Filner's New Opponent: the Clock

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    NEWSLETTERS

    This story originally appeared on VoiceofSanDiego.org.

    Mayor-elect Bob Filner will take office Dec. 3, a day before the county registrar of voters is even required to certify votes to elect him.

    He’ll lead more than 10,000 staffers and oversee a $2.75 billion budget but has less than a month to prepare — a turnaround much swifter than other cities with similar government structures.

    Other major cities with the strong-mayor form of government, including New York and Chicago, give their leaders more time to ease in. Newly elected leaders in Fresno, Los Angeles and Oakland each get at least two months to hire new employees and set their agenda.

    Filner's dash to assemble an administration is mandated by the city charter, which has long required an early December inauguration for its mayors. But Filner will be the first to experience such a whirlwind easing-in period because of the switch to the strong-mayor system approved in 2005.

    Then, current Mayor Jerry Sanders spent one month as a traditional mayor before transitioning into the more powerful role in January 2006.

    So Filner will get the first taste of something that former city officials and consultants acknowledge was never considered: a rapid changing of the guard.

    “We never, ever, ever gave serious thought to this issue,” said Steve Erie, a University of California-San Diego professor who was one of the chief architects of the strong-mayor system.

    Sanders' team also prepared well in advance for a transition. His staffers started working on his transition before he was even elected.

    Ronne Froman, a retired Navy rear admiral and Sanders confidant, led the team.

    Sanders knew it would take more than 30 days to prepare so his team started six months before the election, she said.

    “If we lost, all that work would have been put in the dumper but it was all work that had to be done,” Froman said. “We knew that we had to be ready when we stepped into office.”

    And Froman, who later became the city’s chief operating officer under Sanders, had more time than Filner.

    The quick transition wasn’t so burdensome in the past.

    With the previous council-manager form of government, which generally includes a city manager who runs day-to-day business and a mayor who is part of the city council, the mayor doesn’t need to be ready for an instant crisis. The manager handles it and consults the council as needed.

    The strong mayor picks up those responsibilities under the new system approved in 2005, so Filner is tasked with more hires and with setting an agenda for the city. He has yet to provide many specifics on either front.

    Filner, a Democrat following years of Republican city leaders, has said he’d like his office to focus more on neighborhood concerns than downtown interests.

    That will require plenty of planning and direction. Allen Jones, a vice president at developer H.G. Fenton Company who once served as Filner’s chief of staff, has agreed to lead the transition team. Jones and Filner could not be reached for comment.

    Filner announced this week that former Councilwoman Donna Frye will lead a new Open Government Department and he offered a post to primary challenger, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. Fletcher has yet to publicly say whether he’ll accept.

    Filner still has a lot to do. He needs to bring in at least a dozen new staffers and may begin considering hundreds of appointments.

    He’ll want to find ways to make inroads with the business community and to weigh in on city projects he may soon be embroiled in.

    He’ll also have to scrutinize the city’s budget and operations.

    It won’t be easy, said former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory, who called the city “a very, very complicated corporation.”

    Filner will need to wrap his mind around a budget that varies based on often unpredictable revenue sources — sales-tax hauls, state-shared revenue and more — and spending on crises that can’t be planned.

    Glen Sparrow, a Filner supporter who helped with Sanders’ transition, agreed that the 10-term congressman faces a steep learning curve.

    “It’s a short period of time to understand a significant operation and remember it’s an operation that is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of a million and a half people so it can’t be taken lightly,” Sparrow said. “You can’t make any mistakes.”

    But because of the tight timeline, Filner will be forced to speed date and perhaps put off some key hires.

    He’ll likely have to replace at least a dozen top staffers who will depart along with Sanders and consider whether others might be worth keeping, at least for a time.

    “It’s a daunting task to have so little time and so many appointments,” said Erie, the UCSD professor.

    Sanders’ administration will try to help, said Alex Roth, a spokesman for the mayor's office. The current administration has set several meetings with Filner and his staffers to brief them on important city business, Roth said.

    “We all understand that it’s in the city’s best interest for us to get the new mayor up to speed as quickly as possible,” he said.

    Lisa Halverstadt is the newest reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.