to happen, because Rikke Van Johnson put it on the agenda.”
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