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It should be easier to get rid of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner

Recalls are awkward, costly and time-consuming. Local governments need an impeachment system, like they have in Washington and in state capitals.

August 21, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • A sign and a portrait hang on the wall outside the office of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, who has rejected widespread demands for his resignation.
A sign and a portrait hang on the wall outside the office of San Diego Mayor… (Denis Poroy, Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — This has been absurd. There should be an easier way to yank a shamed, politically impotent sexual predator from a mayor's office.

There is, of course.

Bob Filner could have — should have — resigned as San Diego mayor weeks ago. He should have slinked off soon after so many women — at least 16 now — tagged him as a sexual creep.

After the accusations of gropes, slobbering kisses and sexual innuendoes by female city employees, political aides, business execs, college officials, military sexual assault victims and a retired admiral.

All nine members of the San Diego City Council — Democrat and Republican — called on the Democratic mayor to leave. So did Democratic California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), whom Filner formerly served with in Congress.

Filner "is now out of rehab," Pelosi said last week. "He should be out of the mayor's office."

The Democratic National Committee scheduled a vote for Friday calling on Filner to resign.

So, despite what Filner's few liberal supporters want people to believe, this has not merely been about Republican opportunists and downtown business interests pouncing on a pro-labor Democrat. It's about getting rid of a politician who even his own party agrees is unfit for office.

But Filner stubbornly refused, lately trying to cut an exit deal that involves sticking it to taxpayers for attorney bills and sexual harassment awards.

His departure has been inevitable from the start, only a matter of when and at what price for the city.

Meanwhile, San Diego residents have been without a mayor, whom they pay $100,464 a year. It's good that he went for therapy. But even if he had been at his desk, Filner would have been worthless.

He has no City Hall allies outside his own staff. There's virtually no respect — no ability to persuade and lead a city that is the state's second largest, with a $2.75-billion annual budget.

"He has totally rendered himself ineffective," says Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor. "Even if he were to survive a recall, how could he govern?"

But, Erie adds, Filner "is one tough cookie. And the more you push Bob, the more he digs his heels in."

I'd like to write that Filner should, in fact, dig in his heels and resist the political establishment's demand that he crawl into exile. Legally, he's a "strong mayor" — at least on paper — with ample tools to govern. He can veto council actions, subject to a two-thirds vote override. He can fire the city manager.

But to dig in and make a stand, Filner would have needed to sincerely apologize with a loud mea culpa, begging the public for a chance to change his ways while using his political talents. He stopped far short of that, admitting only that he treated women with disrespect — while denying sexual harassment — and promising to be "the best mayor I can." Huh?

Americans are forgiving, but they insist on being asked.

That brings me to the conclusion that local governments need an impeachment system, like they have in Washington and in state capitals.

It's very rarely used. The way it works is that an official is impeached — indicted — by a majority vote in the lower house of a legislature and tried in the upper house. If convicted by a two-thirds vote, he's removed from office.

Federal impeachment grounds are "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But as then-House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford famously said in 1970: "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

Only two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted in Senate trials. Richard Nixon resigned one step ahead of impeachment.

Impeachment grounds for California state officials are even less specific, merely "misconduct in office."

No California governor ever has been impeached. Governors of other states have been, however, including most recently Rod Blagojevich of Illinois (2009) and Evan Mecham of Arizona (1988). Both were booted from office.

In California, a state treasurer was impeached and convicted soon after statehood. A controller was impeached but acquitted.

In other words, modern-day California politicians need not worry much about impeachment.

Still, it could be a valuable tool — especially in the Filner case — for local governments to rid themselves of despicable elected officials.

Recalls are awkward, costly and time-consuming. In San Diego, Filner recall backers were given 39 days to collect more than 101,000 signatures of registered voters. If they fall short, they get an additional 30 days.

Why not just allow the City Council to impeach and oust the guy?

"There are daunting problems with local impeachment," contends Erie, who advocates that recalls be made easier instead.

The professor objects to a one-house council both impeaching and trying a politician. "In an era of partisan polarization, even nonpartisan local politics has become partisan," he says. "There would be little job security."

A good point. So I'd require a unanimous vote to both impeach and convict. After all, a jury can lock away someone on a unanimous vote.

In San Diego, every council member — Democrat and Republican — has been telling the mayor to take a hike.

Here's another suggestion: Allow a city council, perhaps on a two-thirds vote, to call a special recall election.

Filner should have been gone before now — for the good of the city and the taxpayers.

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