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Measure Would Add 2 Members to City Council : Advocates Cite Growth, Fairer Representation

January 02, 1988|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

President John F. Kennedy lobbied Congress to pass civil rights legislation, while his superpower counterpart, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, pulled the Soviet Union out of the race to the moon. "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" were among the nation's most popular television shows. Few Americans could have located the Gulf of Tonkin on a map. Amid concerns over a recession, the stock market soared past 750 to record levels.

And, in that same week in mid-September, 1963, San Diego voters approved an amendment to the City Charter increasing the size of the City Council from six to eight seats.

Much, obviously, has changed in the intervening 24 years, including San Diego's population, which has grown by more than 40%. The size of the council, however, has remained the same--though that, too, may soon change.

Expansion Argument

With some political activists arguing that expansion of the council is long overdue, an initiative drive aimed at adding two seats to the council is under way.

Spearheaded by county supervisorial aide and former council candidate Neil Good, the initiative would, if it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters next June, increase the council to 10 members (11, including the mayor) prior to the 1989 elections. To make the proposal more politically and economically palatable, the measure also would essentially freeze council budgets at their July, 1985, levels.

"It's time to recognize that this is 1987, not 1963," said Good, an administrative assistant to Supervisor Leon Williams who was defeated in last September's 8th District primary. "The population increase alone shows that the council's structure hasn't kept pace with the city's growth. We're trying to run the 7th largest city in the country with a system set up when communities like Rancho Bernardo, Scripps Ranch and Mira Mesa didn't even exist."

Of the 15 largest cities in the nation, none has a smaller council than San Diego, Good said. That fact, combined with San Diego's dramatic population growth since the last adjustment of the council's size, forms the heart of proponents' argument for the initiative.

"Local government is supposed to be the level of government closest to the people," Good said. "When you start having council districts the size of state legislative or congressional districts, that defeats the purpose of local government."

The added seats not only would bring citizens closer to their elected representatives, supporters contend, but also would enhance opportunities for minority representation on the council--a possibility that has helped the plan to attract support from black and Latino political groups. With the exception of the heavily minority 4th District, minority communities' voting impact now is diluted by their inclusion in geographically large districts.

Mixed Reviews

To qualify the proposal for next June's ballot, supporters need to obtain 40,292 registered voters' signatures--a figure based on 15% of the local turnout in the last gubernatorial election--by next Feb. 6. With the initiative's backers hoping to secure 60,000-plus names on petitions to leave a comfortable margin for error, Good estimates that the petition circulation process will cost about $30,000; two-thirds of that amount has already been pledged.

With the debate still in its early stages, the council expansion plan has drawn mixed reviews from current council members and others.

Mayor Maureen O'Connor, for example, says that she personally opposes the proposal but would be willing to allow the city's Charter Review Commission to examine it along with a number of other suggested Charter changes--including the often-debated subject of district elections--early next year.

Good, though, favors the initiative process over the Charter Review Commission approach, primarily because it could expedite action on the proposal. With the commission unlikely to make its recommendations until late next year, the additional council seats probably could not be established until 1991, two years later than his hoped-for timetable.

City Councilman Ron Roberts, meanwhile, questions the proponents' guiding tenet that adding two seats to the council would improve the level of representation by reducing the districts' size, thereby theoretically reducing each councilman's burden. If the measure were approved, the council itself would determine the districts' new configurations--as it does now when redistricting occurs once per decade.

'Slightly Cynical'

"I'm slightly cynical about the idea, because I could see how this might make the council bigger but not necessarily better," Roberts said.

Noting that the proposal also would add two voices to the council's already often protracted debates, Roberts added: "I wonder whether this would really make the council's deliberative process any better. My general feeling at this point is that it would not. I guess I remain to be convinced this is a good idea."

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